From 17 Candidates, The Race For The GOP Nomination Is Effectively Down To Just Three

Six months ago, there were seventeen candidates for the 2016 Republican nomination. Now, the race is effectively down to three candidates.

Fighting Elephants Two

As Steven Taylor notes, former Maryland Governor Marin O’Malley has dropped out of the Democratic race for President, a development that is perhaps surprising mostly because many people were likely unaware that O’Malley was running for President at all.

The more significant winnowing, though, comes on the Republican side, where the race started out with so many candidates, seventeen, that debate organizers were forced to hold two separate debates to accommodate all, or at least most of, the candidates. Out of that field, Mike Huckabee, winner of the 2008 Iowa Caucus, also suspended his campaign:

DES MOINES — Mike Huckabee withdrew from the Republican presidential race after a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses, an event he won just eight years ago.

Huckabee joked with supporters that he was ending the campaign because of illness: “Voters are sick of me,” he quipped.

He told about 200 campaign staff and supporters gathered at a West Des Moines event center that he had called the top three vote-getters — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, businessman Donald Trump and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — and congratulated them.

“They were very gracious. That’s easy to do when you win,” he laughed.

The former Arkansas governor had a harder time gaining traction in the Hawkeye State this time around. While Huckabee held town hall-style question-and-answer sessions in each of Iowa’s 99 counties, it wasn’t enough to gain support among caucusgoers looking for candidates who weren’t part of the perceived establishment.

Huckabee often told audiences on the campaign trail that he wasn’t part of the “Washington elite.”

“I’ve never lived there,” he said.

During the final two days of his Iowa campaign, Huckabee swatted down rumors that he would endorse Trump during a Trump rally Wednesday in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Huckabee had trouble raising money and securing air time during the various debates. He eventually faced relegation to preliminary debates with other low-rated candidates.

Huckabee’s announcement did not come as much of a surprise given the fact that he had already said that he would drop out if he didn’t finish in the top three in the 2016 Caucus. As of this morning, the former Arkansas Governor stands in ninth place with less than two percent of the vote.

Rick Santorum, who won the GOP Caucus in 2012, meanwhile, announced last night that he would be “reassessing” his campaign:

Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, winner of the 2012 Iowa Republican caucuses, is reassessing whether to remain in the 2016 presidential race after a poor finish in Monday night’s caucuses.

“We are going to spend a couple of days just thinking and praying, and figure out what we are going to do, and we will make a decision,” Santorum told The Des Moines Register after addressing about 30 supporters at the Hilton Garden Inn in Johnston

After Iowa, Santorum had planned to focus on the Feb. 20 South Carolina Republican presidential primary, where he has scheduled a 46-county campaign tour starting Wednesday. But those plans could be in jeopardy after Monday night.

Santorum said he called U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and congratulated him on his Iowa GOP caucus victory. Standing at a podium with his wife, Karen, and three of their children, the former Pennsylvania senator received cheers when he was introduced to his supporters at the hotel.

“We just have one thing we want to say: Thank you so much to the people of Iowa for a wonderful experience over the past five and a half years, and for the great reception that you gave to me and to the wonderful boost that you gave to me four years ago. I will never forget it,” Santorum said.

Santorum, who famously eked out a victory over Mitt Romney four years ago finished last night in 11th place with less than 1% of the vote. One assumes that his ‘reassessment’ will soon be followed by the formal suspension of his campaign in the coming days.

One candidate who isn’t leaving the race, though, is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul:

DES MOINES — After a disappointing finish in the Iowa caucuses, Rand Paul has decided to go on to New Hampshire rather than suspend his campaign, according to two aides familiar with his thinking.

Paul finished fifth on Monday. But the Kentucky senator is hoping that his libertarian style is a better fit in New Hampshire, a state known for its independent style.

A turnaround for Paul in New Hampshire seems unlikely given that he is presently sitting in ninth place in that state with an average of just 3.0% of the vote. Additionally, based on current criteria, Paul will not qualify for Saturday night’s Republican debate in New Hampshire and it seems unlikely that he can perform any better in the Granite State than he did in Iowa. More likely than not, Paul will be out some point after New Hampshire and will turn his attention to his Senate re-election bid.

