Tim Pawlenty's announcement that he is setting up a 2012 presidential campaign exploratory committee makes the former Minnesota governor the first major GOP contender to take the big step, although others will undoubtedly follow over the next several months.
Haley Barbour, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich appear virtually certain to run and will signal as much before too long, although Romney is under the least pressure to move fast. Having run a Rolls Royce, free-spending campaign last time, he seems less enthused about investing as much personal money in the race and experiencing the kind of cash burn rate that he did four years ago.
Mitch Daniels seems less certain, but he is still apparently considering a bid. Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee look a little less likely; Jon Huntsman, now in the process of resigning his post as U.S. ambassador to China, seems more and more likely to run, although the prospect of GOP primary voters seriously considering someone from the Obama administration strains credulity.
But for all the pondering and posturing, a couple of things seem very clear. First, the truism that the Republican Party is hierarchical, that Republicans inevitably nominate whomever's turn it is, does not appear to be the case this time. The Gallup Organization's Lydia Saad pointed out in a March 7 report that "since 1952, Republican nomination races have always featured a clear front-runner at this stage of the campaign, and, in almost all cases, that front-runner ultimately won the nomination." On March 5, National Journal published a great graphic of the Gallup data, on p. 32, showing as much. For that matter, 2012 doesn't even resemble the Democratic situation in 2008, when Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama formed a top tier and others were trying to break through. At this stage, we don't even have that much clarity. This is a pretty wide-open race.
But a second impression comes through in conversations with GOP strategists, donors, and activists. The bullishness that pervaded the Republican Party's efforts to capture a majority in the House and the sense of Democratic vulnerability that existed a year ago is not so obvious today. Perhaps it's the sobering fact that Republicans now have at least partial governing responsibility and that governing is hard; or that since the November votes were counted, President Obama has charted a more moderate and pragmatic course, one that seems more consistent with his winning reelection. Or maybe it's that the unemployment rate has declined three months in a row by a total of nine-tenths of a percent.
All of this seems to mean that the president no longer looks like a political basket case. When asked to estimate Obama's reelection chances, political pros cite figures in the range of 60 percent to 70 percent, although with plenty of caveats about unforeseen events.
It certainly isn't that despondency reigns in the GOP; Republicans have many reasons to feel confident that they will keep the House next year and that their chances of capturing the Senate look very promising. But even those who felt that the Obama White House was showing suicidal tendencies during its first two years now find its new course potentially far more successful.
For 12 of the last 13 weeks of Gallup polling, Obama's job-approval rating has been at least 47 percent or 48 percent. For two weeks it was at 50 percent, a far cry from the period between July 4 and December 20 when his approval rating never reached as high as 47 percent. Historically, presidents with a job-approval rating above the 47-48 percent level going into Election Day have won; those with job-approval ratings below that point have lost. It's important to note that job-approval ratings don't become effective predictors until about a year before the election; so for the next seven or eight months, these numbers are purely academic, but the trend for him looks better today than it did a few months ago.
The lack of ebullience among Republicans for their 2012 presidential prospects is probably a combination of Obama looking less vulnerable than before and the unprecedented lack of clarity in their own field. Although GOP enthusiasm will likely build once the campaign begins in earnest, it is remarkable that it's taking so long, given Obama's polarizing effect among conservatives and Republicans.
With the election still more than 19 months away, there undoubtedly will be an ebb and flow, a series of peaks and valleys of optimism and pessimism. Economic and foreign-policy events will help drive the narrative of just how vulnerable Obama really is, and will be, in November 2012.
But things really have changed since last year.