Waiting in the wings

Christmas has come and gone, but many Republicans are still hoping their wishes of a new candidate in the GOP presidential nomination race will come true.

Names bandied about in the media and political circles include 2011 federal budget superstar Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), former Govs. Sarah Palin (Alaska) and Jeb Bush (Fla.) and real estate magnate Donald Trump, all heralded as potential saviors from the doldrums of the GOP primary process.

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As the August Republican National Convention draws nearer, though, and as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney continues to solidify his spot atop the list of candidates, any prospects of latecomers seem less and less likely. But voters and leaders alike continue to dream — even three days ago, social conservatives met in Texas to decide whether to make one last attempt to take out Romney, deciding to throw their support behind former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. 

But is it simply too late for anyone to come in and have a credible shot?

According to Senate Historian Don Ritchie, in the earlier part of the 20th century, conventions used to be the deciding factor in who got the party’s nomination. There, backroom politics could spawn underdog-to-top dog success stories like Warren G. Harding, who grabbed the nomination when the leading candidates canceled each other out.

Back then, “primaries were often sort of beauty pageants rather than specifically getting you delegates, and so the delegates were still kind of fluid, and the party bosses still could make decisions at the convention,” Ritchie said.

But “since the 1960s, the primaries determine who gets the delegates. So if you’re not running in the primaries, you’re not getting the delegates,” he added. “The later you stay out, the harder it is to be in contention at the convention.”

The emergence of television also played a role in the ability of politicians to succeed when entering late in the game, according to Ron Faucheux, a political campaigning expert and professor at George Washington University.

Increased media attention “tends to knock candidates out of contention and it tends to elevate candidates,” he said, noting that politicians in the 1920s did not face such levels of constant scrutiny.

Today, going through the primary gauntlet is also viewed as paying one’s political dues. It could be seen as bad form if one were to circumvent the process by throwing his or her hat into the ring close to the convention.

“I think people expect the candidates to go through the tournament and fight the primary battles and do the debates and do the things that candidates are asked to do,” Faucheux said.

He could think of only two scenarios in which a modern candidate could have a genuine shot at the presidential nomination when coming late to the process.

“One would be if a candidate locked up the nomination early and subsequent to that, that candidate had some kind of a major problem, whether it was a health problem or a scandal or made a big political mistake,” Faucheux said, using Herman Cain and John Edwards as recent examples. “Then the party leadership [could] try to pull somebody in who hadn’t won before.”

The second scenario “would be if you have a multicandidate field, which theoretically you could have this time, where nobody emerges,” he continued, referring to a situation in which support spread among Romney, Santorum, Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) could result in no one having enough delegates.

“Then I guess it’s theoretically possible that the party leadership would look to somebody else,” he said. But “I think it would take a draft, a genuine draft of party leaders, to bring somebody in to have a shot.”

American University history professor Allan Lichtman sees both those scenarios as highly unlikely.

“This isn’t the old days when the party leaders could dictate to the rank and file. That can’t happen,” he said. “The parties can’t just anoint someone. You’ve got to get out there and win primaries and caucuses.”

Lichtman said a surprise turn of events or scandal — though a possibility — is unlikely this year, given the thorough vetting Romney, the front-runner, has experienced.

Even then, he noted, the GOP nomination would likely fall to someone who had already long been in the race because a new and unvetted candidate could prove too risky.

Asked when the point of no return might be for a candidate entering the presidential race, Lichtman said, “It’s really [at] the beginning.

“Since 1968, no one’s been nominated who hasn’t been campaigning right from the start,” he said. “You’ve got to raise money, build infrastructure, build momentum. … Running for president has become a multi-year job.”

Capturing the presidential nomination also isn’t about uniting support, Faucheux noted.

“Does everybody want John McCain or Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum or Bob Dole to be the nominee?” he asked, adding that there were people in the past who opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s and John Kennedy’s nominations. Instead, “the question is, ‘Is there somebody with the stature, the political support and the ability to beat them?’ That’s a lot harder than saying, ‘Does the front-runner have weaknesses?’ 

“These people don’t want to nominate someone who can’t win,” Faucheux said. “Perhaps the bigger question is, is there still time for an independent to get in the race and then run against both candidates from the middle of the political spectrum?”

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson is hoping there is. On Dec. 28, he announced his plans to shift from the GOP presidential nomination race to instead seek the Libertarian Party’s nomination.

For Johnson’s communications director, Joe Hunter, the move makes sense.

Johnson’s “positions on a wide range of policies certainly set him apart from the rest of the [GOP] field, and that was getting lost in all of the noise around the many candidates and the many caucuses and primaries,” he said. “Gov. Johnson concluded that he could do that better running as a Libertarian.

“The only clear majority right now in the American electorate are those who clearly aren’t completely satisfied with either the Democrat or Republican field,” Hunter added. “It creates the opportunity and the need, we would suggest, for someone to be talking about a different agenda.”

Faucheux echoed the sentiment.

“It surprises me, in fact shocks me, that some major political figure at the center has not gotten into this presidential race as an independent,” he said. “I think all of the ingredients are there for it, and it’s just amazing that nobody has done it.”

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Ritchie concurred, noting that the field of GOP candidates is particularly far to the right.

“They’re all conservative; there are no liberal Republicans running,” he said. “Even Romney, who is the most moderate of them, is really running as a conservative at this point. They’re all variations of conservatism.”

As names of potential GOP presidential hopefuls continue to circulate, experts agree that, at this point, it’s too late for any of them.

For Lichtman, the mentions of untapped GOP talent becomes just more white noise in the political process.

“I think it’s pretty meaningless,” he said. “It’s almost impossible for someone to come into the race late, and it’s not like any of these names are so compelling that you go, ‘Oh my God, that guy would just be fabulous.’ 

“I think what you see is what you’re going to get,” he said.