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Why Nobody’s Running Against Obama

In 1992, many of the top Democrats sat out the race, figuring George H.W. Bush to be unbeatable. (He lost.) In 2012, many of the top Republicans are sitting out the race despite a seemingly vulnerable incumbent.

Michael Shear offers five possible reasons “Why Republicans May Be Skipping 2012 Presidential Run.”

1. Biden. If Mr. Obama wins re-election, there is almost zero chance that Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. would run for the presidency in 2016, when he would turn 74 years old. That puts him in the same place where Vice President Dick Cheney was in 2008. That means that Republicans who can afford to wait until 2016 can assure themselves not only that they will not face an incumbent Democratic president, but also that they won’t face a sitting vice president.

2. The economy. Mr. Obama’s approval ratings have dipped below 50 percent, but he remains personally popular and by many calculations the economy appears to be improving — if slowly. Even Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and one of the handful of very likely candidates, said last September that Mr. Obama would be “difficult to beat” if the economy continued improving, which he predicted it would. (He later changed his tune and said Republicans should focus on the economy if they wanted to win.)

3. Money. Mr. Obama is expected in some quarters to raise $1 billion for his re-election campaign, and he has no serious primary opposition, which means he will be free to aim that firepower at his Republican adversaries. For a potential challenger, that raises the stakes for fund-raising at a time when more outside groups are competing for the same dollars, many of which, even on the Republican side, would go to congressional races.

4. The Tea Party. The emergence of the Tea Party movement as a force inside the Republican Party requires potential presidential candidates to pick sides in an intraparty philosophical struggle. The risks are clear for some Republicans who may have to alter or modify earlier positions to get through a contentious primary. Less clear are the benefits of having that support during a general election, especially if it means alienating independents in the process. Some of the most high-profile Tea Party candidates in 2010 did not fare so well in the general election.

5. The media glare. Candidates for president have always had to contend with scrutiny from the press. But the intense, Internet-driven political environment in 2011, when everyone has a camera phone and every offhand comment can be recorded, is enough to scare away even the most hearty of politicians. Mr. Barbour’s family apparently hated the idea of his running for president (though reports suggest that they had made peace with the idea, were he to have run). Candidates who have been on the fence about making a run often consider the consequences to their privacy if they do.

The last of these is understandable. Certainly, I would have no interest in such scrutiny. But the trends are all moving in that direction, so it’s not like things will be better in 2016.

The third is the most interesting. The Republican Party is in the midst of an identity crisis. Candidates who would have been mainstream conservatives eight years ago are now considered “Republicans in Name Only” by the most energized part of the nominating electorate. Then again, it hasn’t deterred Mitt Romney, who I still think is the likeliest nominee.

The first three reasons, though, are really variations on one: Obama is going to be very, very difficult to beat. As we’ve noted here many times, incumbent presidents tend to get re-elected. He’s an incredibly disciplined campaigner. He’s likable. He’s free from personal scandal. And, as Shear points out, he’s going to have an unprecedented amount of money at his disposal.

But Jonathan Bernstein makes another point too often missed in these stories: “it’s not that the field is small; it’s that the winnowing has begun early.”

So what happened with Barbour (and Thune, and Mike Pence, and perhaps others)? Maybe he failed repeatedly to hit fundraising goals. Maybe some key endorsers notified him they were going with other candidates. Maybe the polling came back all wrong (not just the topline numbers, which we know stunk for him, but maybe they tested some attack lines and got bad news back).

And, yes, maybe given the same bad or mixed news, Dodd or Joe Biden or someone else might have stuck around; it could be that Barbour really did lack a bit of “fire in the belly” as he said in his withdrawal statement.

But, look, we call this period the “invisible primary” for a reason: just like in the state-by-state primaries to come next year, the current contest has winners and losers, and the losers tend to drop out. Now, some potential candidates really haven’t contested the invisible primary…I haven’t read anything, for example, about Jeb Bush. So I’ll chalk him up as a “did not run.” But those who hired staff, sought endorsements, traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina — they contested the invisible primary. They were candidates for 2012. Even if they didn’t quite make it all the way to 2012.

Similarly, we get stories in every primary cycle about candidates shrewdly deciding to “skip” Iowa and concentrate on New Hampshire or South Carolina. But they inevitably make that decision after months of campaigning in Iowa!

Barbour, Thune, Pence–and quite likely Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee–tested the waters and found them too cold.

More interesting than why those people aren’t running is why Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump are when it’s quite obvious that they have no chance at hell in getting nominated, much less beating Obama.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. PJ says:

    More interesting than why those people aren’t running is why Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump are when it’s quite obvious that they have no chance at hell in getting nominated, much less beating Obama.

    If you instead view them as grifters and not actual would be presidential candidates, then their actions are perfectly understandable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  2. Jay Tea says:

    Considering how the media and the left (but I repeat myself) treat Republicans, why the hell would any would-be candidate jump in early? That’s why I’m glad Trump is doing what he is — he’s drawing all the fire, and shooting back. And it’s forcing the hacks and the smear artists to reveal themselves.

