Presidential campaign cycles almost always bring surprises, and the 2012 cycle already has a major one. I had thought for months that former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee would not run this time (although he was doing very well in the early polls). But I was surprised at Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels’ decision yesterday also to take a pass on 2012. Both Huckabee and Daniels had strong followers; Huckabee’s had been developed since the 2008 campaign and later through his popular TV show; Daniels’ was less measurable, but had arisen from his excellent resume in government and his strong reform record as governor. Both of them clearly were interested, but each of them, when they reached deep into their motivational being, found that the fires were not sufficiently burning to bring them into the grueling experience of running today for president of the United States.
Because Huckabee had left many clues to his final decision over time, most 2012 scenarios were constructed without him in the race. In Daniels’ case, however, although he came into consideration only relatively recently. it seemed likely that he would enter the field of candidates. That field now stands surprisingly small considering the potential for defeating incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama’s re-election effort.
In fact, the field is now shockingly small, when adding up the most serious contenders, and only when including unannounced former Utah Governor (and U.S. ambassador to China) Jon Huntsman, does it total four (Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Tim Pawlenty). There are other candidates, of course, (including former Senator Rick Santorum, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, Congressman Ron Paul, and businessman Herman Cain), but the race is most likely to quickly settle into a contest between the strongest hopefuls.
I had thought that former Alaska Governor (and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee) Sarah Palin would not run, but now I’m not so sure. If she does not, then Mrs. Bachmann, hitherto likely to be a minor candidate, could emerge as a stronger contender, especially if Tea Party voters coalesced nationwide behind her.
Does former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who had taken himself out of a run in 2012, become under new pressure to reconsider? Does nationally popular and charismatic New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also receive pressure to run?
Even though he had not run for national office before, and was untested as a presidential candidate, Governor Daniels had seen unexpectedly strong interest in his candidacy recently emerge. Part of this was because the Republican field has turned out to be so small, and there was a growing feeling that a candidate of his experience and temperment was necessary for a better nomination race.
Daniels’ decision might also bring other potentially major candidates into the 2012 contest, but for the time being, we have to evaluate the primary and caucus system with the candidates we know are running, or are very likely to run.
So who is helped? And who is hurt?
The smaller the field, I believe, the better are the chances of the current frontrunner Mitt Romney. His advantages in name-recognition, fundraising and campaign experience are likely, with only a few opponents, to provide him with a larger number of delegates earlier than he might have expected if the field were larger. There will now be a greater urgency for Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Pawlenty, and possibly, Mr. Hunstman to demonstrate their appeal among GOP voters. With Mrs. Bachmann a major player in her home state caucus in Iowa, the first formal voting in the nation, Mr. Pawlenty must find a way to avoid coming in behind her in that tally. Mr. Gingrich’s gaffes and mistakes in the pre-campaign period now become magnified, as he must also demonstrate strength in Iowa (where he has appeared frequently in the past year) and in New Hampshire. Former Speaker Gingrich has been a busy man, writing books, giving speeches and running major public policy organizations, but it’s time for him to focus on running for president and restarting his campaign on a more positive note if he is to be a major contender. Mr. Huntsman is a political blank slate at this point, but he will have to create interest in his candidacy more quickly now.
Amazingly, there is no major Republican candidate now from the South which is the core (along with the West) of GOP and conservative strength in the all-important electoral college. Who will now win the critical early South Carolina primary?
The decisions of Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Daniels, and of the other major Republican figures who have chosen not to run this year, reflects in part how punishing a presidential campaign in the Unites States has become.
Certain traditional elements now will come more into play than before. Who wants the presidency most? Who has the most physical and psychological resilience and endurance to go through the exhausting and brutal process? Who can raise enough money to compete in all or most of the state primaries and caucuses? Who is self-disciplined enough to avoid careless mistakes and statements?
I think most of us who comment and analyze presidential politics anticipated a relatively larger field of serious GOP candidates. There were plenty of them out there. President Obama’s political vulnerabilty has seemed to grow, and not shrink, the economy remains in trouble, Obamacare is still very unpopular, and the Democrats are on the defensive in many public policy issue questions.
What will be the next surprise?
What will happen now?