At 3 p.m. today, anyone with a working Facebook account can get exclusive access to an announcement that has already been announced, setting the stage for further announcements about Tim Pawlenty’s desire to be President of the United States. Such is the absurdity of modern presidential politics that candidates create news events out of incremental admissions of the obvious. In point of fact, Pawlenty has been positioning himself for a presidential run since at least as far back as 2007, when he traveled through Iowa on the back of John McCain’s straight-talking bus. He first announced his 2012 campaign team in October of 2009.
So let us set aside the discussion of whether or not Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Haley Barbour or Rick Santorum are “officially” running for president. They all are, unless and until they decide to drop out without having made it “official.” Similarly, Jon Huntsman’s nascent campaign is already getting up and running, though because of the Hatch Act, the Huntsman advisers can’t talk to their candidate, who is still the U.S. Ambassador to China, and won’t know if he is going to jump on board until early May. Other potential candidates, including Mitch Daniels, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, occupy a more legitimate Neverland between potential campaign and jam-packed lunch schedule. But don’t fear: There will be more announcements of announcements coming soon, and there are sure to be a few other people, including perhaps Michele Bachmann, standing on the stage at the early Republican debates.
So where does that leave us? If we declare, in open rebellion against silly journalistic norms, that official announcements of the potential for future announcements do not matter, then we can better spend our time beginning to make some early generalizations about how the campaign will shape up. Much of the early theorizing about the 2012 GOP nomination fight has tried to put the candidates into two categories: Anti-Establishment vs. Mainstream Conservative, Populist vs. Managerial, etc. Of course there are two types of political analysts in presidential politics: Those who divide everything into two groups and those who don’t. So let me propose three categories to watch for: The New Hampshire Do-or-Dies, The Iowa Breakouts, and the Long Hauls.
1. The New Hampshire Do-Or-Die Candidates
Two candidates have clearly staked out New Hampshire or bust campaigns: Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman (in absentia). Romney has literally made the state home, and after drubbings in Iowa and South Carolina last time around, it is clear that anything short of a strong New Hampshire showing will take him out of the race. Huntsman is working off the playbook of former McCain adviser John Weaver on the theory that there is always room in the GOP for an authentic moderate savior who can rally independents in the Granite State. Since Romney and Huntsman both share the same map, and since they both share deep ties to Utah and the Morman donor community, this could be one of the best rivalries in the coming months to watch. Neither will ignore Iowa outright, but nor will the depend upon it. For both, the first, most important step, is a good showing in the land of the white birch. As former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu liked to say, “Iowa picks corn. New Hampshire picks presidents.”
2. The Iowa Break-Out Candidates
Mike Huckabee almost pulled this strategy off in 2008. With almost no organization or money, he won Iowa out of the blue, placed in New Hampshire, and then nearly won South Carolina. In 2012, most of the Republican field will remain dependent on a strong showing in Iowa to keep them in the conversation through the early primary states. Pawlenty, from neighboring Minnesota, has to prove here that his white bread conservatism has some bite. (Many of his top campaign staff, meanwhile, have deep Iowa roots, and a couple weeks back Pawlenty hired Eric Woolson, Huckabee’s top state staffer in 2008.) Similarly, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum will likely need strong showings here to make them relevant later on. (If Santorum can’t win evangelical-heavy Iowa, where can he win?) Haley Barbour, whose Southern twang may not play too well in New Hampshire, is also likely to try to make a a showing in Iowa, if only to give him a bridge to his early home-turf primary states in South Carolina and Florida.
3. The Long-Haul Candidates
On a recent visit to California, Barbour told reporters of his hopes for a longer primary process that would transcend the first voting states. “One of the things that the party has tried to do is get away from a process that is so front-loaded so early and so compressed,” he said. “We are at least attempting to have a new process.” He was referring to recent rules changes by the Republican National Committee that will require Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to award delegates on a proportional basis, effectively preventing any early winner from getting too much mathematical momentum to make the later states irrelevant. This means that if the winners of the early primaries and caucuses fail to gain popular traction, there could be a come from behind victor. Who will this benefit? It’s hard to know right now, but there are several possibilities: Barbour, who could perform well across the south, despite the outcome in Iowa and New Hampshire; Romney, who will have lots of money (including his own) and lots of name ID and connections in the late states; someone like Sarah Palin, who may test the limits of presidential campaign physics by trying to turn her Facebook fan base into fly-high populist uprising–if she decides to run, which is a big if.