Editor's note: John P. Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."
(CNN) -- Why are so many potential GOP presidential candidates turning down 2012?
In recent weeks, Mike Huckabee, Haley Barbour, John Thune and (I suppose it has to be said) Donald Trump have declined to run. Now Mitch Daniels is facing a draft movement and debating whether to get in the race.
It's not just a tacit admission that running against President Obama is an uphill battle. The economy and electoral map offer challengers too much encouragement for that to be a sufficient explanation.
Instead, there seems to be an additional factor -- the recognition that running the primary gauntlet today means signing up for the systematic destruction of your reputation.
Look, politics ain't bean bag. It has always been a rough and tumble business requiring the strength to endure a steady barrage of attacks. That is the price of admission to the big leagues.
But the fact that the GOP's field is still so unsettled --and for many in the GOP, unsatisfying -- this late in the cycle is notable.
Some will just say that running against an incumbent is a less appealing race. But it's also true that the United States saw a succession of one-term presidents from the 1970s to the early 1990s -- Presidents Ford, Carter and the first George Bush, punctuated by the two terms of Ronald Reagan. The predictive factor is the economy, and Obama remains vulnerable on this front.
While he inherited an economy in freefall, unemployment remains close to 9 percent, and gas prices exceed $4 at the pump with no decline in sight. Moreover, a recent Gallup poll shows Americans are more pessimistic about the economy than at any point in the past two years. A seasoned politician would look at those numbers and see an opportunity to become the next resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
An additional inducement comes with a look at the electoral map. For all the powers of incumbency, Obama has a narrower path to victory ahead of him. Swing states he won in 2008, like Indiana and North Carolina, are unlikely to fall into his column again. Unemployment remains stubbornly high in the must-win states of Florida and Ohio.
So why isn't there a general stampede to get in the race?
One of the still evolving consequences of our Internet-driven political debate is that the various factional leaders of the two parties are primed to go on the attack the moment a new candidate enters the ring. Candidates know that their best day will be the day before they announce.
Take, for example, the case of Mike Huckabee. If he had announced a run for president on Saturday night, the guns would have been blazing in his direction the next morning from conservative as well as liberal websites. Anticipatable attacks would include that Mike Huckabee had a Willie Horton problem (he gave clemency to a prisoner named Maurice Clemmons who later committed rape and murder). There is Huck's ideological sin of having supported cap-and-trade climate legislation in 2007, as well as the fact he raised some taxes in order to help balance the budget in Arkansas.
Mike Huckabee calculated that not running was the better deal. He gets to keep his contract at Fox and pay down his $2.8 million mortgage on a Florida Panhandle home. Instead of getting knee-capped, he gets lauded and courted, called a statesman by would-be competitors and hailed as the respected king-maker he will no doubt be in advance of the Iowa caucus.
For Huckabee and others considering a presidential run, there is more to lose than there is to gain by running in terms of financial costs, costs to reputation and strain on their family. And this could have a chilling effect on our democracy.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is deciding whether to run for president right now. He's got a great fiscal record as governor of Indiana, the issue that unites the fractious GOP with independent voters.
But like many Americans, Daniels has a complicated personal life. His wife left him for another man before she rejoined the family and they remarried. That is an unprecedented situation that will provoke unkind attacks from Democrats and Republicans alike and drive a degree of the narrative.
Add to that Daniels' wise and brave suggestion that there should be a cease-fire on social issues that has already provoked pre-emptive strikes from social conservative activists online and warnings of more to come.
I hope that Daniels gets in the race -- I think he'd make a strong candidate on substance and elevate the debate -- but his reluctance is not irrational. Here's the deeper problem. In our recent history there've been three main reasons people run for president.
The first (and best) is they think they can win and believe they're the right person for the job. A secondary group runs to raise their profile, to increase intra-party influence and in some cases to qualify for matching funds they can benefit from in the process. (See Al Sharpton's 2004 presidential campaign.)
A third reason is to advance an ideological agenda and help shape the debate. These candidates, Ron Paul is an example, have little reason to believe they can actually win the presidency, but their participation builds a legacy.
In the current political environment, potential candidates like Congresswoman Michele Bachmann --who are proud to be polarizing figures -- have little disincentive to run. She has found ways to actually profit from being polarizing, raising mounds of campaign cash from conflict. She won't win a general election, but that's not the point. She has nothing to lose.
A candidate who wants to run for the first reason, however, faces a hyper-partisan primary process that will turn their general election strengths into a liability.
The polarization of the two parties empowers the extremes. And one of the impacts of the Internet on our political discourse is an acceleration of the attack cycle, the ability to amplify lies and distortions to gain tactical advantage.
Facing these dynamics, plus the uphill climb against an incumbent, many potential candidates conclude that they have more to lose than they have to gain by running for president. That calculus is not just a reflection of fire in the belly. It reflects a troubling trend in our democracy, an upside-down incentive system.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.