Can an army of GOP candidates for 2016 make party competitive?

Story highlights

  • Even without Romney, GOP has a profusion of candidates for 2016
  • Julian Zelizer: In their excitement over the lineup, Republicans shouldn't forget the party's poor image

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of the new book, "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Mitt Romney took himself out of the picture last week, but Republicans still have a huge number of potential presidential candidates. While it seems as if Democrats will probably coalesce around one candidate, whenever Hillary Clinton announces her intent to run, the Republicans have a number of key figures -- including Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Mario Rubio, to name a few -- vying for the nomination.

At some level, this is exciting news for the GOP. There are many talented figures in the pool so Republicans will have an opportunity in the primaries to pick the best of the lot. A number of them could pose a serious threat to the Democrats.
Julian Zelizer
Republicans are buoyed by the thought that they have a real chance to win in 2016. The soft approval ratings of President Barack Obama as well as the underlying fragility of the economic recovery have boosted their confidence that the White House could be theirs for the taking. Some Republicans believe that Hillary Clinton will not be as strong a candidate as she was in her losing effort to win the Democratic nomination in 2008, and that she will be saddled with the problems of the Obama administration following her service as secretary of state as well as the never-ending personal controversies surrounding her husband.
    But an abundance of candidates comes with an abundance of problems. Although many conservatives are still enjoying the afterglow of the 2014 midterm elections, the GOP faces a number of significant challenges that have been building in recent years.
    Foremost is what's been called the Goldwater problem, with memories of how the GOP suffered after the 1964 election when Republican candidate Barry Goldwater ran for the White House from the far right. His party suffered a devastating defeat as Lyndon Johnson won a landslide election and liberal Democrats secured huge majorities in the House and Senate.
    Today, Republicans are also struggling with the perception that their party has become too extreme for the general electorate. While Republicans can celebrate a recent Gallup poll that showed the Democratic favorability rating having slipped to a low of 36%, Republicans are not doing that much better, at 42%.
    Although the fiery rhetoric of the tea party has played well in solidly red districts, hardline positions on issues like immigration, climate change and gay rights will be more harmful to Republican presidential candidates who have to win the vote of broader portions of the electorate. According to a new poll, a clear majority of the American public, including almost 50% of Republicans -- favored stronger government policies to deal with climate change.
    Republicans will also be struggling with their party's ties to big business and Wall Street. Since the 1970s, the GOP has built a massive base of financial support among these donors. Republican support for deregulation and tax reduction has proven enormously popular among these interests. In 2012, the Center for Public Integrity found in a study that Republican super PACs did much better than Democratic super PACs in raising corporate money. Last week the Koch brothers announced that they and their allies planned to spend almost $889 million on conservative candidates in the 2016 election.
    While Democrats also have their fair share of wealthy donors, the party's support for redistributive economic policies, regulation (such as Dodd-Frank) and connection to progressive groups has helped counteract the image among many Americans that they are purely the party of economic power. In contrast, Republicans have not done as well. In 2012, Mitt Romney suffered a huge blow when social networks leaked a clip of him castigating Americans who didn't pay federal taxes and lived off the dole.
    In recent weeks, Republican candidates have shown that they realize the need to change this image if they want to win in 2016. "I think every Republican should embrace the Pope's core critique," said Newt Gingrich, "that you do not want to live on a planet with billionaires and people who do not have any food."
    A number of potential candidates, including Romney, have been making appeals about poverty. "Under Obama, the rich have gotten richer" Romney said, "income inequality has gotten worse, and there are more people in poverty in America than ever before." But those kinds of arguments will sound like hollow promises to many Americans who are aware of where the GOP's policies such as supply-side economics and deregulation have been.
    Neither have Republicans done much to gain inroads in states where the changing demographics are increasingly favorable to Democrats in a presidential election year, including states like Texas. The power of hardline conservatives in the House Republican Caucus has stifled efforts by Republicans to put forth policies that would appeal to these constituencies. The most glaring case has been immigration, where the steadfast opposition of many Republicans toward any liberal reform has created huge discontent in key portions of the electorate.
    In 2016 some core constituencies, such as young people, who didn't turn out in sizable of numbers in the midterms could be brought back into the ballot box. Though the hardline positions did not harm the GOP in the midterms, there will likely be a day of reckoning in the presidential election.
    Finally, there are a number of controversies lurking in the backgrounds of many candidates being considered -- with some front and center -- that could explode on the party in a general election. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and political machinations back in the Garden State; the investigations into whether Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker maneuvered around campaign finance laws, and past statements by Rand Paul (and his father) about matters like the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
    So Republicans shouldn't get too excited about the large cast of characters that they have before them, paying more attention to the underlying problems and challenges that the party faces as a whole. The party's record is filled with land mines that will be very difficult for any candidate to navigate, and will offer the Democrats lots to exploit.