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Jonathan Bernstein: Ben Carson another Bachmann?

No one knows how the rabble-rousing Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson will do in the Iowa caucuses and early primary states. Last time around, Rep. Michele Bachmann had at least as strong a start yet fizzled long before voters got involved. But the Carson phenomenon is part of the story for now, as a nice article in The New York Times illustrates.

How should we treat his candidacy?

Carson isn’t going to get anywhere close to the nomination. Since the current system was adopted, every nominee or candidate who has come near to being chosen has had conventional qualifications for the presidency (roughly defined as at least four years as a governor or senator; one can argue about where retired generals and prominent House members fit in, but “Fox News pundit” isn’t it).

As we know from 2012, practically anyone can parrot conservative talking points and have a few months of Republican presidential buzz, showing up in early surveys and straw polls. This gets to what the Times story doesn’t get quite right.

Yes, Republican Party actors are hoping to converge on a candidate as early as possible. But that’s in a whole different universe from where fringe candidates live. No one can do anything about them; they’ll run if they want, and they won’t affect the outcome, regardless of how big their bubble inflates or how long it takes before it pops.

We need to be careful here. Republican Party actors — the politicians, campaign and governing professionals, party officials and staff, donors, activists and other aligned interests who fight over the nomination — make up a large group. Some will support losing candidates, including Carson- like contenders. But it’s unlikely many will do so, because party actors care about winning, and inexperienced politicians are huge risks.

It’s true that calls for the party to unify behind a single candidate may mask efforts by some to get everyone else to line up behind their chosen favorite and certain policies. Coordination and competition within the party may make it seem as if anyone can jump in and potentially win.

In fact, as chaotic as the process may seem, and whatever public opinion polls or reporting may suggest, party actors will eventually settle on a plausible nominee — or at the least narrow the field down to two or three choices they find acceptable. They’ll funnel sufficient resources to that candidate or candidates (money, opinion leadership, personnel and more) to lock everyone else out of the nomination.

That’s how it should be. The people who care most about the party should have the most to say about its presidential nominees and its positions.

Jonathan Bernstein writes for Bloomberg News.