And to answer Larison’s question — yes, I think it’s entirely possible that one or more of the alternative candidates might have gone two for three. Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels both have managerial competence to burn, and Christie has an obvious flair for a kind of Jersey-style demagoguery while Daniels has at least some persuasive gifts. Mike Huckabee, another coulda-shoulda-woulda candidate, is obviously ill-at-ease with the organization-building side of modern campaigning, but he’s a great communicator who knows how to charm and seduce but also how to go in for the kill. (Just ask Mitt Romney circa 2008.) Jeb Bush seems to embody the same manager-persuader combination as Daniels, but with more inches and charisma….But bear in mind that none of them would have needed to equal the gifts of a Ronald Reagan, a Bill Clinton, an F.D.R. or even an Eisenhower or an L.B.J. They just would have needed to exceed the gifts of Mitt Romney, a manager with little talent for persuasion and even less for demagoguery (witness the awkward politesse with which he tried to go for his rival’s jugular in last night debate), and of Newt Gingrich, a disorganized demagogue who think he’s a persuader and isn’t. That doesn’t seem like an impossible bar to clear.
Fair enough. Ross might be right about the talents of one or all of these governors/ex-governors, but I think he could make a similar case for at least two of the governors who ran and then famously flamed out. “On paper,” Pawlenty and Huntsman looked like competitive presidential candidates. If we had to judge them solely on their pre-2011 careers, we might credit them with similar talents. I think the lesson we should draw from their examples is that governors can appear relatively competent and successful in their home states, but that may not mean very much on the national stage. These candidates always look better before we see them actively campaigning, and sometimes the difference between what we expected we would see and what we do see is large and glaring.
Pawlenty’s example may be the most relevant one for thinking about how one of the fantasy candidates would have fared in the race. Conservative pundits and activists treated Pawlenty as a plausible nominee from the very beginning, he appeared to meet all of the usual criteria, and he seemed to be satisfying a lot of the right party elites, but he never caught on with very many voters. Perhaps Ross would object that this proves that Pawlenty is a “loser” by his standards and leave it at that, but it is easy to imagine how the same thing could happen to Daniels or Christie. Daniels might be too subdued or wonkish in his speeches (and the very thing that make him interesting to policy wonks could be the same things that make him unappealing to rank-and-file voters), and his attempts to rile up a crowd might be just as forced and awkward. Christie might be so combative that it would become off-putting, and based on his performances in gubernatorial debates he might have faltered earlier than anyone imagines. Huckabee would probably still have had a problem raising money, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a factor in his decision to stay out of the race. It is harder to imagine any of this happening to Jeb Bush, but Bush is the one fantasy candidate who was never seriously considering a presidential bid for obvious reasons.
It still doesn’t make sense to me why any of the fantasy candidates should have jumped in last year, and it doesn’t make sense why any of them would do it now or later in the year. Being dubbed the acceptable consensus candidate by party elites has been a sort of curse for candidates this cycle. Being tapped as the replacement nominee by party leaders would hardly endear that candidate to the party base. Silver makes a similar point in his post, and I’ll return to that in a moment.
Silver is onto something when he argues that the frequently-mentioned possibility of a new candidate may help explain the lack of party elite enthusiasm for Romney. If pundits and activists keep floating the idea of a new candidate, Republican office-holders might be unwilling to make endorsements before they are convinced that the field is really, truly set. The problem is that this idea of a new candidate is a fantasy, and if it has kept people from endorsing Romney it has probably just helped drag out the process a little longer to no purpose.
Silver elaborates on the risks inherent in any late-entry draft effort:
To be sure, drafting a candidate like Mr. Daniels would be incredibly risky for Republicans. The candidate could be a failure on the stump. The move could be seen as a power grab, further widening the divide between the party establishment and the rank and file. It could backfire by cutting Mr. Romney’s support out from under him, resulting in the nomination of Mr. Gingrich. It would almost certainly give more of a role to Ron Paul, who will control some delegates and whom Republican elites also dislike [bold mine-DL]. And because party nominating rules and ballot access rules have not been put to the test in recent years, there are “unknown unknowns” in addition to these obvious risks.
It seems very likely that the move would be seen as a power grab, because that is what it is, but the prospect of a larger role for Paul at the convention is an intriguing one. As we all know, the main cheerleader for having more Republican candidates has been Bill Kristol, and Kristol has also gone out of his way to say that nothing should be done to accommodate Ron Paul inside the GOP and it would be better if Paul left the party. If a new nominee were imposed at the convention, Paul’s leverage would be increased, which is the last thing that the fantasy candidate enthusiasts want.