Local Columnists

Dave Helling: Crowded primaries are a decidedly mixed blessing in Missouri and the rest of the U.S.

The GOP field for the 2016 Missouri governor’s race is crowded, as is the Republican presidential race. That shows the party’s strength, but it suggests a big hurdle in the fall.
The GOP field for the 2016 Missouri governor’s race is crowded, as is the Republican presidential race. That shows the party’s strength, but it suggests a big hurdle in the fall.

It looks like Missouri will have at least seven Republican candidates for governor next year.

The GOP has 16 serious candidates for president, with more on the way.

It’s easy to mock such abundance, particularly in an age of abundant mockery. In truth, though, a crowded primary can be a sign of health for a political party. It means lots of people think the nomination has value and is worth fighting for.

That kind of optimism is usually found in majority parties. Multicandidate Democratic fields in Kansas are rare because candidates know they face difficult fall campaigns, reducing the value of a nomination.

On the other hand, crowded primary fields can complicate electoral mathematics.

As a primary field grows, it usually lowers the threshold for any one candidate to prevail. It might take only 15 or 20 percent of GOP voters to win the Missouri governor’s primary in 2016, for example.

The bar is even lower for the presidential race. The winner of next year’s Iowa presidential caucus on the GOP side will almost certainly need far fewer votes than Mayor Sly James just got in Kansas City’s election.

That’s good if you’re a candidate, but less helpful for the party. It opens the door for fringe candidates who can mobilize a plurality of committed supporters: Todd Akin in Missouri won the 2012 U.S. Senate primary that way.

If you’re Ted Cruz or Rick Santorum — or Donald Trump — getting, say, 15,000 Iowa caucus votes seems pretty easy. You can run a cheap guerrilla campaign designed to drive more mainstream candidates crazy.

Yet winning a primary with 15 percent of the vote is not the same as winning a general election with 50 percent. Fringe candidates, and their parties, usually discover this too late.

Large primary fields also pose practical problems. Republicans can’t squeeze every 2016 presidential candidate onto a single debate stage, for example. Fundraising can be harder. Media coverage is scattered.

And because some voters are frustrated at the prospect of sorting through a long list of candidates to make a choice, large fields can depress turnout. That increases the chances for fringe candidates to prevail.

Republicans in Missouri must navigate these choppy waters as they pick their 2016 nominee for governor. Their crowded field shows how strong their party is in the state — and how that strength could be their undoing that fall.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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