Rick Santorum is a plausible, if unlikely, nominee. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Rick Santorum is a plausible, if unlikely, nominee. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Great post this morning by Ross Douthat about the confusing Republican presidential nomination battle. He makes the very good point that even though the party usually decides, it doesn't do so every time.

Will the Republican process break down this time? It’s unlikely. Right now, the field has an unusual shape, with about a dozen viable candidates but no A-listers (that is, no former nominee, no former or sitting vice president, no acknowledged longtime leader, no close runner-up from a previous cycle). Add in Rand Paul, who probably isn't viable but could be a significant force in the primaries and caucuses. And there also is Ted Cruz -- a viable candidate according to conventional credentials and policy views, but who has made himself a target by rapidly alienating many party actors and demonstrating what they almost certainly perceive as party-destructive (and simultaneously self-aggrandizing) behavior. That’s not to mention various fringe candidates who may or may not enter.

Here’s the thing: There won't be a dozen viable nominees for the Iowa caucuses, and the field will be winnowed further after New Hampshire. Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee are both plausible (though marginal) nominees; they both won’t be in the game after Iowa. It isn't likely that both Paul Ryan and Scott Walker, or both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, stay in the race once it shifts to the phase that requires raising money, deploying full staffs and buying ad time. Walker or John Kasich or Mike Pence could drop out after their midterm re-election bids. And any of these would-be candidates could decide that he isn’t willing to do what it takes over the next two years, given the odds of success.

That winnowing will take place over the next 12 months or so. There’s also still a chance of someone new jumping in.

But over the last several cycles Republicans have also proved quite efficient at narrowing the field during the final months of the invisible primary, after the candidates have formally declared. Contenders such as Tim Pawlenty in 2012, Sam Brownback and Tommy Thompson in 2008, and Lamar Alexander, Elizabeth Dole and John Kasich in 2000 come to mind. They entered and lost. Odds are some of the current crop will suffer the same fate.

That pre-Iowa cull of announced candidates only has been happening on the Republican side. We’re about to get a very big test of just how systematic the winnowing is. Will Republicans manage to winnow the current dozen or so down to three, two, or even just one viable candidate to join Paul, Cruz and the cranks?

Once the caucuses and primaries begin, the voting often seems random, with outcomes contingent on small swings of voter sentiment. But much of that is an illusion. As seen in 2012, almost anything can happen in a single primary (which is nothing new; recall that Pat Robertson finished second ahead of George H.W. Bush in 1988, and Jerry Brown shocked everyone in late March 1992 by defeating Bill Clinton in Connecticut). When a viable candidate with broad support from party actors wins narrowly, he or she goes on. But when fringe candidates or those strongly opposed by important party actors win? Not so much. The opposite also is true; Howard Dean suffered a much harsher fate for losing in Iowa in 2004 than George W. Bush did for losing in New Hampshire in the previous cycle.

So we’re seeing something different this time. And yes, it’s always possible that the processes the party has used to cooperate and compete in picking nominees will break down. But it's more likely that the party will narrow the field rapidly and effectively, and that will produce a winner.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net