With Haley Barbour officially out of the presidential race, a pair of libertarian candidates in, and what appears to be a slow winnowing process underway for the Republican nomination, it's worth asking how a long-shot candidate would actually claim the prize. Jonathan Bernstein games out a possible scenario, and it seems to rely less on strategy than it does luck:
Now, I know what you're thinking: what about an alternate scenario in which a Bachmann or a Newt hangs on until the winner-takes-all states, and then the crazy vote defeats the sane vote, which is split multiple ways (or at least two ways, between Romney and Pawlenty)? I don't find that one even remotely plausible. GOP elites would swiftly move in and push one of them out before the damage is done.
No, the only way that it's going to happen is if one of these candidates quickly goes into one-on-one with a presumed nominee, who then un-presumes himself or herself. Even then, it's possible that Republicans would find a way to avoid the grim results, depending on when it happens and what happens.
Now, it could be that all nominations are the product of some combination of luck and campaigning. But it seems to me that we have several examples of candidates who were long shots and yet understood the nominating system well enough to prosper. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive list, but it seems apropos to start with Barry Goldwater, who was decidedly not the establishment candidate. Up front, we need to acknowledge that the presidential nominating process in 1964 is not the one we have today. But I actually don't think that's too relevant. The nascent conservative movement that drafted Goldwater through a combination of grassroots support and securing the loyalty of local party elites figured out how to use the nominating system to their advantage. That means a clever campaign could do the same today, just that the mechanics of it would be different.
And we have Democratic examples of this too. In 1976, Jimmy Carter's campaign figured out the surest path to victory under the new post-1972 system while his rivals thought they were still playing under the old rules. That probably won't happen again, but it's at least arguable that Barack Obama's campaign understood the mechanics of winning delegates better that the Clinton campaign did in 2008 (Mark Penn, anyone?), which set the stage for the long game of slowly accumulating a delegate lead in smaller states, which would allow the campaign to come in second in larger, more "important" states while still maintaining that lead.
The remaining question is whether any of the 2012 long shots -- or any of the Republican candidates for that matter -- have a plan for winning delegates that puts them at an advantage over their competitors. It seems that for all the ink that is spilled about these candidates, the strategists they hire, which crucial voting bloc they appeal to, how they cater to GOP elites, etc., there has been very little reporting on how they get from point A to point B. My impression is that none of the long-shot candidates have a cunning plan up their sleeve to win the nomination, but they almost have to if they want to win, or else luck really is all they have.