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Why won’t other Republicans take Scott Walker’s lead and drop out?

Durham, NC“Today I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field…I encourage other Republican presidential candidates to consider doing the same.” — Gov. Scott Walker

On Sept. 21, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker became the second Republican presidential candidate to drop out of the race, following former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. These two early departures would suggest a pattern that other members of the bloated 15-candidate race will soon follow in their footsteps. But thanks to a combination of campaign finance, an unsure Republican electorate, and the power of Donald Trump, hopes for a narrow field could not be more hopeless.

Only a month ago, Walker was polling in second place nationally at 14 percent. He was the darling of the Koch brothers and other big conservative bankrollers. But in a short amount of time he plummeted to political irrelevance, dropping to .5 percent in the polls%. Why?

According to news reports, Walker’s campaign began hemorrhaging money at an unsustainable rate. In two months, his campaign had amassed a debt of nearly $700,000, and even a pared-down effort to keep up in Iowa would cost $1 million a month. The math was clear, and Walker began writing his campaign suspension speech.

Walker’s story is more a warning than a harbinger. He didn’t drop out because of money, but because of how he spent it.

With 15 candidates left in the field, the overwhelming question is how long will most of them last. According to RealClearPolitics’ average of the most recent national polls, 9 current Republican candidates have less than 5 percent support. So why haven’t more taken Walker’s lead? In one sense, it’s the same reason Walker had to drop out: money. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, SuperPACs have become the primary funding source for presidential candidates. According to the reports filed with the FEC in July, 12 Republican candidates had raised at least $5 million. Seventy percent of all funds raised by these candidates came from Political Action Committees (PACs). The process of running for president, once far too expensive for many to even consider, is now relatively easy if you have a base of big-money donors to support you.

This is where things get messy for the Republican Party and its primary. Right now, candidates like Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee know they have no reasonable chance of winning the nomination. But that’s not why they’re running. They fill a niche; Paul the Libertarian standard-bearer like his father and Huckabee the voice for the religious right. Their big-money donors don’t support them because they think they’re picking the winning horse. They do it because they are the only candidates who will dutifully present their message to the country.

When candidates like them appear on debate stages or network news shows, that donor money goes a long way in promoting a given agenda. As long as these candidates continue to receive attention, donors will keep throwing money their way, and their campaigns could stretch much further than expected.

Huckabee and Paul are only two examples of a larger issue: Nearly every candidate has the donors they need to survive into next April. The longer it takes for a clear front-runner to overwhelm the field, the more likely it is we see a dozen or more candidates continuing their campaigns past Iowa and New Hampshire.

This is where the magic of Donald Trump comes into play. Already the great destabilizing force of the primary, his almost perfectly inelastic poll numbers are enough to keep the ultimate front-runner from emerging until far later than usual. So long as he keeps above 20 percent and “lightweights” (as he would say) remain through the first primary elections, it will be difficult for Jeb Bush or anyone else to decidedly win many of the early primary states.

If, by February, no candidate has clearly won more than a couple of states, then the big money donors would remain spread among their original candidates. This, in turn, would keep the electorate in a state of flux, capable of switching to whichever candidate holds that week’s national media attention. From this point, it’s unclear what would happen. The normal rules of modern primary politics would largely become irrelevant.

This is the apocalyptic scenario the Republican National Committee dreads. A party used to falling in line with the presumptive nominee may be about to enter an era of long, messy primaries. Who knows, by February we could be looking back on the circus that was the first debates and laugh at the absurdity of it all. Or this could be the first steps toward a long, cold winter for Republicans and potentially the splintering of the entire party. My bet is on the latter. If you’re a fan of political theater, get the biggest bag of popcorn you can find, because this movie could have a long run time.