...yet, if you are to believe Rhodes Cook and Bill Kristol today.
[Sorry. FHQ had to have some fun.]
FHQ is as big a fan of wild speculation as anyone, but there is absolutely no evidence in the post-reform era that a candidate can jump into the nomination process midstream and end up being successful (defined as winning the nomination). Yes, I am fully aware that those in support of this theory are likely to throw the calendar and delegate math in my face. [I know. Me!?! How can the primary calendar be thrown in my face?]
Since the presidential nomination process was reformed ahead of the 1972 cycle, the calendar has become increasingly frontloaded -- more contests clustered at the beginning of the process. The calendar movement occurred in fits and starts across every cycle with the exception of maybe 1992 when slight shifts forward were counteracted by several southern states abandoning the failed -- from the perspective of the Democratic state governments that spearheaded the moves -- Southern Super Tuesday after 1988.
2012 is different, though.
The national party delegate selection rules and the actions of Florida (and Arizona and Michigan) yielded a presidential primary calendar unlike those witnessed throughout much of the post-reform era. 2012 is far more backloaded than earlier calendars and has a quick/early start followed by a lull in February. The only good parallels to 2012 are the very earliest calendars, and those are imperfect comparisons because they occurred during the transition period of the new nomination system. Candidates were still attempting to adapt to the new system and late entries were slightly more common. In the time since, however, the propensity of those on the outside of the process looking in to get into the race has trailed off dramatically.
It just doesn't happen. That does not mean that it cannot happen, it just means that is usually doesn't.
But let's look back at a calendar with a similar delegate math/progression and similar dynamics: the 1992 Democratic nomination race. I know. This comparison has been made before. Bear with FHQ here. Look at the calendar and the delegate progression through the 1992 cycle.
There was a two week gap between New Hampshire and Super Tuesday in 1992 as compared to the two and a half week gap between Maine (Those caucus results won't be released until February 11.) and Arizona/Michigan on February 28. Super Tuesday 2012 follows a week later.
The delegate math
Looking at the delegate math, 1992 and 2012 are also similar. There are three main spikes in each: Super Tuesday, April (the first week in 1992 and the fourth week in 2012) and the first week in June. Those are the big delegate days in each.
The clear similarity between the 1992 Democratic race and the 2012 Republican nomination race is that there is no clear frontrunner; not one that was firmly established in the invisible primary and maintained that position heading into and through the primary calendar. If ever there was a chance for voters to have some buyer's remorse and/or for an outsider (see Mario Cuomo) to jump in, it would have been during the 1992 cycle (see Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, "I didn't inhale."). And you know what? Voters in later states did exhibit some buyer's remorse. There was some movement toward Jerry Brown's candidacy, but in the end it wasn't enough to secure the nomination. In fact, it wasn't even close.
A few of caveats:
1) Let's please remember that Democrats then (and now) required the proportional allocation of delegates in all contests. That slows the process down and opens the door even further to the possibility of someone jumping in midstream. And while the RNC has changed the delegate allocation rules for the 2012 cycle, the impact of the change has been grossly overstated to this point. The picture remains incomplete, but state-by-state there are very few substantive changes in the method of delegate allocation as compared to 2008. The Republican nomination process may slow down, but it will be due more to the calendar than to those rules. As such, the 1992 Democratic nomination race serves as a good comparison point that actually offered a slightly greater opportunity -- according to Cook's metric -- to enter the race late.
2) This is a big one. FHQ alluded to the voters above and they all too often get left out of these thought exercises. Look, things change immeasurably once the first votes are cast. Once the votes have been cast and candidates actually start winning something -- You know, something other than straw polls and meaningless polls of states at the end of the process -- the mindset changes. Voters don't typically say, "Crap, Mitt Romney won Iowa. Who else is out there for me to vote for who isn't on the ballot yet in some of these later states?" And voters definitely don't say, "Crap, Newt Gingrich won Iowa and South Carolina and Mitt Romney won New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada. Who else is out there?" No, instead, voters start to either vote for the frontrunner (or someone else in the race -- see Ron Paul's support in the contests after McCain wrapped up the nomination on March 4, 2008.) or in the second scenario, they separate into camps a la the Democratic race in 2008. There may be some shopping around, but on the rare occasions when it occurs, it is shopping around for someone who is already in the race. Voters don't pine for some not in the race. If that was the case, would we not have seen someone else jump into challenge McCain in 2008?
3) The final piece of this puzzle is that we need to examine the conditions under which someone would actually jump into the 2012 race after the contests have actually begun. For 2012, one would have to think that the potential to divide the Republican Party in the scenario where Mitt Romney emerges early or to divide it further in the case that Romney and Gingrich are trading wins is enough to scare most away. If there was a silver bullet candidate out there, he or she would already be in the race. [I thought we settled this during the Chris Christie is reconsidering period.] In other words, it would take a consensus candidate who is not out there or doesn't want to run. Outside of that reality, it would take Obama going into free fall in the polls to possibly bring another Republican into the race. Economic growth projections are good for the first two quarters in 2012, but that could certainly be affected by the Eurozone situation. Something could also happen on the international stage (Iran flares up for example.). But something like that is likely to help Obama, not hurt him (Rally 'round the flag effect) in the short term. And that underlines the fact that something like that needs to happen in the next couple of months. FHQ just doesn't see that.
Let me close by returning to the voters. If they begin to shop around once Romney and/or Gingrich begins winning contests then it will likely be for someone who is already out there and actually has some resources at his or her disposal. Who is that candidate? Well, Bernstein are you paying attention, it is likely to be Rick Perry playing the Jerry Brown role. But like Brown, Perry is likely to in that scenario play spoiler to either Gingrich or Romney than to actually win the nomination himself.
So, for the record, FHQ predicts that the field is set. Sorry Jeb supporters, but you'll have to wait until 2016.