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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

What’s so fascinating about the GOP 2012 presidential race, as discussed yesterday, is just how wide open the field is. I was trying to think of a simple way to make this point in a comparative way. This is what came to me: Last cycle there were a lot of Democrats, but it was effectively a three-person race between Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. You could be–what?–maybe 95 percent certain that the nominee would be one of those three. Can you say that about any combination three Republican aspirants right now?

In short, a lot of scenarios could play out in the next two years. Herewith a first crack at some of them and who may end up the winner of each:

The Next-in-Line scenario. Traditionally, the Republican nomination goes to the “next man in line.” Trouble is, it’s hard to figure out who that next man is–or if it even is a man. Is Sarah Palin next in line by virtue of her ’08 vice presidential candidacy, or are Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney, given the number of states they picked up in last year’s primaries? Or is that old hand, Newt Gingrich, the Republican who becomes the default option by virtue of his past electoral achievements? If I had to guess, the person that best fits the next-in-line profile is Romney: Though Huckabee held on longer last year once McCain burst ahead, Romney dutifully got out of the way once he knew he couldn’t win and helped McCain raise money. If he were not Mormon, I’d be even surer of it.

The Base Prevails scenario, Palin version. Well, if 2012 is the kind of year where the GOP determines to start anew and throw caution to the wind by rebuilding from the base up, you have to think Palin is the likely choice. Second option is obviously Huckabee, though as I mentioned yesterday the opportunity costs for him to run have perhaps increased.

The Base Prevails scenario, sans Palin. After Sarah Palin gets her national TV program, the GOP base will need to turn somewhere once they turn off their sets. What’s interesting about this scenario is that Huckabee is the obvious fallback position. But if for some reason—again, we’re just gaming things out here—neither of them ran, what would happen? I really don’t think both with sit it out, but at point does Haley Barbour emerge as somebody who can talk that southern talk and still keep the business and Washington wings in line, or does the GOP realize that a former lobbyist is not the image they want? After the protests of 2009, the base will need to be accommodated somehow, and the vice presidential slot in a tanking presidential campaign, like last time, may not be enough.

The Big-Business Man scenario. If the business wing of the Republican Party feels as threatened as tea party types do by Obama-inspired “socialism”–and given their bailouts and the general socializing of risk in America, I’m guessing Wall Street is far less worried than the tea partiers who shout about “socialism” as they march down to their mailboxes to collect their OADSI checks–Big Business could push their chips all-in with Romney. Huckabee’s flat-tax ideas are not going to be taken that seriously, and there’s little indication that Palin has much of an idea how to handle post-bubble American economy.

The Republican Jimmy Carter scenario. The Republicans are changing their nomination rules, and who knows how that might affect the contest. Given how little unity there is, there has to be at least one scenario in which a relatively but not totally unknown governor emerges. This has to be the hope of the Tim Pawlenty crowd.

The Militarist scenario: For all our justifiable focus on the economy, it’s possible that Iraq and Afghanistan could continue to be political trouble for Obama by 2012. There could be major terrorism incidents abroad and, heaven forfend, at home. Notice that the list of possible Republican nominees is rather lacking in foreign policy and military credentials, now that McCain is out of the mix. This is another reason to keep an eye on Gingrich, who looks like Colin Powell among the current field of aspirants. But it is also reason to consider the possibility that some retired general or person with strong military cred could announce and compete.

The Empire Strikes Back scenario. Two words: Jeb Bush. His name is curiously absent from all these discussions, but let’s face it: He always was the smarter, more talented, and more secular of the Bush brothers. He’s got the Latino wife. He would be able to raise the money to be remain competitive against what could be a $1 billion Obama operation–and I wonder if any candidate other than Palin or Romney can possibly compete. And, of course, Bush would pose a problem for Democrats in Florida. Yes, the elder brother did way too much brand damage not only to the GOP but the Bush family, and Obama’s victory in last year’s primary was aided by anti-dynasty sentiments. But two years is a long time from now.

I’m sure there are plenty of other ways to game it out, so feel free to add your own scenarios to the list.

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