Particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire, where party activists crave being courted, they are in heaven these days.
The situation in which Republican voters find themselves these days is looking more and more like the experience of someone visiting a Baskin-Robbins. Walking into the ice-cream shop, one is immediately overwhelmed by the choices afforded by 31 flavors, but delight soon sets in. One starts off with a large number of options to consider, narrows it down to a handful, and maybe samples a few before making a final decision.
While GOP apparatchiks are concerned about the consequences of the unprecedented size of the field of contenders, Republican voters are deliriously happy with the large and varied selection of candidates. Particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire, where party activists crave being courted, they are in heaven these days.
There is nothing inherently wrong with starting out with a big field; typically, the Darwinian course of caucuses and primaries ultimately serves to winnow it. That natural-selection process was disrupted in 2012, when a couple of wealthy benefactors kept a few candidates on life support, allowing them to stick around longer than they would have otherwise. There's no question that the extended nomination fight, which dragged well into April, made Mitt Romney's odds even longer than they would have been. But in this cycle the party seems to have a greater awareness of that potential problem.
Then there is the matter of Donald Trump. His remarks are unquestionably toxic among Mexican-Americans, highly damaging among other Latinos, and probably unhelpful among other minorities and white moderates. Indeed, when one minority group witnesses overt racism or racial intolerance toward members of a different minority group, it can have a profound negative impact. Asian-Americans, who voted against Bill Clinton in 1992 and were evenly split in 1996, voted against Romney by a 47-percentage-point margin; he did 3 points worse with Asians than he did among Latinos. One would be hard-pressed to come up with anything Romney or any other prominent Republican said that would directly offend Asian-Americans (Romney's "self-deportation" remark wasn't aimed at them), but the broader insensitivity appears to have taken its toll.
The good news for Republicans is that it is very unlikely that Trump's numbers will remain high for long. The novelty will wear off, and GOP voters, who almost universally loathe Hillary Clinton, will realize that giving Trump a lot of attention does not advance their cause. And with the general election more than 15 months away, there is still plenty of time for Trump to fade into the background. There is always some possibility that Trump will run as an independent candidate and be a spoiler, but the odds are pretty high that he won't. He is already paying a price for his actions: losing his television show, having his beauty pageant damaged, seeing retail chains pull his merchandise. The risk is less to his wealth than to his celebrity status, but that is an asset that has become like oxygen for him. At some point, Trump will realize—if he hasn't already—that he is hurting his franchise and his brand, and that if he continues his presidential bid, it is unlikely that he will recover his lost star power.
It's still a great question how this Republican nomination race will sort out once this Trump nonsense ends. The GOP splits roughly 60-40 these days: 60 percent of its voters are pretty conventional, mainstream Republicans, while the other 40 percent are of a somewhat more exotic variety, up from just a third a decade ago. This latter group is made up of three subgroups: secular, anti-establishment, tea-party adherents; evangelical conservatives driven chiefly by cultural issues; and those who are just really conservative and more ideologically driven than your normal garden-variety Republicans. Historically, this collection of less-conventional Republicans has loomed large in Iowa, then gradually given way to more-mainstream GOP voters in the final stretch, but the harder-edged Republicans have been on the ascendency and may play an even greater role in choosing the nominee this time around than in the past.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio, and Governors Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and John Kasich can be expected to dominate the competition for that 60-percent bloc of more-conventional conservatives, while Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, former Governors Mike Huckabee and Rick Perry, along with Ben Carson and former Senator Rick Santorum, among others, will fight it out for the more ideologically driven 40 percent of the GOP electorate. But, at least at the outset, in this field, there is something for everyone.