Candidate Rankings Archive

This is the archive for the Candidate Rankings page for the 2012 Republican presidential primary.

Each candidate has been ranked according to how likely he is to win the nomination. The odds are based upon how likely his "winning scenario" will occur, and whether the winning scenario is actually a plausible path to victory.

The candidates' best strategies are detailed in the Profiles section.

Rankings Last Recalculated: April 10, 2012.

#1. Mitt Romney - 100% to win

Scenario: "Next in Line"
Voters find themselves caught up in three fears: the economy, an unelectable Tea Party candidate, and another term of Obama. They see Romney as the solution to all three. Romney is able to settle their concerns about Romneycare to a sufficient degree, and the conversation becomes fixed upon who is serious enough to make a credible run against Obama. Romney wins New Hampshire and Nevada easily. His superior campaign infrastructure enables him to compete in more expensive state contests down the road, and he is received warmly by an increasingly strategic-minded electorate.

The Republican Party almost always nominates the runner-up from the previous election's primary, and tends to nominate more moderate, establishment-friendly candidates than one might expect. However, with the rise of the Tea Party and the defeat of John McCain, many voters are tired of "moderate" Republicans. They want a genuine conservative. Nevertheless, voters' attention is still fixed on the economy and defeating Barack Obama, and the Party is quickly running out of highly electable candidates: Christie, Daniels, and Pawlenty are all out of the race. If the Party is to defeat Obama, Romney appears to be the best bet.

#2. Rick Santorum - 0% to win

Scenario: "The 7-10 Split"
Santorum raises his profile among social conservatives in Iowa by focusing on a controversial issue where few dare to tread. Few see Santorum as a threat. As time passes, it becomes increasingly clear that Iowa is hopelessly split among several different candidates. Despite a low vote total in absolute terms, Santorum pulls off an upset in Iowa. Somewhat befuddled, social conservatives and the Tea Party wing see little choice but to rally behind him after a "RINO" wins New Hampshire.

Since there are many other social conservatives who "add" something else to their candidacy (enthusiasm, electability, executive experience, rhetorical skill), Santorum will have difficulty finding a niche. His only hope is that the field is so crowded and divided that almost anyone has a chance at winning Iowa--which is precisely what happened. Santorum has greatly benefited from the departure of rivals Cain, Christie, Huckabee, Daniels, Palin, and Pawlenty; he has also benefited from the decline of Perry, Bachmann, and to some extent Gingrich. The fact that Santorum is at least somewhat electable and his willingness to show passion in debates gave him at least a chance to win. Voters had turned to Gingrich as the primary Anti-Romney, but after Gingrich's failures, Santorum has become the chief Anti-Romney. However, Santorum's increased visibility resulted in heightened scrutiny--which Santorum wasn't able to withstand.

#3. Newt Gingrich - 0% to win

Scenario: "Debate 101"
As the voters in early primary states begin watching the debates, they can't help but be struck by the intelligence and gravitas of Gingrich. No matter the points raised by the other candidates, Gingrich always has an answer for them. They struggle to respond to his own points. Though his opponents attempt to focus voters' attention on Gingrich's recent past as a wannabe moderate, an event occurs in the world that demands an answer. Gingrich is the first to articulate a clear, comprehensive solution. Gingrich wins New Hampshire, shattering Romney. Experts declare, "Gingrich was really the 'next in line' all along..."

Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire rely heavily on the debates and townhall meetings when they choose a candidate. Few are as comfortable in such settings as former professor Gingrich. He has a long experience in making policy and an obsession with detail. He is easily underestimated, but it would be a mistake to do so. Thanks to Gingrich's debate performances, voters were increasingly drawn to Gingrich as an alternative to Romney. But having faced the scrutiny of the media and the other candidates' attacks, Gingrich's vulnerabilities became clear. Voters looking for an alternative to Romney found Gingrich lacking.

