With every passing week, we seemingly get a new Republican presidential hopeful.
On Wednesday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal became the 14th declared GOP candidate, including long-shot candidates like former IRS Commissioner Mark Everson and Donald Trump. The party itself counts 19 potential candidates in its online straw poll.
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Of course, most such lists weed out the majority of the 98 Americans who have actually registered as Republican candidates with the Federal Election Commission and maybe even put together a campaign website but have absolutely no hope of actually winning. Those are people like an optimistic grandfather in Indiana, or a California Fish and Game employee and "conservative constitutionalist," who doesn't believe the president was born in this country.
Even out of the "real" candidates, only a few will prove viable—and we won't necessarily know who until the first primary in February in New Hampshire. By then, there are usually only about three candidates winning a substantial portion of the votes, according to state election data.
It seems like we have had more Republican candidates come forward this year than in the past, but if we look at the official registration numbers, we actually have far fewer than the 132 registered candidates in 2012. So how do we determine the actual size of the Republican field, and is it really that much bigger than in the past? How can we separate the Republican wheat from the chaff?
One possible method—inspired by a metric developed by ESPN's FiveThirtyEight—would include only candidates who have the official backing of at least one U.S. representative, senator or governor. Here's how many of those candidates we had by this time each year.
By that metric, it looks like this year isn't much different from past years. Endorsements are a reasonable standard to use because the eventual party winner tends to secure the most early endorsements.
In this case, there may be a dozen or more possible nominees, but it may be hard for a candidate to win over the party as a whole if not a single politician is willing to stand in his or her corner. That lonely group includes candidates like Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, George Pataki and Trump.
But using endorsements to count serious candidates also has a flaw: The number of high-quality candidates could change how endorsements are distributed this early in the race.
There are only so many endorsements to go around, and candidates who would normally be strong contenders could fail to find early public backers. It's also possible that some power brokers will wait to see how the early primary action plays out before betting on a horse.
Another way to judge the field is to look at how this crop of candidates compares when weighted by their political experience, a points-based metric conceived by Sean Trende, senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics.
By this metric, which assigns points based on a candidate's current office, star power and recent election experience, our current crop including exploring candidates is not only larger than the average, but the candidates are on average stronger than in the past.
By that measure, there are more than 50 experience points in the race at this point, versus a little under 40 in recent elections. On average, each candidate has nearly half a point more than last year on a scale from 0 to 6, meaning that we have more senators and governors with recent experience than in past years.
What does that mean for the primary race? Well, it's still a long way until the first binding election—New Hampshire. Some candidates will probably drop out before then, but the ones who stick around could be strong enough to make for an interesting contest.
If we look at the data from that primary from the New Hampshire secretary of state, usually between 20 and 40 names end up on the ballot, including write-ins, but only a handful get 1 percent or more, and about three candidates usually get 10 percent or more.
In the last five nonincumbent primaries, the eventual nominee received an average of about 40 percent of the vote. The lowest during that period was Bob Dole, who lost the 1996 New Hampshire primary to Pat Buchanan but still received 26 percent.
It is that election that will tell us how unique this field truly is. The selection could be whittled down to three candidates by then, but we could also have a few more candidates, which would force the winners to fight it out for smaller shares of the vote.