South Carolina Republicans will choose their presidential nominee – 100 days from now – from a huge field that shows few signs of winnowing.
Fifteen candidates are competing for the GOP nomination – almost double the eight candidates running this time four years ago, when the 2012 GOP primary field was at its largest.
All but five of the 2016 candidates – Donald Trump, Ben Carson, U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – are polling at 3 percent or lower nationally.
And yet the underdogs won’t quit.
One of the lowest-polling Republicans, Jim Gilmore finishes up a two-day swing through South Carolina with a noon stop Thursday in Columbia, where he will take part in a forum with S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson at the University of South Carolina.
The former Virginia governor has raised only about $100,000 for his White House bid and has decided to skip the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses to focus on New Hampshire and South Carolina, he said Wednesday.
Gilmore last visited South Carolina in September, when he paid the $40,000 fee to be on the Feb. 20 GOP primary ballot. But despite his standing in the race – polling at less than 1 percent – the candidate says he remains optimistic.
“The race is developing the way we want it to develop,” said Gilmore, who touts his experience as a Southern governor and as a U.S. Army veteran in an effort to connect with S.C. voters.
The crowded field, he said, is an advantage.
“It prevents the race from coalescing around one major leader.”
‘Know next to nothing’
Some political observers say the lower-tier candidates – given little or no chance of winning – stay in the race because they want to push a particular issue.
South Carolina’s own U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, said he decided to run to force the other GOP candidates to talk about foreign policy.
Earlier this year, two polls said Graham was leading in his home state. Since then, however, his support has plummeted in the Palmetto State. A poll out this week found 84 percent of S.C. GOP voters say Graham should quit the race.
But Graham – like Gilmore – persists.
Buoyed by loyal supporters, a super PAC and his fund-raising successes as a senator, Graham says he will wait until New Hampshire’s Feb. 9 primary to re-evaluate his candidacy.
Ego, ambition or the fun of campaigning could be driving some candidates to stay in the crowded GOP field, experts say.
As a result, many voters know little about some of the candidates, said Danielle Vinson, a Furman political scientist. “We know next to nothing about many of them.”
Hard to vet candidates
S.C. Republican Party chairman Matt Moore agrees the GOP is in “uncharted waters when it comes to the number of candidates.”
The staying power of the nontraditional candidates who are atop the polls – Carson and Trump – is preventing other qualified candidates from breaking through to voters, some say.
“With Trump and Carson pretty much hogging most of the media coverage, especially Trump, we haven't had the normal vetting process” where a candidates rises, the media digs into their records and policy proposals, and voters learn more about the candidate, Furman’s Vinson said. “There is this scramble among Cruz, Rubio and Bush to try to see who is the political-experience candidate, and let Trump and Carson deal with each other.”
The result, Moore said, is the GOP race is “Trump and Carson are leading, and no one's in third place.”
“It's hard to see things changing without some movement in the field, and that, typically, means candidates leaving the race,” Moore said. “But Rubio and Cruz continue to rise.
“They’re inching up every day to meet Carson and Trump.”
Not a ‘normal’ vetting process
While two candidates – former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker – have quit the race, candidates complain the still-crowded field has led to national debates, not campaigning in early states, driving polls.
Those polls then are used to determine who gets to participate in the prime-time debates.
Lower-polling candidates, such as Graham, have appeared in the networks’ “undercard” debates, mockingly referred to as the “junior varsity.” But Graham was left out of the Fox Business Network’s lineup Tuesday.
In revolt, a PAC supporting Graham ran an ad criticizing his absence from the debate, and Graham answered questions on a social media platform.
Former New York Gov. George Pataki was left off Tuesday’s debate stages, too.
Pataki said the use of national polls to determine TV debate lineups is a trend that is “a danger to our primary system, a disservice to voters everywhere ... and a clear boost to the worship of celebrity over accomplishment and ideas.”
“Running for the most important leadership position in the world shouldn't be reduced to the level of ‘American Idol’ or ‘Survivor.’ ”
‘Crazy enough to run for office’
The campaigning is about to hit the slower holiday season, meaning the field might not narrow much before January, experts say. But in the new year, candidates will ramp up efforts to win support before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses.
Lexington-based political consultant Walter Whetsell said the field might be crowded, but there is more clarity now about who is leading than ever before.
“It's pretty clear our nominee will be one of five people now: Trump, Carson, Rubio, Cruz (or) Bush,” he said. “At this point in the process – 100 days left to go – this is as clear as it’s been up to this point.”
Why underdog candidates have not come to that conclusion, too, and quit, he added, might have to do with their ambitions and ego. “It's a natural thing for people who are crazy enough to run for office to be crazy enough to see themselves in the highest office in the country.”
Some of the current 15 candidates will drop out by South Carolina’s Feb. 20 GOP primary, Whetsell predicted, citing history as a guide. In 2012, for instance, four of the eight candidates seeking the GOP nomination dropped out before South Carolina’s then-January primary.
“This will take care of itself,” Whetsell said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the date of the New Hampshire primary.
Where the 15 Republican presidential candidates stand in national – first – and S.C. polls – second – of the GOP presidential race:
Donald Trump: 24.8% and 28.8%
Ben Carson: 24.4% and 22.8%
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida: 11.8% and 10%
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas: 9.6% and 10%
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush: 6 % and 7%
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky: 3% and 1.3%
Ohio Gov. John Kasich: 3% and 2%
Carly Fiorina: 3% and 4%
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee: 2.4% and 2%
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: 2.2% and 1%
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina: 0% and 2%
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore: All less than 1% nationally and in S.C.
SOURCE: Rear Clear Politics average of recent polls