By Chris Cillizza
Monday, February 7, 2011; A02
The Iowa caucuses are 364 days away. (But who's counting?) And yet there is only one candidate - pizza magnate Herman Cain - who has gone so far as to even form an exploratory committee to begin raising money for the Republican primary race.
While there is considerable agreement among the Republican professional class that the 2012 race is late-starting, there's little consensus on why things are slow to form or who the first candidate to break the silence will be.
In conversations with a number of Republican operatives - those working for would-be candidates and those staying on the sidelines (for now) - a few major reasons emerge for the slow start.
l Money. The field will almost certainly match or exceed previous highs for the number of candidates running - a function of the lack of a true front-runner to scare off ambitious politicians. Combine the size of the field with the Republican National Committee's decision to make all primaries and caucuses before April 1 proportional in terms of delegate allocation rather than winner-take-all and you have the real potential for an extended primary fight. With the exception of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former ambassador Jon Huntsman, no one else in the field has the ability to self-finance bids, meaning everyone else is content to wait a bit longer for things to get underway. "You don't want to lengthen the campaign against someone where funding is not an issue," explained a senior GOP operative not affiliated with any of the potential candidates.
l History. The record of early starters in modern politics is not encouraging. Since 1972, only two non-incumbent candidates - Democrats George McGovern (1972) and Al Gore (2000) - have been the first candidate in and the last man standing in a presidential nominating fight. More often, first in means first out: Sen. Alan Cranston (1984), Sen. Phil Gramm (1996) and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (2008) all fit that mold.
l The Internet and social media. In elections past, an unknown candidate would have to start years ahead of the actual presidential race to ensure that he (or she) had enough time to raise enough money and build enough name identification to be viable when voters started voting. No more. The rise of social media and the increasing efficacy of online fundraising - Rep. Ron Paul, a long-shot candidate, raised $50 million in 2008, largely via the Web - push the deadline on when a candidate can begin running way back. "The nature of new media makes it easier to get known faster and raise money online," said one senior GOP strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the delayed start to the race.
l The Palin factor. Sarah Palin has been coy about her political plans, and that makes things tougher on everyone else. The former Alaska governor is a prime mover in the contest; she acts and everyone else reacts. If she is in the race, it fundamentally alters the winning calculus for everyone from a front-running Romney to a lesser-known candidate such as former senator Rick Santorum. If Palin is out of the race, the contest is even more wide open - a no-go decision could expand the field as more ambitious pols see more of a path to the nomination.
Most Republican strategists expect the below-the-surface campaign to emerge into the open soon, however. "The practicalities of running - debates, straw polls, staffing, lining up endorsements on paper - means candidates will have to end the sub rosa campaign soon," predicted one adviser to a potential 2012 aspirant.
Who will be the first major contender in the contest? Most sharp Republican prognosticators point to former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who has been running all but all-out for the better part of the past year now.
But with Sen. John Thune and former House speaker Newt Gingrich coming up on self-imposed deadlines about whether to run, and buzz growing that Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, is nearing a decision, there could well be multiple candidates in the contest at the end of February.