Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's abrupt withdrawal from the race for the Republican presidential nomination -- after hiring a topnotch New Hampshire campaign manager and planning to fly around the country next week -- has naturally inspired a lot of punditry on the Republican presidential race.
Some of it is nonsense. I read someone earlier this week confidently stating that Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee were the only Republicans who can beat Barack Obama because they're doing better than other possible nominees in polls.
Please. All those polls show is that these two who ran in 2008 have higher name recognition than others who didn't. Voters will know far more about the Republican nominee in fall 2012 than they know now about any contender.
You can also find lots of articles naming Romney as the front-runner. Again, please. Most national polls show no one getting as much as 20 percent of the primary vote. That means no one is the front-runner.
Try applying this test. Make a list of your top 20 Republican elective or appointive officials of the last 15 years who have shown some capacity to be president.
Did you put Mitt Romney on the top of your list? I doubt it. You might have put him somewhere on it, based on his one term as governor of Massachusetts and his fine work organizing the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah.
You will hear often that Republicans inevitably nominate the candidate next in line. But "inevitably" covers a very limited number of cases -- just six by my count since the primaries became predominant in the 1970s. Serious social scientists resist making generalizations when, as they put it, n equals 6.
In addition, the 2008 contest doesn't provide much guidance for 2012. The 2008 nomination was won by John McCain, whose strategy once he burned through his initial campaign money was to wait for all the other candidates' strategies to fail.
They all did. Romney's came closest to succeeding: Had he won just 3 percent more popular votes in the Florida and Super Tuesday contests, he would have been roughly even with McCain in delegates at that point.
Instead, thanks to Republicans' 2008 winner-take-all rules, he was behind by roughly 300 delegates. Generally he fared well in caucuses, where his organizational talents were put to good use, and in affluent suburbs. But he was unable to convince cultural conservatives that he was one of them.
Huckabee stayed in the race longer and actually got more delegates than Romney. But despite his sparkling performance in debates, fine sense of humor and ready popular culture references, he was unable to get more than about 15 percent of the vote from those who did not identify themselves as religious conservatives.
Romney seems sure to run and, despite the burden of his Massachusetts Romneycare program, may do better this time. Huckabee, enjoying his Fox News show, seems unlikely to run.
So does Sarah Palin. Polls show that all Republicans know her, most like her a lot, and relatively few name her as their first choice. The electoral fates of Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell have been instructive. It's one thing to lose a Senate seat by nominating a candidate you love who can't win. It's another thing to lose the presidency that way.
There are plenty more potential contenders. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels surely would make any well informed person's list of top 20 Republicans -- he's mulling it over. So probably would former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is clearly running. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, out of office for 12 years, remains a fount of attractive ideas.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and current Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann have run behind the Republican base vote in their constituencies but can electrify a conservative crowd. Texas Rep. Ron Paul has his devoted set of true believers, a constituency probably transferable to his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
And then there's Donald Trump. I'll let you fill in the blanks.
The presidential nomination process remains the weakest part of our political system. It's too lengthy, its rules are too capricious, and giving eternal first dibs to Iowa and New Hampshire is intellectually indefensible.
But some Republican will be nominated and will face a president whose positions on issues are currently unpopular. Those who want change must hope for the best.
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