#4. Ron Paul - 0% to win

Scenario: "Sirhan Returns"
Initially dissatisfied by the field of candidates, primary voters quickly rally behind one of them, and the field rapidly narrows. With his loyal libertarian base vowing never to quit, Paul refuses to concede. The contest continues, though it is seen as a formality. Everyone who is dissatisfied with the frontrunner--including a large share of the Tea Party--casts a protest vote for Paul, who collects a modest share of the delegates. As the 2012 primary draws to a close, tragedy strikes, and the frontrunner's candidacy comes to an abrupt halt. Since no candidate has a majority of the delegates, a brokered convention is forced. Paul has the largest share of the remaining delegates, and he demands the nomination.

Paul's loyal following guarantees him a certain percentage of the vote. However, he has proven unable to appeal to anyone beyond this small group. Only an unforeseen catastrophe could bring him close to winning the nomination.

Withdrawn/Declined to Run

The following candidates have withdrawn from the race or declined to run, but their ranking information is preserved here for posterity:

#X. Chris Christie - 0% to win

Highest Rank: #1 - 66% to win

Scenario: "Save the Party"
After considering all of the available candidates, the Republican establishment and Tea Party wings of the Party are fractured. Republican primary voters are deeply dissatisfied with the field. A consensus grows that the Party cannot be enthusiastically united behind one candidate, and that Obama is likely to win reelection. In the late summer of 2011, Republicans beg Christie to run and save the Party. Christie announces that he is now "ready," and will run for the good of the country. Overjoyed and relieved, the Party unites and Christie sweeps to victory.

All signs point toward this scenario's occurrence. Polls show that primary voters are deeply dissatisfied with the available candidates. A consensus has grown that Obama is vulnerable, but that the weak Republican field will result in Obama's reelection. The Republican establishment has flitted from one candidate to the next, hoping for one who can inspire both wings of the Party, but they have not yet succeeded.

#X. Rick Perry - 0% to win

Highest Rank: #2 - 21% to win

Scenario: "Tough Enough to Win"
As the campaign rolls on, it becomes clear that the Republican Party's Tea Party wing will not accept Romney as their candidate. But they're also afraid of choosing someone who can't win the general election. Iowans want a consensus candidate. Rick Perry insists he is the one, boasting that he (unlike Tim Pawlenty) is tough enough to take down President Obama. After Perry wins Iowa, voters are still skeptical of whether a Texas governor can win again after George W. Bush. But when Mitt Romney wins New Hampshire, they realize they have doubts about his electability, too. Conservatives in South Carolina carry Perry to victory.

Primary voters are still looking for a candidate who can unite both wings of the Party and beat Obama. The Tea Party favorites seem unelectable, but the electable candidates seem too moderate. Pawlenty attempted to bridge the gap, but could not catch fire due to his flat presentation. Republicans want tough talk, and Perry is willing to give it to them. But voters can still be spooked if Perry goes overboard, and his bad debate performances have proven it. Voters have become skeptical that Perry has what it takes to actually win a general election. He may be tough, but he hasn't shown his intelligence. Those who still believe he's the most conservative candidate have gone elsewhere.

#X. Tim Pawlenty - 0% to win

Highest Rank: #2 - 15% to win

Scenario: "Last Man Standing"
The Party is deeply divided between the establishment wing and Tea Party wing. Every candidate with a high level of name recognition is fundamentally flawed in some way. Tensions rise and the candidates increasingly attack one another. The Tea Party draws up a list of certain candidates whom they will not accept under any circumstances; the Republican establishment does the same. The specter of a third party rears its ugly head. At long last, the Party decides upon Pawlenty, a candidate who is unobjectionable to both wings. Voters are not thrilled with their choice, but they accept it.

The Party remains divided, and the Tea Party continues to scoff at the "RINOs" (Republicans In Name Only) who lead in the polls. Pawlenty has established himself as the best-known candidate among the lesser-known candidates. Several of his chief competitors have already left the race. Thus far, Pawlenty has earned no enemies.

#X. Mike Huckabee - 0% to win

Highest Rank: #2 - 12% to win

Scenario: "Second Time's the Charm"
Huckabee returns to Iowa, the state that gave him his important win in 2008. As a more established candidate, he finds it much easier to build his constituency this time around, and he wins the state again. He then heads to South Carolina and improves upon his 2008 performance, winning that state as well.  The Party begins to rally behind him, viewing him as less of an insurgent than during his previous run. Republicans believe him when he says he's an economic conservative, and they already know he's a social conservative. When dropping out of the race, most of Huckabee's opponents endorse him rather than the winner of New Hampshire.

