How do you solve a problem like George Pataki, or like Rick Santorum, or like Lindsey Graham? Or — more challenging still — how do you solve the problem that George Pataki, Rick Santorum and Lindsey Graham have?
The three — one a former governor of New York, one a former senator from Pennsylvania, one a sitting senator from South Carolina — are beginning candidacies for the Republican presidential nomination. Taken together, their national poll results add up to around 4 percentage points. And yet they’ve served a dozen years each in demanding, high-profile political positions customarily regarded as plausible launching pads for national office.
Then there are Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. None of them is an announced presidential candidate — yet. But they almost certainly will be soon. Together they account for a quarter-century of leading complex political states. Together they account for less than 6 percentage points in national polls.
All this poses a double-barreled question: How can this cast of Republican presidential candidates, which could reach 20 before the Iowa caucuses begin Feb 1, possibly sit on one stage for a debate? And given that the television networks that air these debates have signaled that they will bar some of the candidates, how do those at the bottom of the polls propel themselves into contention — and onto the stage?
The answer to both: Not easily.
Fox News and CNN, which will hold debates this summer, have established separate criteria to determine who gets to participate in their sessions, but both will eliminate candidates who don’t have average poll ratings in the top 10.
That may seem like a reasonable standard, but it is not foolproof. At this time in the political cycle in 1972, Sen. George S. McGovern of South Dakota averaged 5 percentage points in the polls. He won the Democratic presidential nomination. At this time in the political cycle in 1976, former Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia polled an average 1 percent in national polls. He won the Democratic nomination — and the presidency.
Mr. Carter, who stood below former Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York, did not rank in the top 10 in 1975. Mr. Carter ranked just below Rep. Morris K. Udall of Arizona, who checked in with 1.7 percent. Mr. Udall was Mr. Carter’s most ferocious and persistent challenger in that 1976 Democratic campaign.
And though Mr. Pataki and Mr. Kasich may seem like presidential long shots, they have occupied positions that have propelled occupants to the White House. Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt all were former governors of New York. Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley both served as governor of Ohio.
Mr. Graham, who is to announce Monday, can take comfort that a onetime senator from South Carolina, John C. Calhoun, served as vice president under two different chief executives, was both secretary of state and secretary of war, and mounted several presidential campaigns.
None of this is likely to help those three, however. The rules of the road for 2016 require high poll ratings and, in a crowded field of declared candidates, that is going to be harder to do in 2015 than it was in 1971 and 1975.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who ranks sixth in the RealClearPolitics poll average and thus easily qualifies for both summer debates, kept himself in the news earlier this month by speaking for more than 10 hours on the Senate floor, inveighing against extending the Patriot Act’s phone surveillance provisions. It was a phony filibuster, pre-planned and professionally managed. As Mr. Paul spoke, his campaign took full advantage of the gambit (his website: “I’m not backing down from this upcoming fight. Are you with me?”) and even sold souvenirs (the shirts: “The NSA knows I bought this NSA tshirt”).
That opportunity is not available to governors, who, because state capital news bureaus have been so diminished in recent years, often struggle to win coverage in their own state, let alone nationally. But 17 governors have become president, including, in recent times, Ronald Reagan of California, Bill Clinton of Arkansas and George W. Bush of Texas. Some 23 others, including Michael Dukakis and Mitt Romney, both of Massachusetts, served as governor before winning presidential nominations only to lose November elections.
So what are these major figures who rest in the minor leagues of presidential politics to do?
Sometimes a major speech (Gary Hart on nuclear arms in Iowa, 1983) or a bravura performance at a candidate forum (Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin this year, also in Iowa) will produce a breakout. Sometimes an imaginative ad campaign (Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, taking an aggressive anti-auto import position during the usual advertising hiatus between Christmas and New Year’s Day, 1988) changes the dynamic.
Of course, sometimes thefrontrunner does win the nomination and all the machinations of those at the bottom are rendered meaningless. That happened with Richard Nixon in 1960 and 1968, with former Vice President Walter F. Mondale in 1984, with Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988 and with both nominees in 2000, Vice President Albert Gore Jr. and Gov. Bush.
But in the 2016 GOP race there is no discernible frontrunner. The distance between former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Mr. Walker is an average 2.6 percentage points. And in one poll, Mr. Rubio leads. In another, Mr. Walker leads.
But resolving the nomination is far off. Getting into contention is Job One for the new candidates. And it will be hard for a candidate to get into contention unless he or she is involved in the debates.
Then again, maybe the barrier to entry isn’t quite as formidable as it may seem.
The two people tied for the No. 10 position — the contenders these other candidates have to surpass — are Mr. Perry and Mr. Kasich. They stand at 2.0 percent in the polls. That requires a leap of 0.3 percentage points for former Sen. Santorum of Pennsylvania, who announced his candidacy last week. He's now resting at 1.7 percent. Maybe this won't be so hard after all.