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The meltdown of the supposed presidential ambitions of John Ensign and Mark Sanford this month (plus the apparent sidelining of Jon Huntsman last month) has led to renewed if premature speculation about the 2012 presidential field. And inevitably, we are again hearing one of the most frequently repeated and rarely challenged myths (I use the term in the sense of a widely-held totemic belief, not to suggest it is presumptively wrong) about Republican presidential nominations: in open contests, GOPers always go for the candidate “next-in-line” by dint of earlier candidacies.

This myth was succinctly articulated just the other day by the generally insightful CNN analyst Bill Schneider in a National Journal column:

When it comes time to nominate a candidate for president, Republicans usually nominate whoever is next in line. That often means someone who’s unsuccessfully run for president before. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain — all of them had already tried at least once.

Interestingly, the next-in-line myth seems most likely to come up right now in connection with predictions that Mitt Romney will win the prize, viz. this Mike Potemra June 15 post at National Review‘s The Corner:

The Republicans always nominate for president the candidate who’s next in line, even if that person is deeply unpopular (e.g., the GOP base’s hatred for John McCain did not prevent him from being nominated; he was the guy who lost to Bush in 2000, ergo…). In 2008, the runner-up was Romney. Add to that frontrunner status the fact that Romney has credibility on economics and budgeting, and he’s the prohibitive favorite.

The next-in-line myth is frequently mixed with various psychological assertions about the nature of Republicans as opposed to Democrats: they are more disciplined, hierarchical, tradition-bound, or cautious, so they never really look at fresh faces.

As some of you may know, this kind of myth-based analysis is like catnip to me (see here and here), so it’s worth taking a closer look at this one as well, which I have always suspected of being an oversimplification at best and lacking a lot of predictive value.

The next-in-line myth is generally based on fairly recent precedents (perhaps because it clearly doesn’t work for the only two seriously contested nominations between World War II and Vietnam, the 1952 and 1964 cycles). So let’s look at the eleven presidential campaigns from 1968 through 2008. For Republicans, five of those (1972, 1976, 1984, 1992 and 2004) involved the renomination of incumbent presidents, so we are really only talking about six. (Right away, one should note that smaller data sets tend to produce more dubious “rules.”) In those six campaigns, the “next-in-line” myth is held to have dictated the results in five: Nixon in 1968, Reagan in 1980, G.H.W. Bush in 1988, Dole in 1996 and McCain in 2008. Some might argue that George W. Bush was “next-in-line” in 2000 as the son of a former president, but that idea starts introducing other factors, and in any event, Bush’s chief rival, John McCain, hadn’t run for president before either, so it’s not really relevant.

By way of comparison, Democrats had nine campaigns from 1968 through 2008 that didn’t involve the renomination of incumbent presidents, and in five of those nine cycles (1976, 1988, 1992, 2004 and 2008) the winner was someone who had not run for president before. There are, for the record, two marginal cases: George McGovern, who had a brief, convention-based candidacy in 1968 as a holding action for delegates pledged previously to Robert Kennedy, and Fritz Mondale in 1984, who had begun but quickly abandoned a presidential campaign in 1972. Mondale, of course, was on the national ticket in 1976 and served four years as vice-president. But still, whether the number is five or seven, it is clear that Democrats have been more willing since 1968 to nominate someone who hasn’t been a credible presidential candidate in the past.

Mondale’s case, (and for that matter, Hubert Humphrey’s in 1968) however, raises one of the more obvious weaknesses of the next-in-line myth as defined by prior presidential candidacies: presence on a national ticket, particularly a winning ticket, is clearly a stronger credential than a failed second-place presidential campaign. Nobody would go too far out on a limb to argue that Bush 41’s status as Ronald Reagan’s loyal veep for eight years was less important in 1988 than his 1980 presidential candidacy, and the same holds true for Democrat Al Gore in 2000. Moreover, Bob Dole’s presence on the GOP ticket in 1976 gave him a lot more national visibility than his brief and disastrous 1980 presidential run. This is relevant today because Sarah Palin, not Mitt Romney, has served on a national ticket.

So the GOP next-in-line myth already has some holes when it comes to 1988 and 1996, which means that it didn’t necessarily hold in three of the five elections at issue.

Now political myths can be questioned not just because empirical data contradict them, but also because other factors are equally important. It’s immediately apparent that the next-in-line myth takes for granted assets that tend to come with, but that do not absolutely require, prior presidential candidacies–name ID, grassroots support and money.