Huckabee's name recognition is infinitely higher than during his 2008 run, and the establishment--though still wary--is more comfortable with him. Polls consistently show Huckabee in either first or second place nationally, and in first place in Iowa. Huckabee is also the favorite to win South Carolina. Every candidate who has ever won both Iowa and South Carolina has won the nomination.

#X. Mitch Daniels - 0% to win

Highest Rank: #3 - 7% to win

Scenario: "Consensus Candidate"
Divided and dissatisfied with the field, the Republican establishment and the voters of the early primaries find themselves considering and discarding candidates at an alarming rate. They quickly arrive at the conclusion that they must select someone uninspiring but acceptable to both wings of the Party. There are many choices, but they also want someone competent and reasonably popular in his own state. After poring over the details, they select Daniels as the consensus candidate.

Voters in early primary states tend to be moved little by such superficial things as name recognition; they prefer to do their own research. As Huckabee proved in Iowa during the 2008 race, it is quite possible for an unknown candidate to go from polling 1% to victory. Provided the more prominent candidates remain unacceptable, Daniels still has a chance.

#X. Herman Cain - 0% to win

Highest Rank: #4 - 5% to win

Scenario: "Run the Government Like a Business"
The only black candidate in the race, Cain is invited to participate in major debates despite having never held elective office. The previously unknown Cain becomes a star at the debates, exciting the crowd. Voters decide that his leadership in the business world and role in defeating Hillarycare are the right kind of experience for a president whose main challenge is fixing the economy. Once that decision has been made, there is no easy answer to the question, "Why not Cain?" The Tea Party rallies behind Cain and he does better than expected in Iowa. Cain then carries the momentum forward to win South Carolina. The liberal media gnashes its teeth and insists the Tea Party is still racist. But the more liberals dismiss Cain, the more support he gains.

Cain's candidacy is only viable if he is included in the debates, because he'll need to use them to raise his profile and the sense that he's a legitimate candidate. It's now certain that he will indeed be included in the debates. If the Tea Party does not rally behind someone else, then Cain has a chance. The Tea Party has been coalescing elsewhere, but every time they do, that Tea Party candidate crashes. It's bound to be Cain's turn eventually, and the polls suggest Cain's time has come. Unfortunately for Cain, his repeated gaffes and scandals have essentially forced him out of contention. The voters gave him every opportunity, but he blew his chance.

#X. Jon Huntsman, Jr. - 0% to win

Highest Rank: #4 - 3% to win

Scenario: "Romney 2.0"
Independent-minded New Hampshire voters stun the Party once again by selecting a maverick: Huntsman defeats Romney. They find Huntsman's honesty refreshing, his economic conservatism genuine (as opposed to Romney's), and his views on gay rights irrelevant. With Romney's candidacy dead in the water, the Mormon vote hands Huntsman a victory in Nevada. Huntsman's coalition of moderate Republicans and Independents is enlarged by the addition of the Republican establishment, which sees him as Romney's replacement. He is ready to do battle with the winner(s) of Iowa and South Carolina.

The weaker Romney is, the stronger Huntsman is. The stronger Romney is, the more irrelevant Huntsman is. As long as Romney is viewed as the frontrunner by the Republican establishment, Huntsman will struggle to gain support. Huntsman would also be weakened by an "insurgent" candidate doing well in Iowa, as it would scare voters concerned with electability into Romney's camp. For the time being, Romney is playing his role as the "next in line," and Huntsman is in his shadow. But Romney has a long way to go toward closing the deal with those unhappy with him. Unfortunately, Huntsman has suffered from being perceived as more liberal than Romney, and Huntsman has run out of opportunities to prove otherwise.

