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Larry Hogan's very (very, very) narrow path to the Republican presidential nomination

Even as his game of footsie with the Never Trumpers intensifies, Gov. Larry Hogan continues to insist that he’s not interested in a suicide mission to challenge President Donald Trump in the 2020 primaries. Sure, he just spoke in New Hampshire, said some bold things (by Republican standards) about obstruction of justice and the Mueller report, and confirmed that he plans to visit 16 states as part of his non-campaign. But he says he’ll only actually run if he can win.

What are the chances that could happen? According to conventional political wisdom, virtually zero. But “virtually” is not the same thing as “absolutely.” Here’s what Governor Hogan would be up against and what he would need to do to have a shot.

Why he would probably lose

The history of primary challenges to sitting presidents isn’t good for either the challengers or the presidents. Former Nixon and Reagan White House official Pat Buchanan challenged President George H.W. Bush in 1992. He lost in the primaries, and Bush lost in the general. In 1980, Sen. Edward Kennedy won several primaries in his challenge to President Jimmy Carter, but not enough. Mr. Carter lost in November. And in 1976, Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford, coming closer than any modern challenger to besting the incumbent. But he came up short, and so did Ford in the general election. The only semi-recent time an intra-party challenge to a sitting president has worked was in 1968, when Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s strong showing in New Hampshire and Sen. Robert Kennedy’s entry into the race prompted President Lyndon Johnson to drop out. But that was before the advent of the modern primary system, and it didn’t work out for the Democrats in the general election either.

All indications suggest Mr. Hogan faces an even more uphill battle than any of those primary challengers did. Despite the strong opposition to President Trump from Democrats and many independents, he retains a strong hold on Republicans, with the most recent polling suggesting that no more than about 30 percent of GOP voters would even consider voting for someone else in the primary. Running to the left of the incumbent in a Republican primary is not usually a successful tactic — that’s not where the voters or energy are — and further complicating matters, another GOP moderate, former Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld, is already trying it. What’s worse, Mr. Weld has next-door-state advantage in New Hampshire, historically a crucial primary for insurgent candidates. Oh, and Mr. Trump has raised a ton of money while in office — about $67.5 million as of the end of last year, with the Trump-aligned Republican National Committee and pro-Trump super PACs taking in tens of millions more. Mr. Hogan has no national campaign war chest or apparatus to speak of.

What would have to happen for Hogan to have a shot

The biggest key to a Hogan nomination in 2020 is out of his hands. For him or anyone else to have a shot, something truly cataclysmic would have to happen to weaken President Trump — like, quagmire in Vietnam level bad, or pardoning Richard Nixon level distasteful. The Mueller report clearly didn’t do the trick, and waiting around for Mr. Trump’s unpresidential behavior, mendacity or recklessness to catch up to him won’t either. All those things are already baked into his support. But given President Trump’s volatility, the profusion of investigations into him and his lack of interest in actual governance, anything’s possible.

Not only would something truly cataclysmic have to happen, but the timing would need to be just about perfect. If Mr. Trump suffers a politically fatal wound too soon, a profusion of more likely GOP candidates than a moderate Maryland governor would be apt to get in, and at that point, Mr. Hogan would find himself, at best, the John Kasich of 2020. (Unless Mr. Kaisich himself is playing that role.) He would need to take leap of faith and declare for president and hope something happens between the filing deadline in November 2019 and the New Hampshire primary in February 2020. (New Hampshire is better for him than the Iowa caucuses for a variety of reasons, in particular that it’s an open contest in which independents and Democrats can vote.) He needs to be the candidate who catches fire and builds up a string of victories before other more conventional potential GOP presidential candidates can react.

Even under that unlikely scenario, a Hogan nomination is still a long shot. After New Hampshire come Nevada and South Carolina (neither great territory for him) and then Super Tuesday. Mr. Hogan could conceivably do well in that day’s primaries in neighboring Virginia and possibly some parts of New England, but that delegate rich contest is tilted toward big southern states like Texas, Alabama and Tennessee. It would be tough to survive until the next good day on the calendar for him, the Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Rhode Island primaries on April 28.

Mr. Hogan’s only real hope is to be the right person at the right time, and to that end, keeping the door open by traveling to New Hampshire and planning trips to another 16 states makes sense. But if you’re an anti-Trump Republican hoping he’s your savior, don’t hold your breath.

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