Conventional wisdom describes the battle for the GOP nomination in 2012 as wide open and unpredictable, but Republican history suggests that there is an obvious front runner who is nearly certain to represent his party in the presidential race.
For nearly 70 years, since long before most of the current contenders were even born, GOP leaders and primary voters have displayed a shockingly consistent tendency to pick a candidate whose previous national campaign, whether successful or not, suggested it was “his turn.” This means that with very rare exceptions, Republicans choose a sitting president or Vice President, or else the runner up in the previous nomination fight.
The pattern began in 1944, when the GOP convention in Chicago voted almost unanimously (General Douglas MacArthur received a single, symbolic delegate vote) to select Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York as the party standard bearer. Though only 42-years-old, Dewey had been runner-up (to Wendell Wilkie) at the convention four years before, and actually led all candidates on the first delegate ballot. After losing to FDR in a surprisingly close race in the midst of World War II, Dewey claimed the nomination again four years later, but Harry Truman won the election in one of the epic upsets of American political history.
The next race, 1952, offered one of only two examples in modern Republican history when the heir apparent failed to claim the nomination. Ohio Senator Robert Taft, widely acclaimed as “Mr. Republican,” lost a hard-fought battle to the peerless war hero, General Dwight Eisenhower, who won the election in a landslide and then earned re-nomination and re-election by even greater margins. Ike’s loyal two-term Vice President, Richard Nixon, got the nomination by acclamation in 1960, before losing his squeaker race to John F. Kennedy (with a popular vote even closer than Bush vs. Gore). After three times on a competitive national ticket, Nixon was the obvious nominee in 1968, and for his successful re-election in ’72, while his appointed Vice President and successor, Gerald Ford, got the nod four years later.
Ford only won that 1976 nomination after a long, bitter struggle against conservative challenger Ronald Reagan, so Governor Reagan naturally captured the nomination easily in 1980 (and for his sweeping re-election victory four years later). His Vice President, George H. W. Bush, became the anointed candidate in 1988 and ’92, while the Republican runner-up for that first Bush nomination, Senator Bob Dole, inevitably drew the nod in 1996.
In 2000, after two embattled terms of Bill Clinton, the closest thing to an heir apparent for Republicans was Governor Bush of Texas – like Senator Bob Taft, the son of a prior president.