I belatedly discovered a December 23 piece at TAP by Walter Shapiro that offered a very useful primer on what us political animals should say when friends or relatives ask for sage predictions on the 2016 presidential election during holiday gatherings. So I had to wing it.

The most salient point Shaprio made (even better than the one he considers best, his Joe-Lieberman-led-the-early-2004-polls number) was this one:

Who decides to run plays as big a role in determining the nomination as who wins Iowa or New Hampshire.

Mitt Romney was the GOP nominee partly because six potentially serious rivals decided, for a variety of reasons, to skip 2012—Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, and Mike Huckabee. Had any of these men entered the race, that decision would have altered the contours and ideological positioning of the primaries. The hardest thing for armchair touts to remember is that not all bold-faced names in the political pages actually run for president.

So don’t get too caught up in the list of “mentioned” proto-candidates unless they show some interest in the gig or the ability to win. And there are a few easy guidelines: pro-choice Republicans or Democrats who like to talk about “entitlement reform” ain’t going to get their party’s nomination, period. Moreover, people who make their living writing books or gabbing on television are not, by and large, getting themselves “mentioned” so that they can stop writing books or gabbing on television. The fact that two such people, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, actually led national polls of Republicans at different moments of the 2012 cycle is just the exception that proves the rule and a token of how bad the ’12 field turned out to be.

The “invisible primary” that leads up to the real presidential nominating contest is frequently useless, unless it involves fundraising or a lot of candidate time in early states. So while it was a waste of time going into ’12 to pay much attention to media boomlets over Mitch Daniels and Haley Barbour, it could have been beneficial to keep up with how many Pizza Ranches in Iowa Rick Santorum visited. The ability to figure out what’s real and what’s hype in forming the presidential field is what separates the useless pundit from the occasionally good ‘un.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.