Tuesday, April 19, 2011

That Oddball GOP 2012 Field

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).


  1. One of the most intriguing parts of the whole sideshow candidate culture of this year is that it caused you to put Palin down as a potential "real candidate." It seems to me that the biggest thing the sideshows have done is lower the bar for "serious" contenders.

  2. Gary Johnson's credentials are decent -- he served as Governor for longer than Romney and Palin combined. It's his support for legalizing marijuana that makes people assume he can't win.

  3. Why is Palin a "real candidate" and Newt isn't? He gets decent poll numbers, he has a history of engaging in serious policy proposals, he has way more actual government experience, etc. He's of course been acting like a clown ever since Obama was elected, but that doesn't differentiate him from the other candidates.

  4. Palin -- look, she was the VP nominee last time out. That makes her a serious candidate, on paper, going in.

    Gary Johnson is a tougher call, because its true that he has conventional credentials, but he's running as an issue advocate, not as someone really trying to win the nomination.

    Newt...there's very little history of anyone out of office for 12 years seriously contesting a nomination, not to mention the ethics problems, the divorces...hey, there's always the first time for something, but no reason to think he could be a serious contender.

  5. Jonathan,

    It’s fair to call Gary Johnson an issues candidate, but he also seems to be running to win. He’s using the same practical issue-focused approach that made him popular with swing voters in New Mexico and, unlike Ron Paul, he’s on-message and careful when it comes to more controversial issues. I think he knows his chances are exceedingly slim, but he’s running to win anyway.

  6. Jon, don't you think that the high number of unserious candidates is related to the relatively low number of serious candidates who are clearly in at this point? My impression is that we'll probably end up with a relatively normal looking GOP field of 5-7 candidates with reasonable credentials by the fall, but they do seem to be taking their time to announce, form committees, etc. The clowns are thus sucking up the media attention that would normally be devoted to more serious people, no?

    And if that's true, why are serious candidates so slow to jump in this year? Because they think Obama's likely to win and they're thinking about waiting until 2016? Because the economy's shaky enough that they want to wait and see whether recovery looks more likely? Because the Tea Party folks have thrown a wrench into the invisible primary signaling game and it's harder to tell if you have the support to run a reasonable campaign? Because technology makes it easier to organize and fundraise on the downlow?

  7. I have to put my money on Mike Huckabee. He proved he could run a feisty campaign in 2008, he's a pretty good speaker, and he can get the Republican base out to the polls without easily being pigeonholed as an extremist. There's very little going for Mitt Romney or anyone else right now.
    ~Unanimous Consent


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