Why the GOP Primary Is Doomed by the Free Market

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Rand Paul Announces His Candidacy For The Republican Presidential Nomination
A supporter of Senator Rand Paul purchases campaign buttons on April 7, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky.Photo: Luke Sharrett/2015 Getty Images

On Tuesday, if all goes according to plan, Ohio governor John Kasich is scheduled to announce his presidential candidacy. In any normal year, someone with Kasich’s résumé — ex-investment banker, former Congressman, and moderate two-term governor of the swing state that has decided every presidential election since 1964 — would surely have no trouble breaking through. But this isn’t any normal year. Kasich is set to become the 16th declared candidate to enter the Republican primary, tying the all-time size record. According to the latest Public Policy Poll, Kasich will debut in second-to-last place with one percent support. If these numbers hold, he’ll be barred from the opening Fox News debate scheduled for August 6 in Cleveland.

That a popular Midwest governor who was reelected with 64 percent of the vote last year finds himself at the bottom of the barrel is just the latest proof that this year’s GOP primary has gone completely off the rails. The grown-ups in the party have taken to blaming Donald Trump for the chaos, but the truth is that the forces are much bigger than Trump’s hair. What this year’s primary shows is that — at least when it comes to presidential elections — the GOP is at risk of becoming less of a political party and more like a talent agency for the conservative media industry. Jumping into the race provides a (pseudo)candidate with a national platform to profit from becoming a political celebrity. “If you don’t run, you’re an idiot,” a top GOP consultant told me. 

In the old days, the path to profiting from politics led politicians into the corner offices of banks, corporations, and lobbying firms. Many still go that route. But with her 2008 breakout, Sarah Palin disrupted the GOP nominating process and made being a potential primary contender a full-time job. Her decision to cash in by quitting the Alaska governor’s office for Fox News and tea-party stardom established a new business model. As this year’s ballooning GOP field shows, there are many long-shot candidates who are seeking to follow her path. Since January 2014, Ben Carson has earned as much as $27 million from delivering 141 speeches and publishing three books including You Have a Brain: A Teen’s Guide to T.H.I.N.K. B.I.G. Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina made nearly $1 million in speeches last year and published a memoir. Mike Huckabee’s Fox News contract was worth $350,000 a year before he left to join the race, according to sources. This year he also released a book God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy. Ted Cruz made a reported $1.5 million for his book, A Time for Truth

These candidates have made six- and seven-figure paydays even before the first ballot is cast. With hours of free airtime on television to promote their brand, their market value is sure to increase. “Even if you lose, you exponentially increase your marketability,” the consultant told me. “Right now, let’s say you’re giving speeches for $20 grand. You run and it becomes $40,000. If you do well, maybe there’s a Fox show. Then you write a book about how to save the party. Then you write another about why the next president sucks. There’s a million marketing opportunities.”

After Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss, a GOP-commissioned autopsy revealed that voters saw the party as “scary’ ‘narrow-minded’ and ‘out of touch.’” This year’s reality-show primary significantly complicates Republicans’ efforts to soften the brand for a broader electorate. After all, a candidate seeking to monetize a demographic niche has zero incentive to modulate their message for wide appeal. “The conversation during the primary is driven by self-serving interests and aimed at a certain constituency,” complains another top GOP strategist. “There is no need to be responsible for those particular candidates in language, issue-focus, or anything else since it’s not about the overall party.”

The size of the GOP primary fields has paralleled the growth of conservative media. In 1996, the year Fox News launched, ten candidates ran. In 2000, it was 13. This year, the total is likely to reach 17 when former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore gets in next month. “There is a cottage industry that doesn’t exist for Democrats,” a GOP strategist told me. 

What this means is that, on the left, the political celebrity economy is divided along the same unequal lines as the real one. The Clintons, with Bill’s multi-million-dollar speeches and Hillary’s $14 million book advance, are the one percent. Beyond them, there’s no functioning market that would reward a bunch of candidates for contesting their monopoly. “The institutions don’t exist,” Bob Shrum, the veteran campaign strategist, says. “We don’t have a network dedicated to giving people a place to go.” Sure, there’s MSNBC, but the channel reaches a much smaller audience than Fox. Liberal talk radio bombed with the demise of Air America. And liberal books, by and large, don’t sell like conservative titles do. Right now Ted Cruz’s book is on the Times best-seller list. Is anyone dying to read a new release from Martin O’Malley?

The disparity between the size of the two primary fields is driven by political and structural forces. The rise of billionaire donors and super-PACs enable more fringe GOP candidates to fund their campaigns. Conservatives’ palpable sense of cultural victimhood encourages them to embrace (and reward) their former candidates even if they lose badly. “The people on the right are heroes to their supporters, and that’s how their books sell,” Shrum says. And conservatives who promote free-market gospel on the lecture circuit can get easily booked by deep-pocketed corporations who benefit from their message. “A bank is never going to hire Bernie Sanders to speak, but it might hire Rick Perry,” says one GOP adviser. 

In at least one way, it’s ironic that Republicans are now fretting that their media-driven primary is damaging the party’s electoral prospects. They are, after all, the party of the free market. What is more free than a candidate earning millions from the primary process?