    There’s an old line: “any ship can be a minesweeper — once.” Trump’s the minesweeper here, and more power to him.

    J.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  3. Hey Norm says:

    Here’s an alternate idea…who the f*** wants to be president right now? You’re stuck in two war theaters…and getting out of either only leaves bad options. The economy is totally screwed and beyond solutions…due to several complex, interacting factors. It’s one thing to accept a chllenge…it’s another to accept an impossible mission. Better to wait and see what happens and bank on #1. Just a thought.

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  4. PJ says:

    Just replace Trump in Jay Tea’s comment with Palin and it could have been written by him a year ago.

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  5. Jay Tea says:

    Not in the least, PJ. Trump revels in being the lightning rod. Palin, not so much. She bears up under it, but it’s clear she doesn’t enjoy it.

    J.

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  6. PJ says:

    Yes, that’s why Palin’s team is making a such a fuss about not being covered anymore by the lame, stale, old media.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. john personna says:

    More interesting than why those people aren’t running is why Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump are when it’s quite obvious that they have no chance at hell in getting nominated, much less beating Obama.

    As PJ says, look for other motives.

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  8. ponce says:

    “why Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump are ”

    Presidential candidate looks pretty good on the ol’ resume…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  9. Bleev K says:

    Considering how the media and the left (but I repeat myself) treat Republicans, why the hell would any would-be candidate jump in early?

    You’re so funny! Oh, wait a minute… you were serious?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  10. Rock says:

    Why? It’s simply because they aren’t ready for their proctological and gynecological exams. Plus they don’t want to be sliced to pieces by the thousands of raciest cards that will be hurled at them.

    It’s probable best that the GOP not field a candidate in 2012. Let Obama have it without contest.

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  11. mantis says:

    You’re so funny! Oh, wait a minute… you were serious?

    He was. It’s pretty sad, isn’t it?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  12. Wiley Stoner says:

    And in 2007, who would have predicted a know nothing, former community organizer who sat in an America hating church for 20 years, had gone through college via affirmative action, had been supported by the communist party, would beat Hillary Rodham CLINTON, devoted and loving wife of William Jefferson Clinton, and a Senator from her adopted state of New York? JT, the left is filled with bozos and many leave their mark here.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. jwest says:

    Wiley,

    Well put, sir!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. PJ says:

    who sat in an America hating church for 20 years,

    And the evidence for that is? A couple of minutes of video?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  15. anjin-san says:

    Considering how the media and the left (but I repeat myself) treat Republicans

    Yes, it is just do darn mean of people to call them on their endless dogmatic BS.

    Whine on, you crazy diamond…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  16. The best parallel is to George H.W. Bush who looked unbeatable in 1992, so all the “serious” candidates in the Democratic Party didn’t run, leaving the prize for one William Jefferson CLinton to claim.

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  17. G.A.Phillips says:

    And the evidence for that is? A couple of minutes of video?

    lol, seriously?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. An Interested Party says:

    JT, the left is filled with bozos and many leave their mark here.

    Ahh, but at least said “bozos” don’t need to change their aliases because they got banned…and one wonders how many of them are sucking up unemployment checks while spewing garbage here, like, say, you…

    By the way, we have been told forever by some that Bill Clinton only won the first time because of Ross Perot…so, if history is going to repeat itself, who will be the Ross Perot of 2012?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  19. PJ says:

    @G.A.Phillips:

    lol, seriously?

    Yes, seriously.

    Do you or Wiley have any evidence for it other than a couple of minutes of video? If it was 20 years, there should be lots of it.

    Or are you both just full of it?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  20. Tsar Nicholas says:

    It’s really as simple as this:

    To beat Obama you have to get 60% of the white vote. Given the hostile media, Obama’s staggering money advantage and the fact that up to several million putative conservatives will stay home and not vote in the general election — to “protest” the GOP nominee, to “send their messages,” etc., etc. — that’s simply too tall a hurdle to overcome.

    The serious candidates who are young enough to run in 2016 will wait. Romney has little choice but to take a shot this time around. Pawlenty might be setting up his 2016 run in advance, or maybe he’s just poorly advised or clueless. The other “candidates” merely are cannon fodder, talk show filler, nut & flakes, or they have ulterior purposes for running (an eye on book deals, speaking tours, etc.).

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  21. Barry says:

    “why Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump are ”

    ponce says: “Presidential candidate looks pretty good on the ol’ resume…”

    As has been said, look at the guys. Newt is a washed up ex=politician who had one moment of glory and couldn’t sustain it; Trump by now is a former real estate guy who’s a reality-TV show host.

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  22. Barry says:

    I can also see the GOP elites figuring that this is an election which is not winnable (unless there’s another down-turn, which is why they’re trying to cause one), so let the Tea Party/Birther/Grifter insano’s have their moment in the limelight. After Obama cleans their clock, the elites will clean up the remnants.

    The only problem with my scenario is that a 40-odd state sweep by Obama would also lead to good results in the House and Senate races. This could easily lead to a repeat of the ’09-’10 Congressional session, but with Obama free to blow all political capital.

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