See, here's the problem. There's this trend in Republican primary campaigns, identified by jimsaco in the December Cattle Call, where the Establishment Candidate -- the guy who has the money and the institutional backing -- always wins the nomination, no matter how bleak his chances appear at any given time. Jimsaco dates the trend back to Dewey in '44, and it holds up reasonably well -- with the possible exception of '52, when Ike beat out Taft, and the more concrete exception of '64, when Goldwater upset Rocky.
What we'll call the "Establishment Candidate theory" has certainly held true since 1980, when Reagan entered the race with friends and momentum from '76 and plenty of money, and ended up fairly cruising to victory in Detroit. In '88, Poppy Bush overcame Reagan-era scandals, his own inadequacies as a candidate, a well-funded, well-run challenge from Bob Dole, and disillusionment among the hard right cadres to win the nomination -- in what probably is the premier example of the predictive value of the Establishment Candidate theory. In '96, it was Dole's Turn, and he had all the institutional backing he needed (especially after the flameout of his potential rival for the Establishment nod, Phil Gramm -- more on Gramm later) to earn the right to lose badly to Clinton. And in the year 2000, W was in the lead from the get-go -- check out the polls from as early as late '98, when Bush was just crushing the field -- and bested an inspired McCain campaign due in large part to his institutional support throughout the country (but especially in the state party in SC).
In 2008, John McCain is most definitely the Establishment Candidate, despite the hoary media narrative of "McCain the Maverick." He's wrapped up the lion's share of Bush Pioneers and Rangers, he's the only candidate to have obtained the services of any of the top-level Bush-Cheney operatives (including media guru Mark McKinnon and former BC'04 political director Terry Nelson), and he's obtained support from scores of the state party operatives who were so critical in saving Bush's bacon in 2000. In short, he's inherited the institutional mantle from his former rival, Bush. And he did it while keeping his "independent" street cred. Now, that famed maverick label is beginning to fade, especially in light of Bush's decision to adopt McCain's doomed escalation proposal -- but in a normal year, that'd be OK. Because history tells us that being the Establishment Candidate means that you win the nomination. And as Herm Edwards reminded us, you play to win the game, not to be the martyred maverick.
So on one hand, the Establishment Candidate theory should dictate that McCain is the nominee, in spite of the fact that 1) substantial elements of the base dislike him, 2) he's going to be identified with the Iraq disaster more than any other GOP candidate, and 3) his support is cratering. After all, Poppy Bush went through some tough times -- finishing behind Pat Robertson in Iowa! -- but being the Establishment Candidate saved it for him. And yet . . . one can't help but notice that 1) substantial elements of the base dislike McCain, 2) he's going to be identified with the Iraq disaster more than any other GOP candidate, and 3) his support is cratering. And it may be early enough that the GOP establishment, loyal as it tends to be, decides that McCain -- who never was really one of theirs -- is dead meat, and that it's time to stake another worthy. That was, to some degree, the case in '96 -- when Phil Gramm (a McCain supporter this time) lost the mantle of the Establishment Candidate to Dole early on, after it became apparent that Gramm was going nowhere.
And even if McCain does remain the Establishment Candidate -- is this an election, like '64 -- where the Establishment Candidate falls to the rabble in a generational realignment? And if so, which way does the party realign? You'd assume toward the Christian Right, with Brownback or Huckabee carrying the banner . . . but what if pragmatism seizes the silent majority of Republicans, who embrace Rudy (assuming, unlikely as it may be, that he hasn't self-immolated under intense media scrutiny)? It's all too early to say.
The point is this: a lot of folks seem extremely willing to write McCain off, pointing to all his obvious liabilities. And they may be right. But he's got history on his side, and we would do well not to forget it.
With all that, here's the rankings:
1) McCain. See above. No longer alone in the top tier.
2) Giuliani. He's hired some top people, he stole Jim Nussle away from Romney, he appears to have co-opted Gingrich, he's likely to raise great gobs of money (he plans to raise $100M by year's end), and he's polling really well, as you can see elsewhere on this page. Yes, I'm aware of his multiple defects. Yes, I realize that, were he to win the nomination, there would almost certainly be a serious Christian Right defection to a third party campaign. But everything is coming up Rudy right now. And if this is a realignment year -- if the Establishment can't deliver the nomination to its candidate -- who's to say that Rudy couldn't motivate the silent majority of Republicans to fight off the far right and realign the party toward the middle? In any event, if the primaries started today, he'd be sitting pretty.
3) Romney. The only reason he's still in the top tier is because of his Herculean $6.5M-raised-in-one-day fundraising extravaganza earlier this month. Other than that, it's been lousy news for The Hair -- be it more polling showing that a Mormon can't win over fundies, or losing key Iowa supporters (Nussle!), or the fact that a video emerged to demonstrate that he's a flaming hypocrite who tried to run to the left of Teddy Kennedy just 12 years ago. I really don't see how he wins this thing. But he's rich, so he's in the top tier for now.
4) Huck. Man, you guys are sold on the Huckster. I think that 70% of the comments in last night's comment call were about how Huck was going to win the nomination. And he may well do so. He's smooth, he strokes the Christian Right's erogenous zones, and he's a million miles away from any responsibility for Iraq. But as one commenter pointed out last night, Huck's in danger of losing the talent war. Dark horses need to put together their operations early, to lock in decent staff, and to begin raising money. Huck may get squeezed out if he waits much longer, because . . .
5) Brownback. . . . Sam Brownback may just be occupying Huck's ecological niche. He's not as strong as Huckabee for a number of reasons -- he's sort of crazy, and as a GOP Senator, he shares culpability for Iraq -- but by all accounts he's putting together a serious team.
Third Tier, Non-Candidates, and Misc.
I'm not comfortable ranking anyone else. Hunter and Paul aren't going anywhere, though Paul at least is offering libertarians and anti-war Republicans (all 6 of them) a protest choice. Tancredo is a single issue guy, and while he may hang around longer than anyone but the eventual nominee, he can't win. I'm not conviced Hagel is running, and I'm fairly certain that Gingrich isn't going to do it -- even if he does, he'll be a non-factor if he really waits till September to gear up. Tommy Thompson could definitely be a factor -- perhaps he's the fallback Establishment Candidate if McCain really implodes and Romney can't show himself worthy of the mantle? I can't really figure out if Jim Gilmore has the chance to be a factor, or if Huckabee has him covered. Anyway, from this group, I'd say that Thompson and Gilmore are the only ones likely to have an impact. Gingrich and Hagel probably don't run. And the rest are doomed for myriad uninteresting reasons.