2012 bracketology

Matt Mackowiak Founder, Potomac Strategy Group
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The 2012 presidential campaign began immediately after the midterms ended.

The 61-plus seat gain for Republicans has turned Washington, D.C. upside down, ushered in a wave of idealistic, energetic new members and put President Obama’s policy agenda on life support.

After the first of the year, the 112th Congress will be sworn in and presidential candidates will launch exploratory committees, allowing them to raise money, hire staff and court supporters, without making a final decision to run. Many of them will make their maiden voyage into Iowa and New Hampshire, full of hope and change.

During the 2010 election cycle, the Tea Party aggressively challenged the Republican establishment, and often won.  The Tea Party will ensure that the 2012 Republican presidential campaign will be unlike any other.

Much like March Madness, candidates will fall into one of two categories, with the goal of reaching the finals after the first three states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina reach their verdicts.

In the Tea Party bracket, possible candidates, in order of current strength, include former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK), former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR), former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX). Long-shot former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) would also fall into this category. If Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) decides to run, he would immediately jump to the top of this bracket.

In the establishment bracket, possible candidates include former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA), outgoing Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-MN), Gov. Haley Barbour (R-MS), Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and Gov. Mitch Daniels. There is not enough establishment support for this many establishment candidates, so I suspect only two will survive beyond Iowa.

All other major candidates have publicly stated they will not run, including former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL), Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA), Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-VA), and the current flavor of the month, Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ).

Up-and-comers like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and newly elected officials like Sen.-elect Marco Rubio (R-FL), Gov.-elect John Kasich (R-OH) and Sen.-elect Rob Portman (R-OH) will not be ready in time for 2012 but will offer attractive vice presidential options and could launch national bids in 2016 should Obama win a second term.

That only leaves current Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), who, as a House member, must be considered a long shot, but who also has a chance to gain support from both the Tea Party and the Republican establishment in a way that the other candidates likely cannot.

The Republican nomination is up for grabs and the field is as wide open as it has ever been. Without an obvious frontrunner, Romney likely has the strongest political team and financial backing, and Palin would immediately gain huge grassroots support and media attention, although she is likely to enter the campaign late.

The barriers to entry are low and as many as ten candidates could run. Many candidates will think they have a shot with Obama in a weakened political position and a wide-open field.

The media narrative of the moment is the Tea Party taking over the GOP. This played out in Florida, Kentucky, Utah, Alaska, Delaware and Colorado — with decidedly mixed results. That narrative will likely exist through the 2012 campaign.

This also means that the race is likely to last beyond South Carolina and candidates will need to raise at least $30 million to last into mid-late February, when Florida, Michigan, Nevada and possibly Texas could hold their nominating contests.

Candidates will be divided into these two “brackets” and they will compete within them for the same endorsements, the same donors and on the same issues. There is only so much oxygen within these two groups, and in the end only one candidate in each bracket will survive.

The net result will be a wider field, a longer campaign, greater expense, increased uncertainty and the mother of all battles in February and March between the Tea Party’s candidate and the GOP establishment’s candidate for the greatest prize in politics: a legitimate chance to be president.

Matt Mackowiak, a former press secretary in the Senate who managed the campaign of Rep.-elect Bill Flores (R-Texas), is president of the Potomac Strategy Group, LLC. He can be reached at matt@potomacstrategygroup.com.