Nov 19, 2023 - Politics & Policy

The incredible shrinking GOP presidential field

Data: Ballotpedia; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals. Note: The chart does not include independent campaigns.

The Republican presidential field is smaller and shrinking faster than eight years ago, raising the chances former President Trump finds himself in a head-t0-head contest in some early primary states.

Why it matters: The goal for most remaining candidates is to make themselves the sole alternative to Trump, who is still heavily favored to win the nomination.

  • The faster they can get there, the better they like their chances.

Driving the news: Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has vacuumed up many of Sen. Tim Scott's (R-S.C.) major donors after her fellow South Carolinian dropped out last week.

  • "This is a two-person race — between one man and one woman," Haley campaign communications director Nachama Soloveichik told Axios.
  • Haley announced an eye-popping $10 million ad campaign in New Hampshire and Iowa next month, and new donors could further bolster her campaign's final push to overtake Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the earliest contests.
  • DeSantis, meanwhile, raised $2 million in 48 hours last week, showing an ability to expand his high-dollar donor base after many of his donors had already maxed out.

What they're saying: The GOP consolidation is happening faster than anyone anticipated, multiple people involved in the campaigns tell Axios.

  • "The person that hurts the most is Donald Trump," Kristin Davison, the chief operating officer of DeSantis' super PAC, said on the rapidly shrinking candidate pool. "He was banking on a crowded field, well through Iowa."
  • "Maybe the debates are the cause, but what's really sped it up is Trump's total domination," said Scott Reed, a co-chairman of the PAC that was supporting former Vice President Mike Pence.
  • "There's a massive amount of pressure from everything from the establishment conservative media to donors for a non-Trump candidate — for that to coalesce," one GOP political strategist told Axios.
  • That puts more pressure on candidates to bow out and get behind someone else once it is clear they don't have a shot at being the one to take on Trump.

Yes, but: Not everyone is folding to the pressure: Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's campaign sent a memo to donors Friday signaling he will stay in the race through the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 23 — and potentially well beyond.

The other side: Trump benefits from his semi-incumbent advantage and dominates in the polls. His team says it's not worried.

  • "We understand that there is a whole industry and game board built around the dungeons and dragons, pontificating political class about 'what ifs,'" said Chris LaCivita, a senior Trump strategist, told Axios.
  • "But the data does prove a consolidation — a consolidation behind Donald Trump against anyone in a head-to-head matchup," he added.
GOP presidential candidates with active campaigns, by month
Data: Ballotpedia; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

By the numbers: After Scott suspended his campaign last week, there are now eight active GOP candidates vying for the nomination, according to data pulled by Ballotpedia.

  • In mid-November 2015, there were 15. Twelve of them stayed in until the Iowa caucus on Feb. 1, 2016. Seven dropped out by Super Tuesday the following month.
  • By the end of November 2019, Democrats had 18 candidates — a record in the modern era. Joe Biden's resounding victory in South Carolina on Feb. 29, 2020, led to a dramatic consolidation of the field before Super Tuesday.
  • That set up a spring contest between Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), with Democrats deciding that the more moderate candidate represented their best chance to defeat Trump.

The bottom line: Last week's GOP debate in Miami — two months before the Iowa caucuses — had five participants. Next month's will likely have four or fewer, depending on who meets the more stringent qualifications.

  • In February of 2016, three days before the New Hampshire primary, the Saint Anselm College GOP debate still had seven candidates.
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