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Posted at 2:00 PM ET, 02/ 2/2011

How big will the Republican presidential field be (and does it matter)?

By Chris Cillizza

Jon Huntsman's planned resignation as ambassador to China this spring seems to be a clear indication that former Utah governor is planning on running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

He'll be far from alone.

There are currently 18 Republicans mentioned as 2012 candidates and the vast majority of that group is doing the sorts of things -- visiting Iowa and New Hampshire, writing books etc. -- that people who want to run for president do.

Assuming even two-thirds of that group runs, it will match the largest field in presidential history and create a decidedly chaotic primary season. But will it help or hinder Republican chances of winning the White House?

Let's take a look back at history first. (The Fix should have been a history major in college.)

Since the 1968 election, the largest number of candidates to run for a party's nomination is 12, which has happened four times: 1972 (Democrats), 1976 (Democrats), 2000 (Republicans) and 2008 (Republicans). (The last presidential election holds the distinction as the largest combined field with 20 total candidates seeking their respective parties' nominations.)

The reasons for these large fields are relatively obvious: no incumbent president or even an heir apparent to hold down the number of ambitious pols willing to jump into the race. In other words: opportunity.

That appears to also be the dynamic driving a caravan of GOP candidates to take a hard look at 2012.

While former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) is the nominal frontrunner, he is nowhere near the prohibitive primary favorite that Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) was in 2008 -- whoops! -- or then Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) was in 2000.

And, with many Republican strategists convinced that Romney can't win due to his support of a health care bill in Massachusetts that carried similar provisions to the legislation championed by President Obama -- we explored that idea in our Monday Fix column this week -- there is a "why not me" sentiment pervasive within the ranks of possible candidates.

That prevailing wisdom could well lead to a historical high number of candidates jumping into the 2012 race. (Another more subtle reason for a big GOP field is a desire to be at the front of the line in a 2016 open seat presidential race in the event that Obama is reelected next November.)

But, is there a danger for Republican in the general election if the primary field does grow to a dozen or more?

No, insisted Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary in the Bush Administration.

"At this stage, the number of candidates has no connection to the likelihood of Republican success -- or possibility of defeat," said Fleischer. "In many ways it's immaterial because there almost always are a lot of candidates who run -- this time it's more than a lot."

History provides mixed results on the question. In the four contests where one side had 12 people in the running, the party with the large field won two general elections and lost two. And, it's hard to ascribe Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) 2008 loss to the large number of GOP candidates in the race.

That doesn't mean that an overcrowded field of candidates can't impact a primary, however.

First and foremost, a big field could make it more difficult for credible but lesser known candidates to emerge as voters -- faced with a baker's dozen or more politicians asking for their vote -- may simply tune out the jumble of people not named Romney, Huckabee, Palin or Gingrich.

The struggles for lesser known candidates will likely be on full display during what promises to be a busy debate season that will kick off on May 2nd in California.

With 12 (or more) candidates on stage, there will be a premium put on standing out -- and, if the 2008 election is any guide, the lesser known candidates who will stand out are those willing to make controversial or impolitic statements. (Ladies and gentlemen, we give you Ron Paul and Mike Gravel.)

For the Tim Pawlentys and Haley Barbours of the world, that dynamic is problematic.

The second major way that a big field could -- and we emphasize could -- hinder Republicans' attempts to take back the White House is by extending the primary season into the spring and summer.

It's basic math: the more candidates run at the start, the more that need to drop out for the party to unite behind a single nominee.

(Of course, 2008 runs directly counter to that idea as the 12-person Republican field coalesced behind McCain relatively quickly while Obama and Clinton battled it out into June on the Democratic side.)

For reporters and political junkies, the more really is the merrier -- more personalities, more storylines and more plain old news.

For Republicans with a steady eye on defeating President Obama next November, a crowded field might be an occasion for slightly less celebration.

By Chris Cillizza  | February 2, 2011; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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