GOP 2012 Rankings, Updated 9/20/2010

With the completion of the 2010 primaries, and the latest 2012 meat-market (the Values Voters Conference), now's a good time to update my rankings of the 25 most likely 2012 Republican Presidential nominees!

Note that two of my dark horses, Mike Pence and Jim DeMint, have gotten big recent boosts. Pence won the VVC straw poll this weekend, and DeMint has emerged as the hero of what we might call the "Christine O'Donnell wing" of the party.

Speaking of horses... I analyze political races much like I do horse races. That is, I don't just look at the strengths and weaknesses of the individual contestants, but I also try to mentally play out the race to imagine the ways it might develop. In a horse race, for example, the addition or removal of a horse with early speed can affect the way the race runs, and influence the outcome, even if that horse has little chance of winning. It was this type of analysis that led me to believe, throughout the 2008 cycle, that Republican voters would eventually come back to John McCain, after searching unsuccessfully for a better candidate among the weak field.

This time around, there's an "early speed" candidate who will shape the race dramatically by running or not: Sarah Palin.

My guess has been that she isn't planning to run -- that, like Newt Gingrich, she's adeptly stoking the speculation as a way to increase the value of her brand. My analysis, then, has assumed that there will probably be a big opening for a relatively lesser-known candidate to build support among the Tea Party and religious right crowd. Two big questions about that are A) will one candidate emerge for that vote, or will it be split among several; and B) if one candidate does get that support, will it be someone the party infrastructure fears, or someone the party infrastructure can also support?

In 2008, there was a huge opening there, and it was eventually filled by Mike Huckabee -- who was solidly opposed by the party infrastructure.

If Palin does run -- as her appearance in Iowa Friday has convinced some observers is the case -- there would be no room for such a candidate to emerge. Yes, Palin would probably be brought down eventually by the establishment GOP, but before that happened she would suck all the oxygen away from candidates like Pence, DeMint, and even Pawlenty and Thune, who need time to build.

Meanwhile, the establishment would probably try to consolidate as quickly as possible around a candidate who they think can beat Palin; someone like Romney or Haley Barber.

In other words, if there was a Sarah Palin candidate in 2007, Mike Huckabee would never have won the Iowa Straw Poll that August, and would have been out of money and out of the race before dawn broke on 2008.

If I'm right, and Palin doesn't run, then the race plays out very differently. Romney probably starts as the presumed frontrunner and perceived "establishment" choice (even though much of the party establishment hates him), with a bunch of others struggling to break into top-tier status. They'll aim a lot of their fire at Mitt -- and we're starting to get some idea of what lies in store for establishment frontrunners in GOP primaries.

I have long thought that Pawlenty is best positioned in that scenario to get the establishment backing, as a candidate they can trust, but who they also believe can appeal to the party's religious and populist conservative base. Similarly, I've also thought Pence is best positioned to get the backing of that religious and populist base, because they can also see him as a "serious" pol.

So: Pence and Pawlenty finish 1-2 in Iowa; New Hampshire, which loves to block the social conservative boosted by Iowa, gives Pawlenty a win; then it's off to the South and beyond to battle for the nomination.

Or, not.

Quick note, in case you're looking for them on this list: yes, I am aware that Joe Arpaio, John Bolton, Herman Cain, and Fred Karger, among others, are now rumored to be running. However, to date people are not rumored to be voting for them.

On to the new rankings (with previous rank in parentheses):

1) Tim Pawlenty, Governor of Minnesota. He's following the Romney model of setting up PACs in individual states, like New Hampshire. Clever boy. Hasn't done anything to distinguish himself recently, though. (1)

2) Mike Pence, Congressman from Indiana. Do you believe me yet? (2)

3) Haley Barbour, Governor of Mississippi. Shooting up to his highest ranking yet -- in large part because the Gore Waistline Predictor is measuring him as "definite candidate." (6)

4) John Thune, US Senator from South Dakota. He's Pawlenty without being quite as obvious about it. Watch for moves late this year to show that T-Paw and Romney aren't the only ones with big backers. (3)

