Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight provides his usual excellent analysis of the Republican field for the 2012 presidential primaries.
His finds there are four front-runners who appeal strongly to large and distinct segments of the Republican coalition: Romney to the establishment and fiscal conservatives; Palin to the Tea Party movement; Huckabee to religious conservatives. Gingrich is an exception who probably overlaps with Palin's support somewhat.
Mr. Silver's thesis is that this strong field of well-known and well-organized candidates is likely to smother any dark horse candidates from breaking out.
His thinking is that if one of these candidates to falter, it would be one of the other front-runners who would scoop up their supporters, rather than a back-of-the-pack candidate.
What I find intuitive about his analysis is that all four candidates have solid biographies on which to run. They are exciting figures who will motivate a segment of base Republicans to strongly back their candidacy.
Unlike Canadian leadership conventions, where delegates leave their first choice to move to a second choice over the course of several ballots, primaries are contests where winning candidates are those who can strongly motivate a plurality of their party's base.
The delegated leadership convention system currently used by the Liberal Party of Canada and Ontario Liberal Party is biased heavily against polarizing figures. In the past, it has only picked the front-runner when that person has a majority or near majority of support on the first ballot (Jean Chrétien in 1990 or Paul Martin in 2003). Typically, candidates who have a plurality of support on the first ballot are defeated by a blander consensus choice (Stéphane Dion defeating Michael Ignatieff in 2006, Dalton McGuinty besting Gerard Kennedy in 1996, or Lyn McLeod overtaking Murray Elston in 1992).
U.S. primaries are the opposite. The most critical factor is early momentum, and that only comes with a biography that is interesting, compelling and attractive to a large segment of the potential party base.
Barack Obama is the most obvious example of this but recent primaries are filled with biographically driven candidates.
John Kerry's "three Purple Hearts" was a compelling biographical detail that attracted Democrat who wanted the candidate most likely to beat George W. Bush at a time when the United States was engaged in two wars. It was able to beat the heavily favoured Dick Gephardt (with his bland biography) in Iowa, along with the biography-fueled campaigns of Howard Dean and John Edwards.
Jimmy Carter's outsider status and Christianity differentiated him from the Democratic field in 1976 and delivered him the largest single block of voters, primarily rural and Southern.
Ronald Reagan's winning biography was almost enough to topple a sitting president in the 1976 Republican primaries.
Biography is often the critical factor in presidential primaries, but - even with the strong biographies of the Republican field - none of them appear up to defeating President Obama on biography.
I've written recently about PollyBio and the importance of biography in picking presidential winners. PollyBio appears to be the most effective method of picking presidential election winners, having a higher success rate than election day polls, prediction markets or econometric models.
The authors of the PollyBio system have analyzed three of the four Republican front-runners and found they score significantly lower than President Obama.
Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee all fall significantly shorter than President Obama on the points that make up a winning Presidential biography.
(I would estimate that Newt Gingrich would score lower as well, given a brief check of his biography, but I leave it to the academics to ensure that is true.)
The surprising thing is that the Republican field may be locked into a losing position, clogged by a large field of flawed champions who lack the biography to defeat the incumbent President.
Despite Mr. Silver's logical argument that the field is crowded with well-known candidates, it's not impossible that a galvanizing candidate with a truly superb biography could shake up the scene. This is particularly likely if polls in early 2012 show no single Republican able to best the incumbent. In that case, there may be room for an "outside-politics" candidate to seize the public imagination, something Wesley Clark tried to do in 2004.
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