Win, Place, and Show

Apropos of a couple of pieces linked to by Andrew Sullivan about the future of GOP Presidential politics beyond this year, let me just say this: the race for second place matters, empirically, quite a bit. And the best evidence is this election season.

The GOP has a strong penchant for nominating whoever has next “earned their turn.” And very frequently, the way they tell who earned it is by looking at who came in second last time around.

In 1976, Ronald Reagan gave President Gerald Ford a run for his money. In 1980, he was the nominee.

In 1980, George H. W. Bush won the Iowa caucuses, and came in second to Ronald Reagan in the primary contests. He was selected as Reagan’s VP, became his heir apparent, and got the nomination for President in 1988.

In 1988, Bob Dole, who had been Ford’s VP nominee in 1976, won the Iowa caucuses, and looked like a formidable contender for the nomination. After losing New Hampshire, he faded, but he still came in second to Bush. In 1996, he became the nominee.

The 2000 election was something of an exception to the above rule. George W. Bush had never come in second running for President before. Second place in 1996 went to Pat Buchanan; third place to Steve Forbes. Buchanan was unacceptable to a broad spectrum of Republican leaders, and was effectively drummed out of the party after 1996; he wound up running an independent campaign in 2000. Forbes would have been acceptable ideologically but was obviously absurd as a candidate. So the field was genuinely open – there was nobody who was obviously “next.” George W. Bush didn’t so much earn the blessing of the establishment as inherit it; it was his “turn” on the basis of primogeniture. It didn’t hurt him that the other major candidate, John McCain, ran against the establishment when he was unable to lock up its support.

But, interestingly enough, that opposition to the establishment in 2000, and his flirtation with the Democrats out of pique in the wake of the 2000 election, were not enough to prevent McCain, who came in second in 2000, from winning the nomination in 2008.

And, finally, Mitt Romney, who is overwhelmingly likely to be the nominee this year, has earned that position primarily by coming in second in the 2008 primary contest. I don’t think anybody is deluded into thinking he is a particularly strong candidate. But he ran last time, came in second (in total votes and states won, that is; Huckabee actually came in second in the delegate count), and his full-time job since then has been lobbying for establishment support. That’s how he earned the nomination.

If Romney gets the nomination and loses, whoever hangs in and fights him for the nomination over the long haul, assuming they aren’t wildly unacceptable to the party establishment, will automatically be in contention for 2016. Ron Paul is wildly unacceptable to the party establishment; Gingrich, for different reasons, probably is, too. But Huntsman, Santorum and Perry aren’t. No one should assume that if they lose this time around, they are gone. That’s not the way the GOP works.

Of course, a historical trend is just that – a trend; it doesn’t guarantee anything at all. But Republican Party history suggests that the race to be the “not-Romney” is far from irrelevant, even if Romney winds up as the nominee.