5) Jim DeMint, US Senator from South Carolina. I'm still uncertain whether he intends to run for President, maneuver toward Senate Majority Leader in 2013, leave the Senate to make money running a Club for Growth-type organization, or some whacky off-the-charts option known only to his strange conspiratorial brain. (7)

6) Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts. He's been raising and spending the wealth like a trim, handsome Santa Claus. But I see no evidence that other serious potential candidates are scared of him, or that he's got the party establishment (and money) too locked up for them to compete. (8)

7) Mitch Daniels, Governor of Indiana. His lips say no, but his fawning coverage in conservative media says yes. (5)

8) Rick Perry, Governor of Texas. He's taking a big drop on this list, partly because of the increasing strength of others and partly because of his shaky lead in his re-election race. He, too, insists he's not running, but he has to say that during his re-elect. (4)

9) Marco Rubio, candidate for US Senator from Florida. If he wins his Senate race -- as it looks like he has a great chance to do -- he is the rising conservative darling, who vanquished the RINO Charlie Crist, and proves the party's inclusiveness. (13)

10) Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida. I don't think this is crazy. Or, I should say, crazier than other names on this list. (12)

11) Jon Kyl, US Senator from Arizona. He helped save McCain's bacon in his primary, so maybe McCain puts his power to work lining up the Romney-hating insiders behind Kyl. (16)

12) Meg Whitman, candidate for Governor of California. Still needs to beat Jerry Brown, obviously, and would then need to turn around almost immediately to run -- but I think she'll still have plenty of money left to jump in the national race. (11)

13) Bob McDonnell, Governor of Virginia. He's a fresh face, has plenty of important beltway contacts, and has made himself useful with the party through fundraising and such. Also, some of Chris Christie's star power might rub off on him if he runs. (People are talking about a potential Christie run, but the Gore Waistline Predictor says forget about it.) (14)

14) John Kasich, candidate for Governor of Ohio. He's remarkably viable if he wins his current race, and he's got a good chance of winning it. (17)

15) Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives. As I've said before, the only chance is that he gets so lost in pretending to be running, that he wakes up one morning to discover that he just won the Iowa caucuses. BTW, I've finally got around to Gingrich's new book -- about the secular-socialist whatever -- and it might be even more assinine and unintellectual than DeMint's book. (10)

16) Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana. He can't do it if he runs for re-election in 2011, and if he's not running for re-election he needs to be talking equivocally about running for re-election at this point, and instead he recently insisted that he is "absolutely" running for re-election. (9)

17) Sarah Palin, former Governor of Alaska. For speaking in Iowa, I move her back ahead of Huckabee. (19)

18) Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas. I think he's far more serious about the idea than Palin, but I don't think he pulls the trigger. (18)

19) Dan Quayle, former Vice President. His son won his primary, so I see no reason to take the father off the list. (20)

20) Jeff Sessions, US Senator from Alabama. You know, if Barbour doesn't run. (22)

21) Bob Corker, US Senator from Tennessee. He is playing a little role for candidates in the 2010 cycle, but not enough to indicate real national ambitions. (15)

22) Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State. If it's a possibility, we should start seeing a phony Astroturf "Draft Condi" movement shortly after the November election. (23)

23) Paul Ryan, US Congressman from Wisconsin. Getting a ton of good conservative press -- and a lot of attacks from the turncoat RINO elite pseudo-conservatives. Put him back on the list! (--)

24) Pat Toomey, candidate for US Senator from Pennsylvania. Mr. Club for Growth himself! I can't imagine that he actually wants to be a Senator -- I assume he wants to be a former Senator, which is even more lucrative than his previous job of former Congressman. If he wins his Senate race -- or, maybe even if he loses -- he can very reasonably claim the Tancredo/Gilmore/Hunter mantle, and who knows? Maybe that's the winning slot this time. (--)

25) Rick Santorum, former US Senator from Pennsylvania. Hoping to be the Huckabee of 2012. We all have dreams. (25) 

Dropping off the list: George Pataki, Luis Fortuno.

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