Former President Bill Clinton's oft-quoted remark that, when choosing their candidate for president, "Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line" was a clever and insightful way to describe the nominating process for most of the last few decades -- but it may be changing in 2012. While this maxim described the 2008 campaign season reasonably well, as Democrats fell in love with the young charismatic candidate rather than the establishment candidate, the Republicans relatively quickly came to support the candidate who had paid his dues and waited his turn.
As the 2012 campaign begins to take shape, Clinton's observation seems considerably less relevant than in most recent elections. Despite discontent from progressive Democrats who are less than inspired by President Obama's term in office, there is almost no chance that a serious candidate will challenge the president for the Democratic nomination, thus all but assuring a smooth path to renomination for Obama.
The Republican nomination, on the other hand, for the first time in many years, has neither a clear frontrunner, nor somebody who can legitimately lay claim to having paid their dues and waited their turn as, for example, was the case with John McCain in 2008, Bob Dole in 1996 or George H.W. Bush in 1988. The candidate who comes closest to meeting this description is Mitt Romney who finished second to McCain in 2008, but has not been a mainstay of Republican politics for very long and was an unknown outside of his home state a mere five years ago. Haley Barbour and Newt Gingrich, unlike Romney, have been prominent national Republicans for years, but have failed to mobilize sufficient support to plausibly present themselves as frontrunners.
The crowded field of Republicans considering the presidency includes numerous first-time candidates who will likely position themselves as outsiders if they run, including Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump and others, possibly a governor or two, such as New Jersey's Chris Christie or Indiana's Mitch Daniels, who would also be first-time candidates, as well as a few candidates such as Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, who have run before but have failed to emerge as real frontrunners since 2008.
This is undoubtedly extremely frustrating for Republican strategists and supporters who probably think that a generic, uncontroversial Republican candidate could easily defeat a somewhat unpopular Democratic president who may have to seek reelection with the country mired in three wars and a bad economy. Instead, as the primary season approaches, the party is facing the possibility of a long nominating process in which candidates who are too unpopular to win a general election -- like Palin, Bachmann or Gingrich -- candidates who look good on paper but cannot connect with voters -- like Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney -- and candidates who are likely to say something wacky at any moment, most of them, will fight it out in a year where a standard three-term senator who tried once in the past and is reasonably articulate could probably get elected president.
The rhythm of a presidential nominating season is strange, but not entirely unpredictable. A number of these Republican candidates will either realize in the next quarter or so that, although there are scenarios where they might be strong candidates, their inability to raise enough money precludes a serious campaign, leading them to drop out of the race. Others, like Donald Trump, will realize that they have little chance of winning and will drop out when their moment in the spotlight winds down and they have to do the real work of campaigning. The field will winnow to 5-8 real candidates who will look increasingly more plausible as the campaign progresses. By next February, at least a few of the people whose names provoke laughs and incredulity today will be viewed far more seriously. We just don't yet know which of these candidates those will be.
Therein, however, lies the challenge for Obama and the Democrats. By early next year when the first primary voters go to the polls or the caucus, there will be another moment when Republicans can fall in line, and at that time, they just might. If that happens, the Democrats cannot afford to assume that all the reasons why political insiders and those following the election closely today think the current crop of candidates are so weak is understood by the electorate. This was one of the mistakes made by the Gore campaign in 2000 as they were lackluster in their attacks on George W. Bush, seemingly because they could not fathom how voters could not realize how extreme and unqualified he was.
In 2012, Obama's campaign cannot assume that Bachmann, Gingrich or Huckabee are actually unelectable simply because a bunch of liberal activists in 2011 thought those candidates were laughable. The Democrats have been given a break because Obama currently faces a relatively weak field of candidates -- the campaign must be vigilant in ensuring that perception remains in place through November of 2012.