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.
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.