Any day now, Rick Santorum is going to gyrocopter into the White House and try to make a citizens arrest. That’s how desperate the GOP presidential hopefuls not named Trump, Bush, Walker and Rubio are for attention. Every four years, the Republican base creates a market for crazy. But this year, with 16 GOP candidates, being crazy enough to get noticed is a lot harder. And with only a week to go until Fox News decides who gets to participate in the first presidential debate, candidates in the GOP’s second and third tier are growing frantic.
In the last few days alone, Mike Huckabee has accused Barack Obama of orchestrating a second Holocaust, Ted Cruz has called the Republican senate majority leader a liar, Rand Paul has set the tax code on fire, and Lindsey Graham has ground up his cell phone in a blender. Bobby Jindal, ever precocious, suggested abolishing the Supreme Court in late June.
Obviously, the size of the GOP field helps explain these antics. With so many candidates, attracting media coverage was always going to be hard. Then Donald Trump jumped into the race, and between late June and late July single-handedly accounted for 62 percent of the Google-search traffic devoted to Republican presidential candidates.
Fox News has made the problem worse. It’s only allowing 10 of the 16 GOP hopefuls into its prime-time August 6 debate; the others get a shorter consolation debate earlier in the day. That means little-known candidates may lose their best chance at a free introduction to the American public, and be written off by the punditocracy six months before anyone casts a vote. By determining who makes the cut based on national polls, Fox has made name recognition the summer before an election more important than in the past, and made candidates desperate to boost their own.
And there’s another factor: money. In past cycles, candidates like Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012 have won Iowa, despite having relatively little money, by painstakingly building a network of activists on the ground. In the age of the Super PAC, that’s much harder, because the financial gap between scrappy underdogs and well-funded front-runners is much larger. In 2008, Huckabee won Iowa despite having raised almost 17 million less in the second quarter of 2007 than the flushest candidate, Rudy Giuliani. In 2012, Santorum won Iowa despite having raised almost 18 million less in the second quarter of 2011 than the flushest candidate, Mitt Romney.
But when the presidential contenders announced their second quarter hauls earlier this month, the gap between Huckabee and the flushest candidate, Jeb Bush, was $106 million. (The gap between Bush and Santorum was $114 million). The fundraising ratio between rich and poor candidates hasn’t changed much. But as the numbers have exploded, so has the gap. That means besting Bush (or another well-funded front-runner like Scott Walker), with a shoestring campaign, in the way Santorum bested Romney in 2012, is far more difficult.
I suspect there’s another reason that candidates are so desperate for national media attention: They know it’s harder to do well by flying under the radar this year. It’s also the reason that, having said something outrageous, this year’s candidates are less likely to back down. When President Obama called Huckabee’s Holocaust comments “ridiculous” and “sad,” the former Arkansas governor’s campaign quickly hit back with an online video that garnered more than 30,000 views in 40 minutes. In past years, candidates engulfed by negative media attention often tried to defuse the story. This year they’re so desperate for the spotlight that they double down.
It’s anyone’s guess when we’ll hit bottom. “In Bid to Take Attention from Trump, Other Fifteen Hopefuls Release Joint Sex Tape,” wrote Andy Borowitz on The New Yorker’s website on Wednesday. I had to read it twice before I realized it was a joke.