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Just how big will the 2016 field get?

By every estimate, the Republicans' field of presidential candidates will easily be the larger in American history. The practical considerations matter.
Former Florida Governor and probable 2016 Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks at the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Conference in Nashua, N.H. on April 17, 2015. (Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Former Florida Governor and probable 2016 Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks at the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Conference in Nashua, N.H. on April 17, 2015.
ABC's George Stephanopoulos yesterday asked former House Speaker Newt Gingrich yesterday about his party's 2016 presidential field and just how big it might get. The Georgia Republican threw out a pretty big number.

STEPHANOPOULOS:  Nine potential Republican candidates at the Faith and Freedom Coalition forum in Iowa last night.  Nine of who knows how many eventual candidates in this race. Let's talk about that now again with our roundtable.  And Mr. Speaker, we were just talking just before we came on air, this field could continue to grow and grow and grow. GINGRICH:  This is now maybe the most open field in Republican history.  I used to say the most open since 1940, but they've now blown past that. I think we may have 25 candidates.

Stephanopoulos, slightly amazed, responded simply, "25 candidates."
This wasn't supposed to happen. About a month ago, former Gov. Jeb Bush's (R) fundraising operation -- widely characterized as a "shock and awe" campaign -- was seen as so imposing that it was likely to help winnow the Republican field before it even took shape. "Don't bother running," Team Bush signaled to would-be candidates. "We've already cornered the market on campaign finances."
And for a brief while, it may have even had some effect -- prominent Republicans like Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Bob Corker, Rob Portman, and John Thune considered national campaigns, but ultimately decided against it.
In recent weeks, however, we've learned that the 2016 field is likely to swell to unprecedented numbers. Next week, over the course of about 24 hours, three more GOP candidates -- Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, and Mike Huckabee -- are expected to launch their presidential bids. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) was coy for a while, but he's starting to sound more and more like someone preparing a national campaign. Even Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who was expected to stand aside in 2016, is suddenly moving closer to the 2016 race.
The idea that the Republican field could soon hold a football scrimmage, with 11 candidates on offense and 11 candidates on defense, no longer seems ridiculous.
At this point, we're really not that far off. Last weekend in New Hampshire, the FITN Republican Leadership Summit featured 16 folks who've expressed at least some interest in running for president: Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Peter King, James Gilmore, John Bolton, Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham, Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, and John Kasich. Add in a few lesser-known vanity candidates, and some reports said there were 19 White House aspirants on hand.
A little historical context is in order: there is no precedent for fields this large. In the modern primary/caucus era, a group of 10 legitimate candidates is considered enormous. The idea of a 20- or 25-candidate field is simply unheard of, at least in the United States.
And this is more than just a curiosity; there are practical considerations. I still don't know, for example, how Republicans expect to host debates with so many competitors.
For that matter, when a field is split so many ways, breaking through and reaching primary voters is incredibly difficult, and encourages aspirants to say and do ridiculous things just to get attention. There are also the effects of arithmetic: in a typical cycle, a candidate with support between 12% and 15% is seen as a second-tier failure. When there are this many candidates, support between 12% and 15% puts a contender in the top tier, if not the frontrunner slot.
In my heart of hearts, I tend to think Gingrich's projection is an exaggeration -- it just doesn't seem likely we'll actually see 25 serious Republican competitors. But the fact that the total may get close to such a number is itself incredible.