Out of a Job? If You're in the GOP, Try Running for President

The Republican presidential primary field looks to consist almost entirely of people who have been out of office for years

Republican politicians who are on the rise are sitting out the contest to challenge incumbent President Obama, by and large leaving it to those who've not successfully fought political battles in years.

Current office-holders and rising stars such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan have said they will not run. And with early possible contenders Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, and Sen. John Thune (S.D.) all now having bowed out of the running, that could leave an eventual GOP field that contains only one person who currently holds elected office -- Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the anti-war libertarian who wants to eliminate the Federal Reserve -- as well as only one serious contender who has run a successful race in the social media era, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman.

Why does this matter? Because to win the presidency it helps to have the well-known launching pad of a job as an elected official -- or, barring that, the support of a strong and growing political movement -- and be in tune with how contemporary campaigns are run.

The last time a candidate who was not an elected official at the time he ran for office won the presidency was when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980. Reagan was the GOP's next-in-line figure to seize the nomination that year, having run and lost the 1976 GOP primaries after the end of his second term as governor of California, and having built a power base as a leader of the ascendent conservative movement within the GOP. He was an early favorite in a way no GOP contender is today, according to polling data, when Republicans are facing a rare front-runnerless race, and the only intraparty movement of note, the tea party, appears to be flagging.

So far the field of Republicans vying to win the party's crown and challenge the incumbent president in 2012 has failed to excite the party's base -- perhaps because its entire top tier is made up of people who will have last held office between 2 and 14 years from the date of the next presidential inauguration.

That field includes: former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who left office under a cloud after the '98 election; former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, last in office in January, 2007; and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who just stepped down this past January and is formally launching his presidential campaign today in Iowa.

Also in the running are former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who lost reelection in 2006; former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, out of office as of early 2003; and two men who have never held elected office, former pizza magnate Herman Cain and political consultant Fred Karger. Former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, who last held office in 1992, also joined the pack in March, announcing a presidential exploratory committee in Baton Rouge. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has formed an exploratory committee but not formally launched a presidential campaign; he left office in mid-2009, abandoning the governor's chair early in his second term to become ambassador to China.

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who stepped down in the middle of her first term, leaving office in 2009, might conceivably also join the field, as might Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. Bachmann, like Paul, won reelection in 2010.

These two members of Congress aside, the 2012 GOP presidential primary field is dominated by people who have stepped off their political stepping stones and lack the day-to-day governing responsibilities that might keep them in touch with the problems of the present -- not to mention any kind of geographic connection to voters who might hold them accountable in the near-term for shifting policy views or the adoption of radical stances. With the exceptions of Bachmann, Paul, and Hunstman they also, to a one, have not run successful political campaigns during the social media era.

Below, the declared and possible 2012 GOP presidential primary contenders and the year each last won a general election contest:

Paul: 2010
Bachmann: 2010
Hunstman: 2008 (resigned in office)
Pawlenty: 2006
Palin: 2006 (resigned in office)
Romney: 2002
Santorum: 2000
Gingrich: 1998 (resigned in office)
Johnson: 1998
Roemer: 1987
Cain: never
Karger: never

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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