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Now Running for President: Mitch Daniels’s Ghost

Mitch Daniels’s decision to not run for president stands somewhat in contrast to Mike Huckabee’s, simply because Mr. Daniels had yet to gain significant popular support in the polls. But it also stands in contrast to Haley Barbour’s, in that Mr. Daniels had a more plausible route to the nomination, most likely by performing “well enough” in Iowa to gain significant momentum heading into New Hampshire, a state that caters to a number of his strengths.

That makes the news a bit trickier to analyze, since Mr. Daniels was more a candidate who had significant potential than one who had actively begun to realize it. Given my admonition against trying to be too precise about analyzing the dynamics of the field when so many contingencies remain, it’s tempting to say simply that every candidate not named Mitch Daniels benefits to some degree or another from his decision not to run, possibly including President Obama to a very small extent.

With that said, perhaps the primary source of Mr. Daniels’s potential was the praise heaped upon him by conservative elites. I have been working on a project to quantify the tone of references made to the Republican candidates by a group of 20 prominent conservative columnists. While the study isn’t quite finished, Mr. Daniels had been on track to perform very well, with about five favorable references for every unfavorable one — a better ratio than almost any other candidate.

Probably the primary beneficiaries, then, are the remaining candidates in the group I’ve deemed the “Fairfax Five”, which are those who are generally considered acceptable and serious choices by the conservative intelligentsia. Those candidates are Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney.

Mr. Huntsman’s bid in particular, although it remains something of a long shot in my view, has certainly received a boost. Like Mr. Daniels, Mr. Huntsman is more of a New Hampshire candidate than an Iowa candidate. But Mr. Daniels also had some strengths in Iowa, like his Midwestern roots, that Mr. Huntsman could not replicate. That would have made it hard for Mr. Huntsman to actuate his potential in New Hampshire, since Mr. Daniels would probably have finished ahead of him in Iowa and therefore carried more momentum into the state. With Mr. Daniels out of the running, Mr. Huntsman’s strategy is less of a dominated one.

Mr. Romney has been receiving harsher treatment among conservatives of late for what is seen as a clumsy defense of his health care plan in Massachusetts. But he benefits as well: one less Midwesterner to worry about in Iowa, and one less fiscal conservative in New Hampshire.

Mr. Pawlenty, who has gotten much good news in recent weeks, has also had an obstacle removed from his path. One of the more troubling possibilities for Mr. Pawlenty was if Mr. Daniels had finished ahead of him in Iowa — or had come close enough that he had been perceived as performing better relative to expectations. Perhaps Mr. Palwenty now has to worry about Mr. Huntsman instead of Mr. Daniels — but Mr. Huntsman’s potential in Iowa is more limited.

At the same time, there is a dangerous dynamic for Mr. Pawlenty — and perhaps also for Mr. Huntsman and Mr. Romney — in that the chorus of conservatives who are dissatisfied with their field is only likely to grow louder. Mr. Pawlenty no longer has to compete directly against Mr. Daniels — but he still has to compete against the idea of Mr. Daniels, a candidate who perhaps was perceived as having somewhat more gravitas and who (because of his service in the George W. Bush administration) was more familiar to some within Washington. As a commenter at the conservative grass-roots blog RedState astutely noted, Mr. Daniels’s decision could give rise to a number of “unfounded myths of what a great candidate and president he would have been.”

The remaining candidates, in essence, are still running against Mr. Daniels’s ghost. And ghosts don’t make gaffes, or post disappointing fund-raising numbers, as real candidates do. I think Republicans have legitimate reason to worry about the strength of their field — but they have some candidates who would perform better than others against Mr. Obama. If those candidates are held to an impossible standard, the party’s electoral fortunes will not benefit.

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