The news yesterday that Scott Walker is suspending his campaign is being covered like it's a major development - and in a sense it is - but it's also a bit of a "dog bites man" story. Despite the many factors that led smart analysts to predict success for Walker, he struggled with polls and campaign cash. Although some winnowing has begun, the presence of so many candidates - some mainstream, some marginal, and a handful who have never held elected office - is still an important question.
Walker's announcement on Monday made for some entertaining moments of speculation and reflection. But the bigger questions of the 2016 field linger. What are we seeing here? What do these observations suggest about the nature of the process - the debate between the "invisible primary" school of thought and its critics? What are the roles of candidates, party leaders (which ones?), and voters? And how can we assess the impact of Trump's candidacy?
There's a lot of fun politics here, but there are also some serious theoretical political science questions (I know, I know, I need to chill with the clickbait...). From this wide field and long race, we might learn something about how political actors respond to the incentives created by political institutions. Many of the institutions in question are actually informal rules, which operate alongside the extensive formal rules governing the nomination process. Analysts can also ask whether what we're seeing now with the Republican field is the result of short-term factors, the longer arc of development of the Republican Party, or a combination of the two. Or perhaps the whole thing defies a systematic explanation altogether.
Why so many candidates?
One of the most obvious questions to pose about the 2016 field is why so many candidates joined in the first place. Koger summed this up nicely in a post in June, and offered a range of possible answers (complete with a political science reading list!). There are lots of good explanations for political ambition in general. But what's special about 2016?
Not for the last time in this post, I don't have a clear answer for that. There are possibilities for idiosyncratic explanations, like a perception that Hillary Clinton will be a weak candidate. There's also the lack of an incumbent candidate, although the data points for this are scarce enough to make it tough to say whether this is generally true.
A more structural explanation for the sheer volume of candidates in this cycle is the place in the longer arc of party history. As I've written here before, I'm working from the assumption that the Reagan era is coming to a close. Conservative ideas have set the terms of national debate for a long time, and over time this provides the opportunity for different factions in the party to argue over what those ideas mean and how the brand of conservatism forged by Reagan and others in the 1970s and 1980s applies in 2015.
Or is coordination the issue?
Another possibility is that the supply of ambitious candidates is fairly constant, but that something is different in the coordination process this time. This could mean different things - that party elites can't agree on who is electable, or on which candidate best represents the preferences of policy-demanders. They could also lack adequate mechanisms to persuade candidates to drop out. Walker commented today that he hoped that others would follow his lead and step aside so the party could converge on a single (non-Trump) nominee. We'll see if that happens. It's probably not possible to know for sure exactly what's happening in the coordination process - but I suspect there are observable indicators lurking around that might suggest whether there's a lack of coordination effort, or whether coordination efforts simply aren't working.
What's the impact of Trump's candidacy?
Here I'm going to embrace my true nature as a boring, smug political scientist and say, "probably nothing." The two main narratives that have unfolded have been that Trump pulled the field to the right, and that his presence led to Walker's demise. It's true that Trump brought immigration into the news over the summer, and the candidates had a brief run of trying to match his remarks. But the backlash against the 14th amendment was short-lived, and the Republican Party has been contending with these issues for years. Remember Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo? They never dominated headlines like Trump has, but their positions on immigration (and the constituencies that support those positions) left the party just as divided and muddled on the issue.
It's also not clear that Trump crowded out Walker, whose brand of conservatism and political game are different. If Trump's media show has detracted from anyone, it's probably either Jeb Bush, who might otherwise have cornered the name recognition market, or Cruz, who might otherwise have generated the most memorable soundbites. At this stage, media coverage and name recognition are the big drivers of poll results. As for Walker, the more likely story is that he's like Tim Pawlenty, or Joe Biden, or Dick Gephardt - a politician who tried for the nomination, but his attempt didn't go anywhere. At least, not this time.