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Handicapping the Republican Field: Part II, the Wild Cards

I mentioned last week that I’d thought we’d seen the emergence of a relatively distinct “top tier” of Republican candidates, consisting of Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. Having taken a deeper look, I am more confident in that claim — I’d posit that there is a better than an 80 percent chance that the nominee will be one of those four people.

Other candidates, however, could come through — with some outside chance of winning the nomination if things break the right way.  We’ll look at those candidates in this article. (As a reminder, the numbers you see are not based on a formal statistical model but are a combination of objective and subjective factors. Simply put, it’s my best effort to handicap the Republican field based on the evidence as I see it today.)

The wild cards
Sarah Palin, 30-to-1 odds against (3.2 percent chance of winning nomination)

Ms. Palin’s numbers aren’t bad — she generally polls somewhere in the teens when she is included in a survey, and she led one poll as recently as two weeks ago. The numbers are down from where they had been before her comments about the shootings in Tucson in which Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Democrat of Arizona, was wounded, but are not off appreciably from a couple of months ago, and may even have improved by a percentage point or two.

Still, I consider Ms. Palin to be a long shot to win the nomination for three reasons.

First, we don’t have any real idea as to whether  she is going to run.

Second, if she does run, it’s not clear how much effort she’ll be willing to put into her candidacy. Her fly-by-night approach — most recently evidenced by her unwillingness to stick to a schedule on her “One Nation” bus tour — is not compatible with the attitude that winning campaigns have taken.

Nor is it clear that Ms. Palin can count on running a “viral” campaign, with the media hanging on her every tweet. The share of media bandwidth that she earns has declined significantly, and although there would surely be an uptick if she were actually to start a campaign, she’ll have to compete against other candidates who draw their fair share of attention, from Ms. Bachmann to Newt Gingrich, as well as those with more traditional credentials. (The downside to the so-called 24/7 media cycle is that you can become old news in a hurry.)

And third, even if Ms. Palin’s campaign goes relatively well, there are a lot of Republicans who will want to see to it that she isn’t their nominee. She currently runs almost 20 percentage points behind President Obama. This cannot be attributed to a lack of name recognition since she might be the best-known politician in America aside from Mr. Obama himself; instead, it’s because almost 60 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of her.

There have been some “extreme” nominees before, like George McGovern and Barry Goldwater; that precedent is why I think that Ms. Bachmann is a plausible candidate. But no candidate has been nominated with unfavorable numbers as high as Ms. Palin’s. If someone like Ms. Bachmann is on the verge of winning the nomination, I expect you’ll see some efforts to prevent that — but these would be constrained at some point by fears about inflicting collateral damage upon the party (like harming turnout among base voters who will be critical to Republican efforts to win control of Congress). Ms. Palin, however, may be regarded as such an unmitigated disaster that you could see a floor fight at the convention, or threats by either Ms. Palin or a moderate candidate to run as an independent.

The upshot is that Ms. Palin will have a high bar to clear. It probably will not suffice for her to win a narrow plurality of delegates (as someone like Mitt Romney could get away with), or even necessarily a clear plurality (the threshold that I suspect that Ms. Bachmann would need to reach) — rather, she might need an outright majority. That could  require her to run a nose-to-the-grindstone, 50-state campaign — exactly the kind that Ms. Palin seems the least interested in.

Jon M. Huntsman Jr., 30-to-1 odds against (3.2 percent chance of winning nomination)

I’ve discussed at length why I think Mr. Huntsman is an unlikely nominee. Many of his more visible positions are  far to the left of the median Republican voter, and there is some evidence that this has begun to hurt him in polls, with about half of Republicans who have gotten to know him expressing a negative view.

But Mr. Huntsman is not yet very well known — his name recognition is about 30 percent. And he officially started his candidacy only this week. Is it possible that he’ll make a better impression on the remaining 70 percent of the electorate?

Sure, there’s a chance — that’s why I list hits odds at 30 to 1 against instead of zero. But so far, Republican voters have grown more skeptical of Mr. Huntsman as they have become more familiar with him. And he can’t seem to go a day without taking a position that is tenuous with Republican voters. On Wednesday, for instance, he called for a faster withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, a position that is consistent with what Democratic and independent voters want — but not Republicans, although their views  have been in flux.

It’s not that I take the position that Republicans are doomed to nominate an “extreme” candidate: my assessment, instead, is that there is a better-than-even chance that their nominee will be either Mr. Romney or Mr. Pawlenty. But Mr. Huntsman’s views are likely to be a bridge too far — his positions on many issues are closer to that of the median independent voter than the so-called Main Street Republican. Nor is it that Main Street Republicans are lacking alternatives: they have Mr. Romney and Mr. Pawlenty. As Ross Douthat notes, the question about whether Mr. Huntsman is a plausible Republican nominee in the abstract should be subservient to the question of whether he has a realistic shot of winning given that there are candidates like Mr. Romney who are closer to the median Republican voter and who are substantially ahead of him in the polls.

In addition, Mr. Huntsman is not competing in Iowa. This may well be a sound strategy given the constraints that he faces. But it calls into question the situations under which he might be nominated. He probably needs both Mr. Romney and Mr. Pawlenty to flop, and for someone like Ms. Bachmann to win the state. His nomination would require the following sequence of events:

1. Both Mr. Romney and Mr. Pawlenty perform poorly enough in Iowa (a state over which Mr. Huntsman has no direct control) for their candidacies to lose momentum.