In 1968, for example, Richard Nixon had the first and third assets via a career that stretched back to his House service from 1949-51. And in the absence of a conservative challenger (until the too-late Reagan candidacy at the Convention), he inherited much of the Goldwater activist network, particularly in the South. Did his prior presidential campaign help him obtain these assets? Of course. But did it guarantee it? Of course not. I’d say Nixon’s promises to Strom Thurmond on the vice-presidency, civil rights, defense, and even textile imports–crucial in keeping the South in line–had more to do with his nomination victory than his next-in-line status.

Two other factors that the next-in-line myth tends to ignore are ideology and “electability,” which become obvious if you look at the actual dynamics of actual nominating contests.

On the power of ideology, Reagan in 1980 is the obvious example. Yes, Ronald Reagan began his campaign trying to look like the “next in line;” recordings of “Hail to the Chief” greeted him at every appearance. But then he lost to Bush in Iowa, and after firing his campaign manager, remembered that his leadership of the conservative movement was a much bigger political asset that his “inevitability.” Reagan ran a highly ideological campaign in New Hampshire and thereafter, and the rest was history.

Similarly, G.H.W. Bush lost to Bob Dole in Iowa, and then got his nomination campaign back on track in New Hampshire by running almost exclusively on a no-tax pledge that Dole wouldn’t emulate. Bush ultimately had the support of virtually the entire conservative movement, including the Christian Right.

The only cases since 1968 where it can be persuasively argued that “next-in-line” factors trumped ideology among Republicans were in 1996 and 2008. Dole in 1996 and McCain in 2008, to be clear, had both gone the extra mile in reassuring conservatives on core issues like taxes and abortion. But more importantly, both men benefited from the weaknesses and divisions among their more-conservative opponents. Dole’s lucky break was the emergence of Pat Buchanan (theoretically, BTW, the “next in line” as the second-place finisher in 1992) as his main rival on the Right, an solidified, ironically, when Buchanan beat Dole in New Hampshire. Buchanan terrified Republican elites, particularly in the business community, and it was relatively easy for Dole to beat him in later primaries. The other credible candidate, Lamar (!) Alexander, never gained the trust of party conservatives and was also running on an anti-congressional message that was deeply undercut by the Republican landslide of 1994.

A similar dynamic developed in 2008. McCain was not the least conservative candidate for the nomination–that dubious honor belonged to Rudy Giuliani–and his electability credentials based on general election polling were a formidable asset as compared to more conservative rivals like Romney and Huckabee. Recently conservative blogger Alex Knepper, in one of the few challenges to the “next-in-line” myth I’ve found, nicely summed up McCain’s much-less-than-inevitable route to the nomination:

A few thousand votes the other way in New Hampshire or South Carolina and John McCain would have been eliminated. He walked a tightrope to the nomination. Nobody “fell in line” behind John McCain. He never even won a majority of the votes before Super Tuesday. One different move by Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee along the way and McCain could have been denied the nomination. What if McCain had lost South Carolina, perhaps leading to Charlie Crist and Mel Martinez endorsing Rudy Giuliani? What if Mitt Romney had won New Hampshire, leading to a Michigan blowout and a siphoning of votes from McCain in South Carolina, snowballing into a Florida win? To speak of McCain’s win as inevitable is history being rewritten under our noses.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that the next-in-line myth is all true. What would it indicate about 2012? Those claiming the myth makes it inevitable that Mitt Romney will win the nomination sometimes appear to forget that Mike Huckabee actually won more delegates than Romney, and stayed in the race longer. Are there reasons that the rich and telegenic Romney might be stronger than Huckabee (a poor fundraiser with some wacky cultural positions deeply mistrusted by Republican business elites)? Yes, but they have nothing to do with the “next-in-line” factor. And Romney’s own weaknesses, like those of Sarah Palin, are as attributable to misgivings that arose during his 2008 campaign as to the mesmerizing power that the prior candidacy is supposed to exert.

The more you really look at it, the “next-in-line” myth seems to live on mainly as a way for conservatives to wash their hands of responsibility for a couple of GOP nominees–particularly McCain in 2008–they didn’t much like and who went on to perform dismally in the general election. Of course candidates with prior campaign experience have some advantages; that’s like one of those double-loaded statistics in sports (e.g., starting pitchers win a lot of games when they last into the late innings) that tell you virtually nothing other than that success breeds success, and winners win. In that spirit, all we really know about the 2012 Republican nominating process is that the future lies ahead.

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