August 5, 2015
What a difference a new election cycle makes. Rick Perry entered the 2012 campaign as the front-runner, surging well ahead of Mitt Romney by the time he hit the debate stage.
Tomorrow, Perry brings his 11th place poll position into the debate undercard as one of the headliners at the little kids table.
He is joined by Rick Santorum, 2012 Iowa winner, and second place overall finisher in the 2012 primaries. Santorum is in 12th place.
To give you an idea of how unusual it is for a previous runner-up to find himself this marginalized, consider the following:
2012 Nominee: Mitt Romney, finished second in 2008.
2008 Nominee: John McCain, finished second in 2000.
1996 Nominee: Bob Dole, finished second in 1988.
1988 Nominee: George H.W. Bush, finished second in 1980.
1980 Nominee: Ronald Reagan, finished second in 1976.
Aside from incumbent presidents running for re-election, the only exception to the Next Man Up Nominating System was George W. Bush, who won as a rookie in 2000.
In the summer of 2011, Bobby Jindal was a rising star in the Republican Party in the process of running for re-election. Louisiana has an open primary for governor. The top two finishers face off in the General Election, unless one candidate gets a majority in the primary.
With 9 opponents, Jindal won two-thirds of the vote. Having ruled himself out for 2012, he was considered one of the most promising prospects for 2016.
At this point, Scott Walker was less than a year into his first term in Wisconsin. Most people would have laughed if you told them Walker would be a top tier candidate for 2016 while Jindal languished in 13th place, a casualty of sinking approval ratings at home and lack of a distinguishing message in the presidential race.
Carly Fiorina is a more credible version of Herman Cain. While Cain was the CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, Fiorina ran Hewlett-Packard, one of the 50 largest corporations in America, with operations around the globe.
Cain’s prior elective experience was a Senate primary loss in Georgia. Fiorina’s experience is a Senate loss in California. Each have served as advisors to previous nominees.
Cain was a factor in the polling from the beginning and even spent a few weeks in fall 2011 at the top of the heap. Fiorina joins the not ready for prime time (the consolation debate begins at 5pm Eastern/2pm Pacific) politicians in 14th place.
15th place contestant Lindsey Graham has represented South Carolina in the House and Senate for over two decades. He wasn’t considered a prospect in 2012, nor does he have a doppelgänger from last cycle.
For perspective, just consider his qualifications are very comparable to Joe Biden’s at the time he was tabbed for the Obama ticket after running his version of Graham’s current campaign.
George Pataki and Jim Gilmore are attending too, beneficiaries (along with Graham) of a change in policy which lets candidates with less than a 1% polling average participate in the consolation debate.
Pataki was once a pretty successful politician, defeating Democratic icon Mario Cuomo to become New York Governor in 1994 and being re-elected twice. Aside from being too liberal for a Republican primary (climate change is a big issue for him), many aspects of his record are similar to Jeb Bush. Both left office at the end of 2006.
As much as his last name may hurt him with some voters, the comparison to Pataki shows how fortunate Jeb is to be the son, brother and fundraising heir of presidents.
I cannot explain Gilmore’s presence in the race. He served one term as Virginia Governor that ended at the beginning of 2002. Maybe he lost a bet on the golf course.
What I’ve just described is a slightly below average primary field. It’s arguably stronger than what Democrats fielded in 1992 or 2004 and doesn’t stack up too badly against the 2012 Republican vintage. They are far and away better than Hillary’s current competition, something you could easily argue even if Biden was already in.
This should make for a pretty good debate, quite likely a better one than the main event. Seven is more manageable than 10. Even with the relatively limited group, a couple participants (probably Pataki and Gilmore) won’t get much space.
Howerver, the other five will have more room to shine than they would have if they had polled at a lofty 3% like Kasich and Christie. Free of the Trump distraction, their audience of political junkies, Iowa and New Hampshire volunteers and financial supporters will pay close attention.
Pundits will declare a winner of the Junior Varsity debate and at least one of the contestants should exit the show with some momentum. They are all clearly underdogs, but in a 17-person race, there’s no such thing as a clear favorite.