Someone asked me yesterday whether Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin is a viable presidential candidate. Which brings up something that I’ve said several times, but haven’t really built a post around: The emerging Republican field is chock full of plausible nominees.
That’s based on a two-part test I’ve been using for a while now, in which candidates must be within the party’s mainstream on public policy positions and also have conventional credentials for the presidency. The idea is that everyone who has either won a nomination or come close to one since the modern system began in 1972 meets those criteria. It doesn't predict how they'll do in a general election, or what their chances of winning the nomination might be. Just that their aspirations should be taken seriously.
Walker easily qualifies, assuming he wins re-election this year. But he’s got loads of company. Working from Wikipedia’s lists of candidates, I would say that former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Texas Governor Rick Perry, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania all qualify, as do former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Senator John Thune of South Dakota. Ohio Governor John Kasich belongs on the list, too, and there might still be one or two potential candidates missing. Among those up for re-election this year, staying viable requires winning in 2014. It’s possible I’m missing someone’s heterodox policy view, but I’m fairly sure all of these are sufficiently against abortion, for guns, against taxes, etc. to be contenders.
That’s a lot of candidates! And more than half of them are currently running for president, at least notionally. (Using political scientist Josh Putnam’s terminology, we can say that they are running for 2016, even if we don’t know yet whether they’ll be running in 2016.)
Of course, they’re not all on even footing. Only a few have put together serious organizations. It’s unlikely that more than half a dozen will still be running by fall 2015.
If, however, at least several plausible nominees make it to the more visible phases of the contest -- say, the first debates -- that would be a significant change from the last few cycles. In 2012, just Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Perry qualified as viable nominees -- and Pawlenty was gone six months before the Iowa caucuses. In 2008, Romney, Huckabee, former Senator Fred Thompson of Tennesee and Senator John McCain of Arizona all qualified, though each with serious question marks. In 2000, George W. Bush was really the only viable candidate to make it to Iowa; McCain at that point was out of the conservative mainstream.
What’s unclear is whether Republicans have developed mechanisms within the invisible primary to winnow out the serious-but-nonviable candidates before Iowa, or if it just happened to work out that way recently. That’s the biggest thing I’ll be watching going into this cycle. It's a great testing ground: a totally open nomination, with well over a dozen candidates who are viable on paper and seem to have considerable interest in running. If all but one or two wind up on the sidelines, we’ll really have learned something important about the Republican nomination process.
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