Steve Benen has a fun item this morning pointing out how many "Do We Have To Take ____ Seriously?" stories have been written about the 2012 field.
I'm talking about people with sufficient credentials that they would ordinarily be invited to participate in presidential debates, but insufficient credentials to have a realistic chance of winning the nomination. We really have a lot of these folks. Benen mentions Trump, Newt, Bachmann, and Cain; also running, of sorts, are Santorum, Paul (presumably Ron), Johnson, Bolton, Moore and Roemer. I think that's the full list -- that's a full ten sideshow candidates.
So what's going on here? Why are there so many sideshow "candidates" running for president on the GOP side? Does it say something about the state of the Republican party, or about the real candidates who are running? I've talked about some of this before, but to collect it all in one post:
First, I don't think it has much to do with the "real" candidate field. That's going to wind up looking similar to other recent candidate fields when obvious heavyweight was running. Romney, Pawlenty, Barbour...they're not the strongest candidates imaginable, but they're all plausible nominees and presidents. If Palin, Huck, and Daniels all join the field (along with Huntsman), it will be about a typical number of real candidates. Add to that candidates who ran for a while but didn't make it to the starting gate (Thune, DeMint), and there's not much of a story on that side. It is true that without a strong frontrunner it's possible that one or more of these candidates might honestly be deluding himself or herself that there's a real chance for victory -- and I suppose collectively there's maybe a tiny chance or so of some sort of complete fluke that puts one of them at the top of the ticket -- but that would basically be true at only a slightly lower level even with, say, a sitting VP running.
So the explanation should be found in the incentives to get in, or at least close to in, for sideshow candidates. And there, I think it's pretty easy to see what's happening. The costs of candidacy have gone way down in the internet era; it's a lot easier to raise a bit of money, and it's a lot easier to set up something that looks enough like a campaign that reporters will go for it. And, in the current movement conservative environment, the payoff appears to be pretty good, with possibilities for cashing in such as bestselling books and Fox News contracts available for those who build their names up enough.
(Not to say they're all in it for the money, but even those who believe they're in it for some other reason can't be unaware of the incentives involved. And the lower costs count for everyone, even if they have no interest in cashing in at all).
The only other question to explain about the sideshow candidates is the press attention, and that's easy: it's a long campaign, without any real events to report on between the kickoff in November 2008 and the Iowa caucuses in January or February 2012, and the press gets bored. They're easily distracted by shiny objects, such as a few million dollars raised, or a little name-recognition-driven polling result, or a handful of votes in some straw poll, or a celebrity. That's all.
(For a slightly different, but interesting, take, see Ron Replogle).