#X. Michele Bachmann - 0% to win

Highest Rank: #4 - 3% to win

Scenario: "Tea Party Rebellion"
The Tea Party becomes a much bigger factor in Iowa and South Carolina than expected. Gone are the days of strategic primary voters looking for an electable candidate: They demand purity and loyalty to the Tea Party movement. Bachmann receives their blessing, aided by Sarah Palin's decision not to run. The Republican establishment is incensed by her wins in Iowa and South Carolina. But this is nothing compared to the outrage of the Tea Party at the establishment's own winner in New Hampshire, a "RINO." Panicked, the establishment supports a substitute candidate, but doing so only splits the opposition to Bachmann.

At present, Bachmann's base does not appear to be capable of taking Iowa and South Carolina on its own; it needs allies. Bachmann's strategy requires her to be the sole representative of the Tea Party. But the Tea Party is not monolithic. At present, there are other candidates who can lay a claim to (and generate enthusiasm among) different slices of the Tea Party: Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum--and Herman Cain before he dropped out. Before Bachmann's rise can occur, something will need to be done about those problems. For the moment, Tea Partiers are not willing to put Bachmann first, and it doesn't look like they'll have enough time to change their minds.

#X. Sarah Palin - 0% to win

Highest Rank: #7 - 3% to win

Scenario: "The Phoenix Rises"
Palin announces she is running, and once again all eyes are upon her. Much to the consternation of the Republican establishment, she is still capable of drawing huge crowds in Iowa and South Carolina. At the debates, she is applauded by her loyal constituency, and avoids making gaffes by sticking to her points. Palin consumes all available media oxygen, depriving everyone but the less-than-totally-conservative candidates who have high name recognition. Most voters agree she is unelectable, but they cannot agree upon an alternative, leaving Palin's unified bloc in control. Spectators are stunned by the level of influence of the Tea Party in the early primaries. The Tea Party takeover of the Republican party is complete.

Once considered a major contender for the nomination (if not the frontrunner), Palin's support has cratered. The loss of several 2010 races due to the nomination of unelectable Tea Partiers, along with Palin's response to the Giffords shooting, have opened the floodgates of skepticism about Palin. Despite her sky-high name recognition, Palin's poll numbers among primary voters are weak. The consensus is that she is unelectable, and that someone else should carry the mantle of the Tea Party. Palin, more than anyone else, needs a comeback. She has not yet proven herself capable of it.

#X. Donald Trump - 0% to win

Highest Rank: #8 - 1% to win

Scenario: "The Trumpinator"
Amusement turns to amazement as Trump steadily climbs in the polls. Dismissed by experts as a flash in the pan, Trump's support becomes solidified instead. He leverages his ability to get press whenever he wants, and voters agree with his views on substantive issues. Most of all, they find him to be the only candidate willing to not sound like a politician. Sheer force of personality prevails and Trump wins New Hampshire. If Trump's candidacy is a joke, many voters are all too happy to play along. Experts wonder if he is "the next Schwarzenegger."

A few months before their contests, voters in early primary states tend to pay much closer attention to the details of each candidate. They are unlikely to be swayed by cult of personality. Trump's record is likely to sink him as Iowa and New Hampshire approach. But if Trump's reasonably high poll numbers persist over the long term, he may have the opportunity to transform himself into a serious candidate and pull off an upset.

#X. Haley Barbour - 0% to win

Highest Rank: #10 - 0% to win

Scenario: "The Anti-Obama"
Barbour is pleased to watch as the Party is generally dissatisfied with the winners of both Iowa and New Hampshire, neither of which are him. The Iowa winner is too extreme for the establishment; the New Hampshire winner too moderate for the Tea Party. Barbour's southern roots serve him well, and he manages a win in South Carolina against divided opposition. There are three winners now, and Barbour is generally acceptable to both wings of the party. To everyone's surprise, voters fall in line behind Barbour.

Since the South Carolina primary was created in 1980, every Republican who won there has gone on to win the nomination. This is largely because the winner of South Carolina also won either Iowa, New Hampshire, or both. It's unclear what would happen in the event of a three-way split. It's also an open question whether the winner of either Iowa or New Hampshire would lack the momentum to also win South Carolina. If so, Barbour could at least stand a chance. But this assumes he will actually poll well in South Carolina.