2. Mr. Huntsman is in a strong enough position in New Hampshire that he can surge to victory there as Mr. Romney’s and Mr. Pawlenty’s numbers decline.

3. Mr. Huntsman, having won New Hampshire, wins the “playoff” against the conservative winner of Iowa (say, Mr. Perry or Ms. Bachmann) and a candidate like Mr. Romney who is wounded but not necessarily dead (particularly given the ideological gulf between Mr. Huntsman and the Iowa winner).

These events are not necessarily all that unlikely unto themselves. But for Mr. Huntsman to clear all three hurdles is difficult. Say that there is a 1-in-3 chance of each event occurring: you can quibble with those numbers, obviously, but if that were right, he’d have just a 1-in-27 chance of becoming the nominee.

Mr. Huntsman’s campaign is sometimes compared to that of John McCain in 2000, another candidate who didn’t always play by the rules and who received a lot of favorable coverage from the media. Mr. McCain surged from a very low position in the polls to win New Hampshire and several other New England states, as well as Michigan and Arizona.

But Mr. McCain did not win the nomination — George W. Bush took the other 43 states. He cleared the first two hurdles, but tripped on the third one.

Or perhaps the better comparison for Mr. Huntsman is  Representative John B. Anderson in 1980 — a moderate who beat expectations in the Republican primaries and then ran as an independent against a very weak Democratic incumbent in Jimmy Carter and a very conservative Republican candidate in Ronald Reagan. If Mr. Huntsman is on the ballot in November 2012, I find it almost as plausible that it will be as an independent  than as the head of the Republican ticket.

Herman Cain, 35-to-1 odds against (2.8 percent chance of winning nomination)

Mr. Cain does very well by one crucial metric: the number of Republican voters who have him as their first choice, relative to the number who are familiar with him. He has averaged 8 percent in polls conducted so far in June, but has name recognition of  about 40 percent. That means that 20 percent of Republicans who know of Mr. Cain have him as their first choice, a number bettered only by Mr. Romney.

Historically, candidates who fit this profile — a decent performance in polls despite name recognition of 50 percent or lower — have a rather good track record, with success stories including John Kerry and Michael Dukakis. But all of those candidates had far more traditional credentials than Mr. Cain.

I covered this issue at length last month and so will keep the discussion limited here — but I don’t think we have a strong enough theoretical or empirical understanding of how primaries work to completely ignore Mr. Cain’s promising polling and rule out the possibility that he could emerge as the nominee. The odds at which I have him listed here, 35 to 1 against, are sort of a Bayesian compromise between our purely objective model (which would put his chances above 10 percent based on the most recent polling) and conventional wisdom (which would hold that his chances are next to zero).

Getting back to more practical concerns, Ms. Bachmann is potentially a threat to Mr. Cain, having upstaged him at last week’s debate and sharing some of his appeal to insurgent groups like the Tea Party. Relative to the other candidates, the next month or so of the campaign is important for Mr. Cain. He’ll need to maintain his momentum with conservative bloggers and activists, who could instead turn their attention to Ms. Bachmann as an outside-the-box choice.

The next group of candidates, whom I will address together, might also be considered wild cards — but the question is not so much whether they would be viable as whether or not they will run.

Team 2016
Paul D. Ryan, 40-to-1 odds against (2.4 percent chance of winning nomination)

Chris Christie, 70-to-1 odds against (1.4 percent chance of winning nomination)

Jeb Bush, 70-to-1 odds against (1.4 percent chance of winning nomination)

The premise on which Mr. Perry may enter the Republican race is that candidates like Mr. Romney and Mr. Huntsman are too moderate, and those like Ms. Bachmann and Ms. Palin are not electable — leaving a void in the middle, with Mr. Pawlenty representing a serious but not insurmountable obstacle. If Mr. Perry enters the race, as some reports suggest is likely, there might not be room for another candidate. But if he does not, another candidate could make the same calculation — and the mere fact that Mr. Perry is so seriously considering the race after having denied his interest before suggests that a small slice of probability pie should be reserved for candidates who have ruled out a run but might change their minds. (Other, more remote opportunities might arise if something were to go terribly and unexpectedly wrong with one of the leading candidates or if there were a brokered convention.)

Of the three candidates listed here, Paul D. Ryan’s denials of interest have been the least firm; Chris Christie does the best on the occasions that he is included in surveys; and Jeb Bush would be the most prepared to mount a late candidacy. I consider the former factor to be more important than the other two — running is a prerequisite to winning, after all — and so I list Mr. Ryan as having slightly shorter odds than Mr. Christie and Mr. Bush.

Mr. Ryan would probably be the most interesting nominee, given the fact that his name is associated with a contentious (and probably somewhat unpopular) budget proposal. Relative to most other candidates, his nomination would make the 2012 election more of a choice between his and Mr. Obama’s respective visions of government and less of a referendum on Mr. Obama’s performance. In theory, that is an option that a party should be willing to take if voters seem content with the direction of the country and they need a superstar to shake things up. But given that voters are in a sour mood and that Mr. Obama is quite vulnerable, I’m not sure it would behoove Republicans to take such a high-risk approach.

We’ll address the remaining Republican candidates, a flawed and motley crew, in the third and final part of the series.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.