Considering the clear GOP pattern, it should have surprised no one that the candidate Bush beat for the nomination—Senator John McCain of Arizona – seized the prize in 2008, despite a good deal of intra-party grumbling about his “maverick” reputation.
Since 1952, in fact, the only race where the GOP heir apparent failed to become the party standard-bearer proved such a crushing disaster for the party that Republicans have stayed away from surprise candidates ever since. Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona ran an insurgent conservative campaign in 1964 against “The Eastern Establishment” of “country club” Republicans, represented by Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York. Goldwater won a series of tough primaries and secured the nomination, but proceeded to lose 44 states in the general election, and handed Lyndon Johnson’s triumphant Democrats two-thirds majorities in both House and Senate.
Unlike the Republicans with their powerful preference for obvious, well-known front-runners, Democrats have nominated several dark horse candidates in recent years, but with decidedly mixed results. Senator George McGovern from the sparsely-populated state of South Dakota became the Democratic nominee in 1972 but went on to lose 49 of 50 states (including South Dakota). The one-term governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, emerged as the unexpected nominee in ’76 and won a close race for the White House, but became a deeply unpopular one-term president whose sanctimonious reputation burdened his party for decades.
Yes, the GOP might follow the occasional Democratic example and select from an array of appealing and promising fresh faces in 2012, with potential candidacies from Governors Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Senator John Thune of, yes, South Dakota.
The most likely outcome by far, however, would see the GOP reverting to form and selecting this year’s well-known heir apparent: former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. He came close to wresting the nomination from John McCain two years ago and ran a credible, well-financed national campaign. His most serious opposition might come from two other figures who ran national campaigns last time: Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin. But Huckabee’s 2008 presidential run, powered by his formidable communications skill, suffered consistently from limited financial resources and he’s made little progress in building his fund-raising base. Palin also inspired millions of Republicans after her selection as Vice Presidential nominee, but with a series of rookie gaffes and a polarizing persona her one experience as a national candidate can hardly qualify as an unmitigated success.
Romney remains the safe choice – last time’s runner up for the nomination, and a mainstream conservative broadly acceptable to many Tea Party insurgents as well as veteran office-holders.
Most of all, the suave and savvy candidate has history on his side. The last two generations prove that Republicans award their nomination to the obvious guy who’s next in line. For 2012, that means that Mitt’s the Man.