I’m not quite sure whom I’d call the odds-on favorite to capture the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. But I have a pretty good idea of who I’d bet against.
The table below compiles a number of statistics related to prospective G.O.P. candidates in 2012. Moving from left to right, we have their current chance of winning the nomination according to the political futures market Intrade; the candidate’s current “power ranking” according to the National Journal’s Hotline, their average standing in five recent polls of prospective Republican primary voters (I don’t use the recent Zogby Interactive poll — we don’t consider Zogby’s online polls to be scientific), and favorability ratings among Republican adults according to the recent A.P.-G.f.K. survey.
Based on the objective indicators — which is to say, the polls — you have four clear front-runners: Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich. Each has comfortably over 80 percent name recognition among Republicans, and they are about 10 points ahead of any other candidates in trial heats that have tested various combinations of the candidates against one another. Each is also pretty well liked among Republicans. All have strong television presences and the makings of a campaign infrastructure. They all have pretty distinct brands. Three of the four — Ms. Palin (Tea Party conservatives), Mr. Huckabee (southern and religious conservatives) and Mr. Romney (moderates and fiscal conservatives) — have fairly natural constituencies within the Republican base. Mr. Gingrich, whose demographics probably overlap to some extent with Ms. Palin’s, is perhaps the exception.
Now, I’d be the first one to tell you that polls this far out from the date of the primaries aren’t all that meaningful. And not all of these candidates are sure bets to run. Still, Mr. Romney and Ms. Palin alone would present a formidable challenge to any candidate outside the top tier, and Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Gingrich would make matters worse. This would actually be somewhat tricky to study, but I’d suspect you’d find it somewhat unusual to have so many candidates who were so well known so early in the nomination cycle.
What is odd then is that candidates like Tim Pawlenty, the outgoing Minnesota governor, and Senator John Thune of South Dakota are being discussed so much among insiders. Hotline ranks them as the 2nd and 3rd most likely Republican nominees, respectively, but those are the candidates whom I’d bet against at the odds that Intrade is offering.
The theory seems to be that all of the front-runners are flawed in some way, which is undoubtedly true. But if one of the front-runners flops in some way once the campaign actually begins, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be one of the other front-runners who would pick up their slack: if Sarah Palin’s campaign gets off to a poor start, for instance, it is probably Mr. Gingrich — not Mr. Pawlenty or Mr. Thune — who would get first dibs on her votes.
The analogy is to a baseball team that is 7 games out of first place at the All-Star break: how likely is this team to come back and win its division?
The answer depends to a great extent on how many other teams separate them from the first-place team. If they’re in second place in a two-team race, their odds really aren’t so bad: they just have to get hot, or the other team has to wilt down the stretch run, and they’ll have a pretty good chance.
But if they’re in, say, fifth place between a tightly-bunched group of front-runners (even if those front-runners are flawed in various ways), then making up a 7-game deficit is quite difficult. There’s now almost no chance that they can win just by watching the first-place team fold: the second-, third- and fourth-place teams would all have to do so as well. Instead, they’ll have to get really hot — and even if they do, they’ll have to hope none of the four teams in front of them get as hot or hotter. This is the situation that candidates like Mr. Pawlenty now find themselves in.
The other potential flaw in the analysis of candidates like Mr. Pawlenty and Mr. Thune is that some seem to think it an asset that they are bland and unobjectionable. In a primary election that isn’t an asset, but a liability. A primary election isn’t a reality show in which candidates are eliminated one at a time for failing some challenge. Instead, voters pick the one candidate whom they most like, rather than the one they most dislike; a candidate who has strong favorables and strong unfavorables is going to be more people’s first choice than one whom everyone feels indifferent about. Someone with a more distinct and provocative brand — like Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey or Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin — might stand a better chance in an underdog role, although neither is likely to run for president in 2012.
Sometimes late in a primary campaign — if it appears, for instance, that the party might face a brokered convention or nominate an unelectable candidate — voters (and party elites, certainly) can start to behave more tactically, and that’s where a candidate like Mr. Thune or Mr. Pawlenty could have some chance. More likely, however, their upside consists of introducing themselves to the electorate in a way that would allow them to be bona fide contenders in 2016.