It’s also likely that we’ll see more candidates setting their campaign aside after New Hampshire barring some kind of miracle. This includes candidates such as Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, who was the subject of some odd rumors last night that he had already withdrawn, as well as whichever of the ‘establishment’ Governors, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie, do not perform well enough in the Granite State to maintain a credible campaign.

Effectively, the campaign for the GOP nomination is down to three candidates — Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio — barring a breakout by one of the Governor’s in New Hampshire, it seems quite possible that, by some time next week, it will be down to that number in reality, if not very close to it. This will make the race going forward quite interesting given the fact that the dynamics between Cruz, Trump, and Rubio will inevitably be taken up a notch when it is only the three of them on the stage at a future debate, and only the three of them out on the campaign trail. At least initially, of course, there will be a battle between all three of them to shrink the field even further, with the most likely battle being between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio as the two fight to decide who will be the candidate to take on Donald Trump going forward. It will also be interesting to see how Trump responds to all of this. We’ve already seen that he is willing to take on both Rubio and Cruz and, for the most part, has done so quite effectively in the past. Whether he chooses to focus on just one of the two candidates initially or go after both of them, and how voters will respond to that, will be interesting to watch unfold. Eventually, of course, we’d end up with a one-on-one battle between either Trump and Cruz or Trump and Rubio. Given Trump’s negatives among those who don’t support him, one would think Trump would be at a disadvantage in that case, but this has been a year where we can expect the unexpected, so it’s conceivable that anything can happen.

It’s also possible that we’ll see Trump fade away as we head down the primary calendar and that the final battle will be between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. In that case, you can expect that the Republican establishment and donor class will put its weight behind Rubio in an effort to stop Cruz. The fact that that battle will be between two young first-term Senators with a Latino background would provide an interesting background to a race that has already been quite a story in itself. Beyond ethnicity though, a Cruz-Rubio battle would be a battle for the soul of the GOP unlike any we’ve seen in at least a generation. Who wins could decide what kind of party the GOP will be for some time going forward.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. C. Clavin says:

    Trump, this am:

    “Because I was told I could not do well in Iowa, I spent very little there—a fraction of Cruz & Rubio. Came in a strong second. Great honor.”

    Trump in 2014:

    “‘No one remembers who came in second.'”

    This guy could very easily debate himself.

  2. Scott says:

    I think it is premature to cull the herd to just Trump, Cruz and Rubio. You may be able to make the case after New Hampshire but given that Kasich, Christie, Cruz, Rubio, and Bush are just about equal, it remains to be seen if Cruz and Rubio receive any bump from Iowa to break them out from the crowd.

  3. Mikey says:

    @C. Clavin: Another bullshit excuse from Trump’s bottomless bag of bullshit excuses. He lost because his campaign didn’t put together a competent ground game.

  4. CSK says:

    I suppose it’s meaningless, but neither Cruz, Rubio, nor Trump got an endorsement from a single NH paper. Christie snagged the Union Leader and Kasich got the other seven.

  5. Joe Gage says:


    I agree with you in that Trump’s lack of a ground game really hurt him in Iowa and is something for him to be concerned with moving forward.

    One of the reasons for the Cruz win was the false rumors of Carson dropping out before the Iowa caucus. This is a good thing because the idea of Cruz winning anything is sickening. In any event, it looks like Rubio has claimed the favorite status for the nomination at least according to the betting markets.

  6. C. Clavin says:

    @Joe Gage:

    Rubio has claimed the favorite status

    He’s another one who could easily hold a debate with himself. Opposition research is going to require a much smaller budget this year. Easy peasey.

  7. C. Clavin says:

    Bush paid $2,800 per vote to come in somewhere just north of last.
    Extrapolating; In order to win the general (Obama grabbed 66M votes) it would cost him $184,800,000,000
    Yeah…that’s $184.8 billion.

  8. C. Clavin says:

    I just noticed Rubio’s slogan:

    A New American Century

    Is he completely ignorant of recent history? Unaware of the biggest foreign policy blunder in our history? Or, under a President Rubio, are we doomed to repeat it?

