A few are real contenders. The rest are going along for the ride.
No one will blame you if you can’t keep track of the Republican presidential field. It’s huge. If you count declared candidates, prospectives, and announced aspirants, you have 18 people from across the Republican ideological spectrum: Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. Bobby Jindal, Gov. John Kasich, Gov. Rick Snyder, Gov. Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee, George Pataki, Rick Perry, Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. The field is so large that news networks have put limits on who can join the debates. Fox News, for example, will invite only candidates who placed in the top 10 of an average of national polls. Likewise, CNN will hold two debates: one for top-tier candidates, and one for the bottom tier. (One possible effect of this? Underdog candidates will pull every stunt they can to get onstage.)
Of this gaggle of candidates, however, just three—Bush, Walker, and Rubio—are contenders. Alone among their peers, they have the cash, the elite backing, and the grassroots support needed to win the nomination.
But if that’s true—if just a few people have a shot at actual success—then why is the field so crowded? Why are so many Republicans—especially those who have no chance—running for president?
Some of this is structural. In 2008, Sen. John McCain—the runner-up in 2000—was the “next man in line” for the nomination. In 2012 it was Mitt Romney, who sat through a year of one-hit wonders—Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and eventually Santorum—before clearing the field and taking the prize. This year is different. Santorum, the 2012 runner-up, is anathema to party elites and doesn’t have a dedicated base in the Republican Party. At most, in the last primary, he was the protest vote for anti-Romney conservatives. For the first time in recent memory, there’s no natural choice for the nomination. And while the front-runners—Walker, Bush, and Rubio—are strong, there’s no guarantee they’ll win. A presidential campaign is brutal, exhausting work. But right now, if you have the ambition, there’s no reason not to try. Barring a huge change in national conditions, the eventual nominee has an even chance of winning. You might get lucky.