Journalist Arthur Hadley once wrote a short book entitled “The Invisible Primary.” The book’s thesis was that primaries and caucuses make the final decision on who will be the major party presidential nominees, but that the year (or so) leading up to those primaries and caucuses is itself a kind of “invisible primary” which winnows out the weak and identifies those who truly have a shot at the brass ring.
We are, today, halfway through the invisible primary. Here’s what we know:
- The field is set. We don’t know (for sure) if Sarah Palin will run or whether Texas Governor Rick Perry will run, but we do know that they are the only two remaining question marks.
- The first tier is set. The leading candidates are Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Rick Perry. The betting now is that Ms. Palin will not run and that Governor Perry will run, but we’ll see.
- The second tier is really second tier. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, much touted at the beginning of this year, has fish-tailed through a long icy patch and now finds himself in an almost “win-or-go-home” situation in next month’s Ames, Iowa Straw Poll. Press-hyped Jon Huntsman has made a favourable first impression in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, but so far has been unable to make a dent in Mitt Romney’s armour. Rep. Ron Paul and Herman Cain are second-tier candidates only in the sense that they currently outpoll some of their more supposedly electable rivals. Neither has any chance of being the 2012 GOP presidential nominee.
- The third tier probably won’t make it to Iowa. It is comprised of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and former Pennsylvania US Senator Rick Santorum.
The first major event of the second half of the “invisible primary” year will be the Ames, Iowa Straw Poll, which Ron Paul is expected to win. No one will care about that. What people will be watching is whether Tim Pawlenty can claw his way back into the race by running well relative to Rep. Bachmann. If Ms. Bachmann beats Pawlenty by a comfortable margin in the Ames, Iowa Straw Poll, that may well be the end of Mr. Pawlenty’s campaign.
Other major events will be fund-raising reports (fund-raising implies depth of support and political longevity, at least on paper), some debates (where the real battle will be for the hearts and minds of the party’s socially conservative base) and polls (which will gauge voter allegiance and intensity).
By the end of the invisible primary, Perry or Bachmann or Palin will lead in Iowa and Romney will be the front-runner in New Hampshire. Those two states will winnow the field down to three (or even two). South Carolina and Super Tuesday(s) will decide the winner.
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