    Following perceived Iraqi unwillingness to co-operate with UN weapons inspections, core members of the PNAC including Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, R. James Woolsey, Elliot Abrams, Donald Rumsfeld, Robert Zoellick, and John Bolton were among the signatories of an open letter initiated by the PNAC to President Bill Clinton calling for the removal of Saddam Hussein. Portraying Saddam Hussein as a threat to the United States, its Middle East allies, and oil resources in the region, and emphasizing the potential danger of any Weapons of Mass Destruction under Iraq’s control, the letter asserted that the United States could “no longer depend on our partners in the Gulf War to continue to uphold the sanctions or to punish Saddam when he blocks or evades UN inspections.”

    JEB! was a founding member of this pathetic group, who will be laughed at by history.

  9. Joe Gage says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Bush has to somehow win SC to stay in the race. It’s still a longshot but the Bush family remains popular in SC and its one of the dirtiest states for politics. W was going to lose to McCain before he smeared him in SC. Bush also was endorsed by Lindsay Graham, Senator there. If Bush is going to get back in the election, this is where it will be.

    I think Rubio is focused on NH & Nevada. Rubio is spending money on TV in Nevada, unlike other campaigns. He’s betting that Bush & Christie drop out after NH & SC and Rubio then would pick up those voters.

  10. gVOR08 says:

    We are going to spend a couple of days just thinking and praying, and figure out what we are going to do, and we will make a decision

    Richard Cardinal Santorum will be praying Foster Friess will pony up some more money and Foster Friess will make the decision.

  11. gVOR08 says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Is he (Rubio) completely ignorant of recent history?

    Rhetorical question I assume. But one would hope someone on his staff would have done at least a cursory GOOGLE search.

    Please note in that same WIKI article:

    Signatories to (PNAC) Statement of Principles:
    Elliott Abrams
    Gary Bauer
    William J. Bennett
    John Ellis “Jeb” Bush
    Dick Cheney

    As you say, he was a founder of PNAC. (Why does a governor have a foreign policy position, unless he has close ties to the Saudis?) That alone should disqualify him from consideration for the Presidency.

  12. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @C. Clavin: It’s intentional. He’s a neocon.

  13. charon says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Is he completely ignorant of recent history?

    Very unlikely. Have you followed his foreign policy ideas?

    I read it as a dogwhistle.

  14. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Mikey: I’m not sure that I am willing to declare getting 24 or so percent of the vote in the caucus with “an incompetent ground game” as “losing.” If he had gotten 8 or 10%, yeah, that’s losing. But he placed second based on being able to suck all the air out of a room and with a selectorate that, based on what we’ve been told, doesn’t go to caucuses. That’s not losing.

  15. MarkedMan says:

    @Joe Gage:

    It’s still a longshot but the Bush family remains popular in SC and its one of the dirtiest states for politics. W was going to lose to McCain before he smeared him in SC.

    I think you’ve identified an opening but if you recall just how that smear worked it would be especially difficult for Bush To pull off. It was the most odious racist smear (“McCain has a secret black daughter”) and Bush has presented himself as the least racist candidate. And hopefully even SC has moved on since then. If nothing else the some of the most hard boiled racists have died off in the interim.

  16. Mikey says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    I’m not sure that I am willing to declare getting 24 or so percent of the vote in the caucus with “an incompetent ground game” as “losing.”

    I’m declaring it losing because he lost. Cruz got more votes. In fact, Trump was closer to third-place Rubio than to first-place Cruz. My assertion goes to why Trump lost: he dramatically underperformed his polls, in large part because he failed to institute a competent ground game.

    And I’ll extrapolate from that a bit more speculatively and assert he did not do so because his ego told him it wasn’t necessary. He thinks he can win without doing all that tedious regular-politician stuff the “lesser” candidates must do.

  17. Jen says:

    I’m not sure I’d hand the third spot to Rubio just yet. He really hasn’t put much time in NH that I’ve seen (but his ad buy has been evidently increased as I’m seeing far more commercials from him).

    He may get a significant bump from Iowa being the “not Trump/not Cruz” candidate. I wouldn’t count the Governors (Bush/Christie/Kasich) out just yet.

