For GOP, too much of a good thing?

Story highlights

  • Republicans are jumping into the 2016 race for president
  • Julian Zelizer: There are downsides to having a multiplicity of candidates

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

(CNN)The Republicans are going to have another free-for-all primary season on their hands. Their contest for the presidential nomination is attracting a huge crowd. For a political party that once insisted on order and hierarchy, always making clear who the next deserving nominee was going to be, today the GOP has taken on the character of a political circus.

With the assistance of super Pac donors who have the capacity to singlehandedly finance candidacies and a decentralized political media with many outlets that are searching for fresh stories, a number of candidates -- Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham -- have formally or informally entered the contest.
Julian Zelizer
There are others, including Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Wisconsin's Scott Walker, New Jersey's Chris Christie and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry who may jump in as well. We seem to be seeing a replay of 2012 where the primaries resembled a WWE battle royal with a huge number of contestants packed inside the steel cage.
    Is this good for the party? Is this good for democracy? At one level, it is always good for a party to have some real competition for the top spot in a presidential campaign.
    The multiplicity of voices will allow the party to showcase a wider range of ideas and to foster a more robust debate about the direction of the party. Many experts would agree that Hillary Clinton will benefit from having a challenge from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who will pressure her to deal with issues from the left.

    Too many candidates means diluted look at issues

    But there is difference between a healthy primary competition and an overabundance of candidates.
    What kinds of problems might result from the current trend among Republicans? The most important is that of the wide-open entrance system is creating a huge amount of political space for people with super Pacs to exercise influence. The only way that many of these candidates can mount any kind of challenge is to find powerful donors who are willing to provide them with the money that they need.
    As Newt Gingrich did in 2012, candidates are turning to people like Sheldon Adelson who are becoming the new kingpins in American politics. Or to Miami billionaire Norman Braman, who the New York Times reported, is providing Marco Rubio with immense financial support. Over the long run, this will certainly have a corrosive effect on our democratic system as the flow of private money into elections intensifies.
    Hypercompetitive, unfiltered primaries also result in a dilution of media attention for any single candidate, including competitors to the leading candidates. The media tends to quickly shift its attention the candidate of the week. The result is that we lose the kind of public focus on sustained indepth coverage that is often helpful for voters to better evaluate the choices that they face.
    After Jeb Bush started to seriously show is interest in running, there were a number of important investigative reports about his time as governor of Florida. But those stories already seem like the good old days as the press has shifted to Ben Carson and others. There are so many stories about so many candidates, it is extraordinarily difficult for voters to keep their attention on ongoing investigative work amidst all the noise.
    When the debates begin, we will once again see events where each candidates has even less time to answer questions. As Peter Beinart argued in The Atlantic, in the Democratic primaries Sanders has a serious chance to gain attention for his economic issues because the competition on the Democratic side is not so flooded.

    What happens with extremist views

    A primary system that allows for so many voices to gain high-visibility platforms also allows for fringe views to gain mainstream attention. This was evident in 2012, when Donald Trump entered the race and found that his birther arguments were gaining national attention.
    This wasn't good for the GOP, which had to deal with rather extremist views showcased front and center. Already, as Tim Egan recounts, we have seen a number of shocking statements, ranging from Ben Carson saying that people went into prison straight and came out gay as evidence that people choose homosexuality (Carson later apologized for the remark), to Ted Cruz voicing support for Texans who fear a military takeover of their state.
    It can also have dangerous implications for civil dialogue if fringe elements gain treatment as legitimate voices of concern.
    From the perspective of the party, one of the threats is that this number of candidates creates an abundance of opportunities for each to go for the jugular against their opponents. With such a crowded field, the incentives increase for each person to become more vicious in their treatment of each other. We saw this in 2012 when the most devastating attacks on Mitt Romney came from Newt Gingrich, who characterized him as a wealthy scion of capital who had been willing to burn entire communities in the pursuit of profit at Bain.
    The benefit for Republicans is that in contrast to a seemingly predetermined contest in the Democratic Party, the competition could be more compelling for voters, so they will pay closer attention, and create the impression that the GOP is offering greater diversity within its ranks. But the costs to the party could be significant.
    Political competition is a good thing. But it is time to think a little bit about the value that political parties used to bring when they helped to filter through the noise, throwing their support behind others and giving fewer opportunities for marginal candidates to consume too much valuable political time and resources.
    Of course, there needs to be a balance between a system of gatekeepers and what we have today.
    So some competition is a very good thing but too much can be damaging.