BY THE absurdly elongated standards of American politics, next year’s presidential election is not that far away. It is less than a year until the first primaries and caucuses. By this time four years ago eight Republicans and ten Democrats had already thrown their hats in the ring; so far this year no serious candidate has done so, though Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker, has supposedly been on the point of declaring for some days. No presidential election, in fact, has got off to such a slow start since 1992—when, as now, there was an incumbent president and no obvious front-runner ready to take him on. There is no shortage of Republicans who consider themselves presidential timber, of course. But their slowness to register officially as candidates is an indication of the peculiar dynamics of the race.
The main thing holding Republicans back is doubt about whether Barack Obama is beatable. After their thumping success in the mid-terms, many of the party’s leaders declared that they were well on their way to retaking the White House. But that is a daunting task: only three sitting presidents have lost re-election bids since the second world war. All three—Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush senior—faced determined primary opponents, whereas disgruntlement with Mr Obama on the left, though considerable, does not appear severe enough to spawn a vexing challenger. (Such fringe challengers tend to split their parties with unfortunate consequences.) Moreover, Messrs Ford and Bush were ousted only after the White House had been under the control of their party for eight and twelve years respectively. Mr Obama took office just two years ago, after eight years of Republican sway.
Mr Obama is also a stellar campaigner, with an unrivalled ability to attract volunteers and donations. He has been careful over the past two years to preserve the machine that got him elected last time, merely changing its name from Obama for America to Organising for America. The assumption is that he will mount as slick and well-funded a campaign in 2012 as he did in 2008. As Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi and a potential Republican candidate himself, said recently, Mr Obama “is one of the greatest politicians in the history of the United States”.
There are reasons to think Mr Obama is vulnerable, however. The economy, the most important factor in almost all elections, remains weak. Unemployment, at 9%, is higher now than it has been at any election in the past 60 years. High unemployment, of 7.5%, contributed to Mr Carter’s defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan in 1980. True, Mr Reagan then won re-election four years later despite a similarly grim rate, of 7.2%; the difference was that the economy was strengthening during Mr Reagan’s re-election campaign, but had weakened during Mr Carter’s. One reason Republican candidates may be procrastinating, pundits reason, is to wait and see whether Mr Obama’s situation is more like Mr Reagan’s or Mr Carter’s.
A few mooted contenders have already ruled themselves out of the race. John Thune, a photogenic senator from South Dakota, announced in late February that he would not run. Mike Pence, a congressman from Indiana, seems to have settled on a tilt for the state’s governorship instead. Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey and an idol of deficit hawks, has repeatedly and vociferously denied having any presidential ambitions. So have Rick Perry, the long-serving governor of Texas, and Marco Rubio, a charismatic young senator from Florida who would be a big draw for the Hispanic vote, which the Republicans have foolishly alienated by their opposition to immigration reform. Many of these are thought to be biding their time until 2016, when Mr Obama, if re-elected, would have to step down, leaving no incumbent candidate.
Nonetheless, the Republican field remains wide (see table). In addition to Mr Gingrich, Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts and strong competitor for the nomination last time around, seems certain to run. So do Tim Pawlenty, a former governor of Minnesota, Jon Huntsman, a former governor of Utah and Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania.
Others are running or toying with it not because they have any hope of winning the nomination, but in order to raise their profiles, bask in the media’s gaze or champion pet causes. Into this category falls John Bolton, a former ambassador to the United Nations who is mulling a run, presumably in order to propagate his muscular approach to foreign policy. Ron Paul, a libertarian congressman from Texas who commands a small but devoted following for his unstinting hostility to the Federal Reserve and foreign entanglements, is also likely to enter the fray. Both look like strong contenders compared with Donald Trump, a self-promoting businessman and television star who says he is considering joining the race because no other candidate has even a fraction of his talent.
Then there is a contingent whose intentions are not yet clear. By far the most prominent and intriguing of these is Sarah Palin, the Republicans’ vice-presidential nominee last time around. As a heroine of the tea-party movement, she would become an instant front-runner if she entered the race. But many suspect that she is stoking the endless speculation about her intentions simply to advance her lucrative latest career as an author, public speaker and television commentator. At any rate, she has not yet put in place even the rudiments of a campaign team, having only just hired a chief of staff to co-ordinate her political activities.
Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas and the runner-up in the primaries of 2008, is also coy about his plans. He, too, is enjoying a new incarnation as an author and pundit, and has agonised publicly about whether or not to run. Rudy Giuliani, a less successful candidate from 2008, is another hemmer and hawer. Mr Barbour and Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana, say they will not make up their minds until April, when the current legislative sessions in their states end.
These and other waverers will decide in part based on who else is running. If Mrs Palin jumps in, other tea-party favourites such as Michele Bachmann, a congresswoman from Minnesota, and Jim DeMint, a senator from South Carolina, are much less likely to follow suit. By the same token, Messrs Barbour, Daniels, Giuliani, Huntsman, Pawlenty and Romney would all be competing for more or less the same constituency, as tested, pragmatic, business-friendly centrists with conservative veneers of varying thickness. There is less competition for the attention of the party’s Christian wing, with Mr Huckabee and Mr Santorum the only natural fits. That is no accident: the Republicans tend not to nominate their most socially conservative candidates, despite their supposed resonance with the party base.
Those on the fence have several incentives to stay there for some time yet. Most have set up “political action committees”—pressure groups that can raise big donations from businesses and individuals to fund speaking tours and the like. Many potential candidates also have sidelines as authors that take them, conveniently enough, to book signings in states with early primaries. No fewer than five potential candidates—Mrs Palin and Messrs Bolton, Gingrich, Huckabee and Santorum—have contracts as talking heads with Fox News, which bring them straight into the living rooms of likely primary voters. Once they officially declare themselves as candidates, however, election laws heavily regulate fund-raising for, and spending on, anything that could be construed as campaigning, not to mention access to the airwaves. Fox this week suspended Mr Gingrich and Mr Santorum, pending clarification of their plans.
Yet candidates cannot afford to dither indefinitely. They need to start raising money, hiring staff and setting up offices in the early-primary states. Those without household names will want to begin raising their profiles. Even the better known candidates will remember the example of Fred Thompson, an actor-turned-politician who waited to enter the last presidential race until September 2007, only to fall completely flat.