The flip side of my understanding that folks such as Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, Haley Barbour, and John Thune ran for president during this cycle and lost is that just because you declare you are running for president doesn’t really mean you’re, well, running for president. Take, for example, Herman Cain, who is currently enjoying a nonsensical polling surge at the inconvenient point in which he was apparently planning to take a month off to sell a book. Is he really a candidate for president? I mean, if he knows that it’s really just a come-on to build his brand, and knows that he has no chance or even interest in getting nominated, is he a candidate? What about Newt Gingrich? Does it matter whether they actually know that that’s what they’re up to?

Of course, the problem from our point of view is that there’s no real way to know the true intent of these folks, and so any list of candidates should include Cain and Gingrich. I’d probably draw the line at Donald Trump, because he so transparently wasn’t a “real” candidate and had a short built-in expiration date, but I suppose I’d have no problem with anyone who wants to list him, too. What all that does, however, is simplify the Sarah Palin question. We don’t have to figure out whether she was using the process to enrich herself all along or if she was genuinely undecided about entering the primaries and caucuses and trying to get the nomination. All we have to do is see whether what she’s up to is what presidential candidates do. And there, we would find that she’s been giving speeches, and visiting early primary and caucus states, and otherwise doing candidate-like things — especially in 2009 and 2010, during the early parts of the campaign, but still through this year.

Why any of this matters is because if we’re to figure out how the nomination process works — what the key decisions and decision-makers are, who has influence, who has veto power, and all the other questions — then it helps quite a bit to know who the candidates were. If in fact Palin, Christie and the rest were winnowed out just as sure as Tim Pawlenty was winnowed out and as the candidates who drag themselves to Iowa and then leave after losing their are winnowed out, well, then we can study who is doing the winnowing and how.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.