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The mind-bogglingly huge Republican presidential field, explained

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Seventeen Republicans are running for president — easily the most for any party since the birth of the modern primary system. Respected current and former governors and senators are lining up, but so are factional favorites, outsider bomb throwers, and obscure figures long absent from the national political scene.

The glut of candidates is already causing problems for the GOP. For instance, it seems difficult, if not impossible, to fit everyone onstage for a substantive debate, but the criteria for excluding people seem pretty arbitrary. Meanwhile, Republican elites are growing increasingly fearful of a long primary battle that will divide and weaken their party while Hillary Clinton cruises to the Democratic nomination. Though there are different views on whether a general election nominee is likely to be seriously damaged by a tough primary contest, the impact of an expensive, months-long slog on wealthy donors' wallets would be very real.

So what's in the Republicans' water? Particularly since, as FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten writes, the conventional wisdom is that the GOP tends to "fall in line" behind a nominee?

Overall, a combination of factors — including the state of the GOP field, the party, and the conservative media ecosystem — are making a presidential campaign look like a good bet for a great many Republicans. That includes both hopefuls who actually think they have a good shot at winning, and those who are focused mainly on getting attention for themselves.

Specifically, this year's fragmented field lacks both a strong frontrunner and a conservative favorite, which makes the mantle of each appear up for grabs. Memories of the 2011-'12 GOP contest make it seem like anyone could briefly top the polls. And conservatives who become well-known now have proven ways to monetize that fame — making the campaign spotlight a potentially very valuable thing.

There are many downsides to running for president — it's grueling, it can be humiliating, it's tough on families, it can expose skeletons in your closet. But this year, the potential upsides — the chances of either winning or becoming much more famous — look more appealing to more Republicans than ever.

There's no strong frontrunner in the race

Jeb Bush

(Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The more serious potential candidates are much more likely to run if they think they can win. And this year, lots of Republicans think they can, because there's no strong frontrunner in the race.

First of all, there's no incumbent president or vice president on the ballot. When that's the case, historically, there tend to be more candidates, since the nomination is more wide open. The last five GOP nomination contests fitting that description — 2012, 2008, 2000, 1996, and 1980 — were not exactly sparsely attended affairs. They all featured 10 or more contenders on the campaign trail who got at least some press attention, though some of these hopefuls dropped out of the race before the voting began, and some never ended up officially declaring.

And even most of those open-seat races featured a plausible contender already familiar to many GOP voters from a previous presidential campaign. Reagan in 1980, Dole in 1996, McCain in 2008, and Romney in 2012 had all already been the main runner-up in their party's most recent seriously contested nomination battle, before winning the nomination for themselves. And for the 2000 race, George W. Bush quickly parlayed his status as governor of Texas and the son of the most recent Republican president into a commanding lead in polls and endorsements from party elites.

It once looked like Jeb Bush had the chance to follow a similar path, and he's raised a very impressive amount of money. But as the first months of 2015 passed, it became clear that he was getting far fewer endorsements than his brother did and failing to break away from his rivals in the polls. Indeed, he's currently around 17 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average nationally and in New Hampshire (where he holds small leads), and below 10 in Iowa (where he's losing to Scott Walker). More or less, that's where he's been since January.

So Bush's underwhelming start has spurred other contenders to join the race — some who specifically hope to sap support from him and become the de facto candidate of the GOP establishment. Back in January, it was commonly speculated that Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, or both might not actually run — Rubio due to Bush's support among influential Florida Republicans, and Christie due to Bush's efforts to win the Wall Street donors he hoped to court (as well as his own plunging popularity). After it became clear Bush wasn't running away with the race, though, both decided to jump in.

And next week, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio will join them. He hadn't planned on running, but has specifically said he was inspired by Bush's weakness to try his luck. "Frankly, I thought that Jeb was going to just suck all the air out of the room," Kasich recently said. "It just hasn't happened."

There's still an opening for a conservative favorite, too

Rand Paul Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. (Drew Angerer/Getty)

But the GOP field's fragmentation isn't just about the establishment. The more conservative elements of the party haven't been able to anoint a favorite, either. And since there's a lot of dissatisfaction with the GOP establishment, the title of "conservative favorite" can be very valuable for a candidate's poll standing, fame, and (eventually) bank account.

Through most of this year, though, that mantle has been up for grabs. And that has encouraged more people to run.

