In the previous campaign, John McCain filed his papers with the Federal Election Commission days after the 2006 midterms. At least two Democrats held formal announcements before the end of the year. Mitt Romney was in shortly after New Year’s Day 2007. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were up and running in January 2007 and never slowed a step.
This time around, the candidates strolled rather than sprang to the starting gate. So eager were the media to get the race moving that every baby step by anyone toward a formal candidacy was covered as if it were news.
Romney didn’t file his papers until spring. Newt Gingrich had made several false starts toward filing by then but did not finally become a candidate until later in the spring. Herman Cain formally joined in May, Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman in June. Perry didn’t announce until August.
That hesitancy fed the second difference between campaign 2012 and others. This year’s contest has also been notable for the number of prominent Republicans who talked about running, and in some cases were urged to run, but who ultimately chose not to. They include former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, businessman Donald Trump, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
You could go back to 1992 and the Democrats for a similar pattern. That year, Al Gore, Bill Bradley, Dick Gephardt and Mario Cuomo all chose not to run. What’s different is that, in that case, George H.W. Bush was seen as virtually unbeatable because of the Persian Gulf War (how wrong those assumptions were). This year, with President Obama on the defensive, the Republican nomination is well worth having, and yet an all-star roster of GOP leaders took a pass.
It isn’t just that some big names didn’t run. It is the attention they got at the time. Their public considerations soaked up a significant amount of coverage and commentary. A speech by Cheri Daniels, who didn’t want her husband to run, drew national coverage. The attention paid to the non-candidates overshadowed and diminished those who were in the race.
That illustrates the third big difference. In this nomination battle, there really hasn’t been a dominant front-runner, as there has been in the past. Romney is generally described as the front-runner and has been from the start. But some months ago, the Gallup organization described him as one of the weakest front-runners in the modern history of Republican races, given that he has been stuck or stable in the polls at about 25 percent.