There are so many Republicans running for president, or thinking about running for president, that the Republican National Committee is having a hard time keeping track of them all. An official GOP online straw poll lists 36 potential candidates (and as Politico noted, that list actually missed at least two former governors who have said they're mulling White House bids).
Regardless of the final tally, it's becoming increasingly clear that debate planners will need to come up with creative ways to fit so many podiums on the stage when the candidates first face off in August.
But what makes this election so interesting isn't just the sheer number of candidates. It's that it could remain undecided until the GOP's national convention in the summer of 2016. With so many candidates splitting the vote, it's quite possible that no candidate gets a majority of delegates by the end of the primary season.
Now, it's true that political junkies like me hope for a brokered convention every four years — one where backroom deals ultimately decide the eventual nominee. (Read more about brokered conventions here.) Each time, our dreams are ultimately foiled by one candidate who gains momentum through the primary season, causing the others to drop out.
But this year may be different for three unique reasons:
1. Look at the early polls. No Republican candidate can break even 20 percent support on a consistent basis in national surveys. In fact, the latest Real Clear Politics average finds just three possible candidates who register more than 10 percent. There's really no frontrunner at all.
2. A winning coalition isn't easy to put together. There are already several candidates who appeal mainly to evangelical Christians, a bunch who are attractive to national security hawks, and a handful who attract the Wall Street establishment crowd. There's even a libertarian or two in the mix. With so many candidates on the menu, primary voters won't necessarily have to pick the lesser of the evils. They'll find a candidate who speaks to the issues they most care about.
3. Follow the money. Super PACs, which have become a pre-requisite for running for president this year, can raise unlimited sums from large donors. While they cannot legally coordinate their actions with the official campaigns, their war chests can ensure a candidate can stay in the race much longer than ever before. There's little need to drop out if you have a billionaire or two committed to influencing the race with your candidacy.
Put this together and it's very possible that no candidate will win two of the first four early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. If that happens, it's impossible to predict what comes next.
RNC rules require states that hold nominating contests before March 15 to award delegates proportionally, meaning that the winner-take-all states that might decide the nomination come later in the process. Favorite-son candidates in delegate-rich states like Florida (Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio) or Texas (Rick Perry and Ted Cruz) could further splinter the delegate counts.
The odds probably still favor the Republican nomination fight coming down to just a couple candidates. But at this point, it's impossible to predict when so many candidates have a plausible path to the nomination.
In fact, a chaotic primary season – with more than a dozen candidates with plenty of money to spend — makes the most improbable outcome much more possible.