If there were a candidate who had really energized the right and got the poll boost and activist enthusiasm to prove it — say, if Scott Walker or Ted Cruz had really caught on and started consolidating support — Donald Trump might not have bothered to run, or found it so easy to get attention once he did.

But the right remains divided, even among its own subgroups. It's clear, for instance, that the Christian right hasn't made up its mind. In 2008 and 2012, social conservatives backed Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum — candidates who had little appeal to others in the GOP, particularly business and economic conservatives. Though both are running again, neither is starting off particularly strong. So newer faces whom religious conservatives like but who are also popular on the anti-tax, anti-spending right — Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Scott Walker — see opportunity.

Tea Partiers also don't have one favorite. There's Walker as the conservative-but-electable choice, there's Rand Paul the libertarian, there's Ted Cruz the fighter, and there's outsiders like Ben Carson and Donald Trump. All of them have appeal on the right, but none has truly broken out. (Trump's tops among them at the moment, but his moment may not last, and he's still under 20 percent in the polls.)

So, no Ronald Reagan-like figure who can truly unify conservatives has yet emerged in the field. As a result, plenty of candidates have jumped in the race in hopes of pulling off that rare feat.

The 2011-'12 campaign elevated obscure candidates to stardom

Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty

Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Michele Bachmann all surged in 2011 GOP primary polls. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty)

Mitt Romney began the 2011-'12 primaries as the favorite, and he ended up the nominee. Yet this victory was preceded by a strange, roller coaster–like spectacle without any parallel in the party’s history, in which idiosyncratic and seemingly unelectable candidates repeatedly rocketed to the front of national polls.

Obscure candidates deemed by insiders and the media to have no chance of winning — Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum — came out of obscurity to win nationwide fame. Even Michele Bachmann made it as high as second place.

For the candidates hoping to get more attention, this was a very encouraging model. The volatility seems to be a product of the modern media environment, with its 24-hour news cycle and temporary viral social media–driven obsessions.

Even though none of those candidates had much of a chance, contenders who hope to win are heartened by their success too. Because though Romney did end up with the nomination, the competitors who briefly surpassed him were so incredibly weak. Cain was a political neophyte, while Gingrich and Santorum had ignominiously ended their careers in elected office years ago. Today's candidates think that, surely, they'd be better able to take advantage of a poll surge. For instance, Tim Pawlenty, who quit the race in August 2011, publicly suggested he wouldn't have dropped out so early if he'd known how volatile the race would be.

So when today's long-shot potential candidates hear the insiders and pundits say they have no chance, they think of the last cycle. Nobody expected such chaos back then — so who knows what could happen now?

Campaign trail fame can pay off later

Rick Santorum

The campaign trail has been great for Rick Santorum's speaking fees. (Kris Connor/Getty)

Nowadays, the campaign trail mints celebrities — even unlikely ones like Rick Santorum. And with fame comes moneymaking opportunities.

The 2012 presidential candidate's political career had seemingly ended when he lost his Senate seat six years earlier. But his unexpectedly strong performance and eventual second-place finish returned him to the national stage, and introduced him to a much wider audience of conservative Christians who quite liked his message. All this greatly increased his speaking fees, which went from between $3,000 and $20,000 per speech before his campaign to a reported $40,000 to $50,000 afterward.

There have long been cash-out paths for connected ex-politicians — cushy lobbying gigs, board seats, and corporate speaking fees. But Republicans who become well-known and well-liked on the right can also make good money by becoming regulars on the conservative group speaking circuit, and with media gigs on Fox News or talk radio.

Indeed, Mike Huckabee was making so much money after his own strong showing in his 2008 presidential campaign that he declined to run again in 2012. His gigs included "a weekly television show on Fox News," "Paul Harvey-style commentaries on some 600 radio stations and a packed schedule of speaking engagements," and "headlining a week-long cruise to Alaska," the Washington Post's Karen Tumulty wrote.

And Ben Carson has only just begun his presidential bid, but the popularity on the right he's gained in recent years helped him make $2 million from speeches to faith-based groups in 2014, Politico's Tarini Parti reports. Indeed, National Review's Brendan Bordelon reported in April that Carson even planned to keep giving paid speeches during his campaign.

So it's clearer than ever that if you do reasonably well on the campaign trail, you can do well afterward, too. And with this as a potential benefit, a long-shot presidential bid could be a very good investment indeed.