If you get past the hype for Donald Trump, and Michele Bachmann, and Newt Gingrich, and — I don’t know, did we have a presidential boomlet for Rufus T. Firefly or Jimmy James that I missed? — there’s a real story involving the 2012 presidential race. In the real world, the field is starting to narrow to perhaps only a few plausible contenders. With less than a year until the nominee is chosen, we have a reasonably clear view of what the field will look like.
So how do things sit now?
Three serious contenders are actively running for the nomination: Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Haley Barbour.
Three other serious candidates have been on the fringes of the race: Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Mitch Daniels. Each has done some of the things that candidates do in the early stages of the “invisible” primary — the stage before the voters get involved, during which party elites broadly make decisions which help structure the field for the election year, and in some cases fully determine the nomination. However, these none of these three has done the things that candidates traditionally do as the voting draws closer, including announcing that they’re running.
An astonishing ten other people have candidacies, or quasi-candidacies, or are pretending to have candidacies, despite having very, very marginal chances: Michele Bachmann, Gary Johnson, Ron (or possibly Rand) Paul, “Ten Commandments” Judge Roy Moore, Buddy Roemer, Herman Cain, John Bolton, Rick Santorum, Trump, Gingrich, and Bachmann. All of them are prominent enough that they would probably have to be invited to presidential debates. But together, I’d give them at best a 10% chance of capturing the nomination, and more realistically I’d probably give them collectively around a 1% chance.
Some on this list don’t have conventional qualifications for a presidential nomination (Bolton, Cain); some had such qualifications, but they’ve gone stale over time (Santorum, Roemer); some have positions on public policy far from their party’s mainstream (Johnson, Paul); and some are not trusted by the party’s insiders, even broadly understood (Bachmann, Gingrich, Trump). Candidates in these categories have no history of even coming close to getting a presidential nomination. Perhaps the closest thing to exceptions in the modern (post-1968) era would be Jesse Jackson’s runs, especially in 1988, and Ron Paul in 2008, and neither came very close to winning. One of these candidates could break though and run well in a few states, or even win in a couple of places. But win? Not if the past tells us anything.
I see only two other potential candidates who could realistically jump in this late despite having done relatively little so far: Jeb Bush and Rick Perry. I agree with Ed Kilgore that neither would have much chance if they were reluctant, but if they got in enthusiastically, they’d both have enough time to raise the resources needed to win). Beyond that, I’d give everyone else — from Chris Christie on down — very little chance to seriously contend. We’re already about nine months out from the Iowa caucuses, and far fewer months until the Ames straw poll this summer in Iowa. Ramping up a presidential campaign from scratch is hard, particularly for candidates inexperienced in national policy. And even Bush and Perry are running out of time: They probably have only a couple months left to get in.
We should not take early polls very seriously, especially in a cycle with no obvious strong frontrunner. But make no mistake: The GOP nomination contest is already far along, and whatever weaknesses one might find in Romney, Pawlenty, and Barbour (and Palin, Huck, Daniels, Perry, and Bush), we can be pretty sure that one of them is going to be the nominee next spring.