Not because Obama was ever going to be easy to beat, but because their shot to at least win the GOP nomination has moved from "pretty possible" in '12 to almost impossible in '16.
SD Sen. John Thune, Jeb Bush, and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
All three seriously considered presidential runs in 2012, but two of the three (Thune and Pence) seemed to spook out around the same time (January 2011), while Bush seemed to opt out for various reasons -- one of which might have been that the "Bush" name was still so fresh and sour in voters' mouths.
So what separates them from other GOP names who passed on the '12 race?
Well, the other names who passed (e.g. Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie) are still front-runners for 2016. In fact, they probably helped their cause by waiting it out.
But neither Jeb, John, or Mike did (btw, those first names should give you some idea of why the GOP, desperate for more minority support, is unlikely to nominate this trio).
So let's take a little deeper look at how these guys missed their chance.
1. Jeb Bush
This one's a bit controversial, because many put him near the top of the 2016 heap, but remember what the thesis is -- that these guys would've been much likelier to win the nomination in '12 but passed on it for '16 and missed their best chance for winning a nomination.
In fact, Jeb openly acknowledged that 2012 might have been his best shot.
"There's a window of opportunity in life for all sorts of reasons, and this was probably my time."
Conservative thought leaders were begging him to run, Democrats worried he might eat into the Hispanic vote, and for all their distaste over the Bush name, grassroots tea partiers would have reluctantly opted for Jeb instead of Romney.
Romney won because he had lots of money and no credible challenger.
But Jeb could've outraised him and would've been, in every possible way that Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were not, a credible challenger.
But in 2016, Jeb will have to contend with headwinds that make him much less likely to win than in 2012.
First, the field is much stronger.
Conservatives won't have to choose between Romney and Jeb. They can choose among Jindal, Rubio, and Cruz, while Chris Christie will likely eat into Jeb's natural base -- moderate Republicans.
Second, the GOP wants to move forward, and Bush's last name will still be backward in 2016.
Can you imagine the memes if the ostensibly modernized party ended up choosing Jeb in 2016? Yes, Bush is a visionary, but Meme-Ville and undecided voters won't get that.
Sesame Street won a few news cycles in 2012, and you can't expect the internet culture and celebrity media that acted as enablers to actually grow up in '16 and give you anything beyond a slew of new Bush/Old White GOP jokes.
Bush, quite frankly, is further away from the nomination than he was in 2012.
2. South Dakota Sen. John Thune
With all due respect to Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann, the GOP was always going to nominate a white male in 2012. And since the day 2008 ended, the front-running, white male was as exciting as raking leaves in the desert (Mitt Romney).
In that kind of environment, John Thune's version of boring (fresher, much more conservative) could've given him a significant leg up on Romney.
And nevermind that he was from South Dakota. He could've lined up plenty of money and has always been a more dogged campaigner than his easy demeanor suggests (and his discipline is relentless but not robotic -- unlike Romney who's the first and second part of that).
Thune could very easily have won the '12 nomination, but instead, passed on a run when Obama's approval ratings saw a nice jump in the early part of 2011.
Presumably, he must have thought, it would be easier to become president in '16 when there wouldn't be an incumbent.
Well, maybe so --- but not easier for John Thune.
When it comes to fresh faces in '16, there are quite a few with more charisma and better demographics. Once again, Jindal, Rubio, and Susana Martinez come to mind.
With a party desperate to stop the bleeding among minorities, it's not likely that they'll turn to South Dakota and a Biola University graduate who orderly parts his hair .
In 2008, they very well might have.
3. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence
Like Thune, he would've pleased conservatives immensely in 2012, while remaining perfectly acceptable to mainstream Republicans.
And again -- 2012 was a primary where Rick Santorum actually gave Romney a scare -- why wouldn't Pence storm into South Carolina and win the nomination shortly thereafter?
The only knock on Pence was that he was a congressman and a prominent one at that. But the base viewed him as one of the good -- maybe even the best -- in congressional GOP leadership, and "conservative congressman" probably would have trumped "Massachusetts moderate".
But Pence is now facing Thune's dilemma -- sure, he might be a fresh face, but he's the wrong demographic. A white male with a southern accent (though from the midwest) who does a wickedly good impression of George W. Bush.
And besides, throughout the 2012 race, the GOP pined, coveted, and lusted after the developing 2016 bench with very few were thinking "Just think, Pence will have been a governor for four years in 2016 and might run for president!"
The fact is that all three guys -- Bush, Thune, and Pence -- flubbed their best chance at winning the GOP nomination and now face a much steeper hill in 2016.
They punted, and now they probably won't get the ball back again.