Running for president is not for the faint-hearted. The level of personal scrutiny is intense, the financial demands daunting, and the chance of winning iffy against a well-funded incumbent.
Maybe Donald Trump thought he could pull it off. But his reality-show campaign ran smack into reality. The larger plotline is that GOP candidates are dropping like flies—three of them bailing out in the last month, others barely dipping a toe in the political waters.
For any Republican eyeing the primaries, the man to beat is Mitt Romney, who for all his flaws is still the frontrunner with lots of money in a party with a history of nominating the guy whose turn is next.
Given these challenges, it’s not surprising that there are almost as many dropouts for the 2012 nomination as there are likely contenders. “This is the latest-starting early race I’ve ever seen,” says Glen Bolger, a Republican consultant. It’s not about Obama, he says, pointing out that the president is back down to a 46 percent approval rating in the latest Gallup poll. “What’s scaring people off is what it takes financially and how fraught it is.”
Trump was never more than a vanity candidate, in Bolger’s view. People were attracted to The Donald because he had name identification and the allure of success, but the more he talked, the less he seemed like presidential timber. Given Trump’s ego, maybe he kidded himself into thinking he was a serious candidate, but once he began to soar in the polls, the free ride was over.
Running for president is not a pleasurable experience, unless you’re convinced you have a legitimate shot. Mike Huckabee, who bailed out over the weekend, could easily have won the Iowa caucuses, maybe even the nomination, but he made the calculation that the life he’s acquired as a Fox News star after being the runner-up last time around is not worth jeopardizing for another quixotic try for the White House.
Haley Barbour guided his Mississippi constituents through the floods ravaging their state, where he chose to remain as governor rather than pursuing an office he was unlikely to win. In Indiana, Mitch Daniels needs to either get into the presidential race or make a clean break. The Hamlet act is wearing thin.
The abundance of fringe candidates in the GOP field is making party members nervous. They don’t want to miss their opportunity to take back the White House. “As the field becomes thinner, Republicans are looking around and asking, ‘Is this the best we got?’ ” says Republican strategist Brad Blakeman.
“As the field becomes thinner, Republicans are looking around and asking, ‘Is this the best we got?’”
The unemployment rate is likely to be over 8 percent on Election Day—you’d have to go back to FDR to find a president reelected with a jobless rate that high. (You also have to go back to FDR to find a president handed such a dismal hand as the one Obama inherited.)
There remains a longing for a businessman who could wrestle the deficit to the ground. Billionaire Texan Ross Perot filled the role quite successfully in ’92, leading both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton before his candidacy imploded and he withdrew from the race.
Trump was this cycle’s iteration of Lee Iacocca, the former Chrysler president, who regularly topped lists of presidential wannabes. Trump would no doubt deny it, but many believe his game plan all along was to improve the ratings of Celebrity Apprentice, with the help of a hungry and complicit media.
Better than anyone in the field, Newt Gingrich understands the rhythm of politics and issues, and he stands to benefit from a race that he is a long shot to win. Blakeman, who worked in Bush 43’s White House, calls Gingrich “unselectable and unelectable,” but nonetheless thinks he could emerge from the race a winner, much as Huckabee did, or Sarah Palin, who converted a losing vice-presidential race into a lucrative cottage industry.
“Newt is a brand, and he perpetuates his brand by being relevant,” says Blakeman, who defines relevance as principally in the eyes of donors who seek Gingrich’s advice and counsel on a multitude of issues. Since stepping down as House speaker more than a decade ago, Gingrich has created a network of nonprofit organizations that depend on his ideas and his fundraising prowess. Central to his ability to raise money and attract followers is Gingrich’s visibility.
Among his other attributes, after years of fierce criticism, is a really thick skin. The same goes for Ron Paul. Anyone else want to get into this thing? The door remains open for those who’ve got the guts.
Eleanor Clift is a contributing editor for Newsweek. Follow her on Twitter.