  18. grumpy realist says:

    @Mikey: As said–standard Trump. Over-promise, fail to do the groundwork, and under-deliver.

    Same results as with Trump Air, Trump clothing, Trump University, Trump Casino….

  19. Joe Gage says:


    I recall that primary quite well. I actually got off my ass and voted for McCain in a primary for the first and last time. That was as dirty as you can get in politics.

    The biggest weakness for Jeb in SC is the lack of Karl Rove. You need someone like that if you are going to win by any means necessary. I still think Bush has a good ground game in SC and if Trump blows up by then, he will have a shot, even if its still a long shot. Bush also has a lot of friends and political alliances with a lot of politicians there like Lindsay Graham and Nikki Haley, who is rumored to be Jeb’s pick for VP. There are also a lot of veterans in SC who could be integral to Bush winning.

  20. Scott F. says:


    I’m with you, Jen. The coalescence around Rubio is more media narrative than substance at this point.

    A lot will depend on who picks fights with who in the coming week. Trump is already going after Cruz, so will all the other establishment types go after Rubio. I’d expect so. Kasich and Christy have all their eggs in the NH Primary basket, so expect the claws to come out.

    The debate this week will reveal a lot.

  21. MikeSJ says:

    I’m going to predict this will be Cruz’s only victory. Iowa is unique in it’s preponderance of hayseed bible shakers. (no insult to hayseeds intended) That’s over and done with so Cruz will hopefully start to descend.

    I’m wonder how many Carson supporters jumped to Cruz because Ted’s campaign trolled them.

    I hope Trump is doing serious Oppo research on Ted. There’s got to be some Hookers Ted’s beaten up or Rent Boys he’s tortured willing to ‘fess up.

    Just look at the dude. You know it’s true.

  22. Kylopod says:


    He lost because his campaign didn’t put together a competent ground game.

    Yes–but keep in mind also that half of the success in early primaries and caucuses is beating the expectations game, and that was Trump’s crucial failure. His earlier tweet that’s been going around (“No one remembers who came in second”) isn’t just a good chuckle; it illustrates his whole strategy in this campaign, which is to boldly declare how he’ll be this absolute, invincible, untouchable winner. He’s incapable of lowering expectations for himself because his entire persona is based on raising them to cartoonish and godlike levels. Think of all the things he and his surrogates have been saying throughout the campaign: he’ll make Mexico pay for a border wall, he’ll be the healthiest president in history, he’ll win 100% of the black vote, he’ll come out on top in one state after the next. That’s why his Iowa loss is a much bigger deal than it would be for a conventional candidate, many of whom have recovered quite easily from losses in that state. It instantly punctures the fantasy on which he has built his entire candidacy. At a rough estimate I’d say there’s a 50/50 chance that he fails to secure first place in New Hampshire, and if that happens, it’s over. Either way, in the future we’ll be looking back at this race and wondering how anyone managed to convince themselves he was the electoral behemoth they thought he was. I prefer to think it was a bit of the power of suggestion.

  23. Anonne says:

    Trump knows he can go for quite a distance, but it will depend on when he starts burning cash to get poll numbers. I can easily see it going to Super Tuesday.

  24. grumpy realist says:

    @Scott F.: As said, Rubio is the “lesser of all evils candidate.” Like Oakland, there’s no “there” there. Velveeta on Wonder Bread. The promising young man your boss puts over you….who continues to remain “promising” and never actually produces.

  25. Jen says:

    @grumpy realist: Agreed. Big headline on Politico this morning: “No stampede to Rubio on Capitol Hill.” He still strikes me as someone who is in a bit over his depths, and people are waiting to see if he sinks or swims.

  26. grumpy realist says:

    Article from Politico pointing out how Trump tried to do Iowa on the cheap and ended up clobbering himself.

    It’s possible to run a political campaign on a shoestring. But you still have to know what you’re doing.

  27. Mikey says:
  28. grumpy realist says:

    Wow, and now Trump is accusing Cruz of fraud and wants a do-over.

    Pass the popcorn.

  29. Mikey says:

    @grumpy realist: Always an excuse. For a man who claims to want to sit where the buck stops, he’s certainly averse to accepting responsibility for anything.