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On the Largely Irrelevant News About Barbour Not Running for President

I haven’t spent very much time writing about Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who announced today that he would not be a candidate for president. But the record will show that I noted both directly and indirectly that I thought Mr. Barbour’s chances were overstated.

Mr. Barbour, despite winning some support from the Republican establishment, had shown little momentum with rank-and-file Republicans, drawing between zero percent and two percent of the vote in recent surveys.

Polls certainly aren’t everything, especially at this early stage. There is some precedent for candidates, like Jimmy Carter in 1976, winning their nominations despite polling as poorly as Mr. Barbour.

But polls aren’t meaningless either. Holding other factors equal, the odds of a candidate polling at 10 or 20 percent winning his nomination are much higher — probably several times higher — than one who polls at 1 or 2 percent.

The question is whether there was any reason to think that other factors weren’t equal, and that Mr. Barbour was stronger than his polling.

One factor worth accounting for is name recognition. Mr. Barbour’s name was identified by just 42 percent of Republican voters in a recent Gallup poll.

But while Mr. Barbour’s name recognition was lower than household names like Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin or Donald Trump, it was about the equal of candidates like Tim Pawlenty, and ahead of some like Mitch Daniels and Jon Huntsman. More importantly, of the 40 percent of Republicans who were familiar with Mr. Barbour, just a tiny fraction of them had him as their first choice. If a candidate, like Michael Dukakis in 1987, is drawing 7 or 8 percent support despite being known to only a fraction of his party’s voters, that is potentially meaningful. This was not the case for Mr. Barbour, however. Even voters who were familiar with him showed very little interest in his candidacy.

Nor did Mr. Barbour have an obvious constituency within the party. Religious conservatives had more natural choices (Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum), as did Tea Party conservatives (Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich), Republican establishment voters (Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty), moderates (Mitch Daniels and Jon Huntsman) and marginally attached, low-information voters (Donald Trump and Sarah Palin.)

There was also the potential for problems with independent voters. Mr. Barbour, as a 63-year-old white Southerner who began his career as a lobbyist and who had some history of making racially insensitive remarks, seemed to conform to every stereotype that swing voters negatively associate with Republicans. Even in Mississippi, Mr. Barbour’s margins had not been overwhelming; he won election with 53 percent of the vote in 2003 and re-election with 58 percent in 2007 — a solid showing but not one that speaks to preternatural political talent.

Instead, Mr. Barbour’s main virtue had been that conservative thinkers like George F. Will and Charles Krauthammer were willing to vouch for the viability of his candidacy. This is something they had not been willing to do for Mike Huckabee, a fellow two-term Southern governor, despite the fact that Mr. Huckabee’s polling numbers were much stronger among both Republican and general election voters.

Now that Mr. Barbour has declined to run, it is worth thinking more carefully about the value of elite opinion and insider accounts of the presidential race.

The latest speculation is that, with Mr. Barbour out of the running, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is likely to run instead. Mr. Barbour and Mr. Daniels are friendly, and Mr. Daniels had suggested in the past that he was less likely to run if Mr. Barbour did so as well.

I don’t fault the reporters who have passed along this news. Politico’s Jonathan Martin, for instance, got an on-the-record quote from Mr. Daniels on this subject — a nice scoop.

But just because politicians say something to reporters doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be taken at face value. How many politicians have resigned in the midst of scandal to “pursue other interests” or to “spend more time with their families”?

And how many politicians have decided against running for President of the United States — arguably the most powerful position in the world — because one of their friends was doing so as well? We are not talking about the president of the local chapter of the Kiwanis club. Most people decide to run for president out of some combination of conviction and narcissism, neither of which permits much room for friends getting in the way.

Rather, when they decide not to run for president, it’s usually because they don’t think they can win. Although there are some exceptions — for instance, Mario Cuomo in 1988 and Ted Kennedy in 1972 — the candidates who drop out of a race early are normally those like Mr. Barbour who don’t have much of a pulse in polls and don’t see any viable path toward victory.

Mr. Barbour may have made that calculation, and in that respect, he has shown shrewder political instincts than those who took his candidacy seriously.

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