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Who Will Run for President? Early Voting States May Hold a Clue

We’re still in the “Who Will Run?” phase of the 2012 presidential race. Only a couple of major names — Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney — have registered with the Federal Election Commission to become 2012 candidates. And the words “prospective candidate” are bandied about before someone’s name almost as often as Mr. and Ms.

But at some point — let’s call it the “rubber-meets-the-road moment” — Republicans who are going to officially join the race (and not just talk about it) will have to get on the track and start driving, and that track is the early primary and caucus states: Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

For the 2008 election, the “rubber-meets-the-road moment” had already passed by this point in the cycle. Below are the appearances in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina made during the first four months of 2007 (Jan. 1 to April 30) by Republicans who were included in a majority of nomination polls during that time period.

And here are the Democratic appearances:

A quick note: First, the names in green never officially became candidates. Also, be a little skeptical of the zeroes. The number of appearances are based on news reports and an archive of media photographs, so, it is quite possible events took place that were not reported. But the numbers, especially relative to one another, are largely sound.

As you can see, candidates who were on the ground in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina turned out to actually be candidates. For all their talk about running, former Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senator Chuck Hagel weren’t shaking hands in Dubuque or answering questions in Nashua, and, in the end, they never joined the campaign. And despite much speculation in the press about another run for former Vice President Al Gore, he wasn’t campaigning, and he never joined the campaign.

There were some exceptions: Fred Thompson and, to a lesser extent, Ron Paul, Jim Gilmore and Mike Gravel. Mr. Thompson didn’t enter the race until Sept. 5, 2007. And he wasn’t running for long. In fact, Mr. Thompson’s late-developing campaign may illustrate why getting a head start on courting voters in the early states is so crucial. Mr. Thompson finished third in Iowa, sixth in New Hampshire and third in South Carolina. Despite a national profile, Mr. Thompson’s candidacy never gained a foothold with actual voters.

Mr. Paul held very few events. But he ran more of an issues campaign, seeking a national spotlight for the libertarian principles important to him, which doesn’t really require retail politicking in the early states. Mr. Gravel, as a long shot candidate in 2008, may be a case where the media ignored him to a certain extent, meaning I couldn’t find a substantial number of his appearances. And Mr. Gilmore was a candidate for less than three months.

So what do the numbers look like for Republicans said to be toying with a 2012 run? Here are the events held by those most often included in recent polling:

If this election turns out to be like 2008, and campaigning in the early states is a reasonable predictor of who will run, then Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will remain on the sidelines in 2012. The exceptions: Mr. Romney and Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi. Mr. Romney is reportedly skipping Iowa and otherwise lying low in that state, but he is running for president. In the other direction, Mr. Barbour made 18 appearances in those three states, but recently said he would not run.

Donald Trump and Mike Huckabee seem to be the borderline cases. Mr. Trump just made his first trip to New Hampshire. Mr. Huckabee has held six events in Iowa, but five of those were book signings.

Particularly interesting is the case of Mr. Gingrich, who is often accused of showing off his White House ambitions to garner attention and sell his many, many books. But the perpetual presidential flirt, unlike during 2007, is actually campaigning this year. Perhaps he realized that without appearing in Iowa and New Hampshire, the media might dismiss him outright as the boy who cried president. Barring that ploy, and judging by his heavy presence in those states, it looks as if he will run.

Jon M. Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor, is not included in the table because he just got back from China, where he was serving as United States ambassador and obviously wasn’t commuting between Des Moines and Beijing. (Just this week, Mr. Huntsman began raising money for a presidential run.)

There are some caveats. The biggest one: This is a sample size of just two elections. It’s possible the 2008 race is qualitatively different than 2012. For instance, the 2008 race took shape earlier than the 2012 campaign seems to be. Then Senator Barack Obama announced on Feb. 10, 2007. Then Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton declared her candidacy on Jan. 20, 2007; almost a month after John Edwards formally entered the race. That said, for both elections, there are the same number of days until the Iowa caucuses and there are plenty of Iowan babies to kiss. And six candidates have each already held over 15 early-state events, so any late arrival will be at a disadvantage.

Finally, some analysts have suggested that this year a high-profile candidate, like Ms. Palin, could skip the usual door-to-door, face-to-face campaigning in the early primary states and still win the nomination.

Maybe that’s true. But if it’s not true, then the 2012 Republican field is far more defined than most people think, with Mr. Gingrich, Gary Johnson, Mr. Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, former Senator Rick Santorum, Herman Cain and Mr. Romney as likely’s and Mr. Huckabee, Mr. Trump and Mr. Paul as maybe’s.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.