Unless there’s an incumbent president or vice president in the race, the Republican Party always nominates the second-place finisher from the last primary. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway, and it goes all the way back to sad sack Thomas Dewey, the butt of the greatest YA BURNT photograph in US political history:
Dewey was actually the presumptive front-runner for the fight to get clobbered by FDR in 1940 before Wendell Willkie “Harry Truman’ed” (has anybody copyrighted that?) him at the Republican Convention that year. He turned his loss into a successful campaign for NY governor and then back to back nominations in 1944 and 1948. The Republican runner up in 1944, Ohio governor John Bricker, ran as Dewey’s VP candidate that year and then, in kind of a jerk move, endorsed fellow Ohio senator (Bricker had changed jobs in the interim) Robert Taft in 1948 instead of his former running mate.
OK, it’s true that in 1952 the 1948 runner-up, Taft, was once again passed over in favor of Dwight Eisenhower, but for one thing, I think we can all agree that the general who defeated the Nazis was kind of an abnormally imposing candidate in 1952, so it’s hard to make any major historical assumptions around his candidacy, and for another thing, his nomination actually does fit another historical pattern that I’ll suggest in a minute. But after Eisenhower’s two turns, the list of Republican nominees looks like this:
1960–Nixon (incumbent VP, lost general)
1964–Goldwater (runner-up in 1960, lost general)
1968–Nixon (doesn’t fit the pattern, won general)
1972–Nixon (incumbent, won general)
1976–Ford (incumbent, albeit unelected, lost general)
1980–Reagan (runner-up in 1976 and, really, in 1968 as well, won general)
1984–Reagan (incumbent, won general)
1988–Bush I (incumbent VP and runner-up in 1980, won general)
1992–Bush I (incumbent, lost general)
1996–Dole (runner-up in 1988, lost general)
2000–Bush II (doesn’t fit, won general)
2004–Bush II (incumbent, won general)
2008–McCain (doesn’t fit, exactly, but was runner-up in 2000, lost general)
2012–Romney (runner-up in 2008, lost general)
I think we can discard 2008, where according to the pattern the nominee should have been Dick Cheney, since Cheney didn’t run. But Eisenhower’s nomination in 1952, Nixon’s in 1968, and Bush II’s in 2000 don’t fit the pattern, and the reason is that in each case an openly extreme right-wing candidate caused the party to reset. Taft was far to the right in 1952, and it was his conservatism, which included a staunch isolationism, that drove the moderate Republican establishment to start the “Draft Eisenhower” movement. Goldwater had basically written the urtext of American conservatism, The Conscience of a Conservative, in 1960, and was a hero in the
racist anti-civil rights South, but he was so soundly thrashed by Johnson that the party started to tear itself apart along ideological lines. It was former candidate Nixon who benefited, and who won the nomination over the deeply flawed 1964 runner-up (and moderate standard-bearer) Nelson Rockefeller, because Nixon could credibly bridge the widening gulf between the party’s two wings. Bush II, in 2000, had his name and his fund-raising Rolodex going for him, but he also benefited from the fact that Dole’s runner-up in 1996 was professional loon Pat Buchanan, who didn’t even try to seek the Republican nomination and headed up the Reform Party ticket instead.
All of this is to say that the “runner-up” rule of Republican presidential politics can be broken, and when it is broken it’s because somebody involved (either the “next guy in line” or the last guy to win the nomination in the case of Goldwater) is too openly/stridently conservative for the party’s mainstream. Which brings us to Rick Santorum, who was “Mitt” Romney’s runner-up in 2012 but is being virtually ignored by GOP political thinkers (or “thinker,” in the case of Bill Kristol) as they make
wild guesses savvy, educated predictions about 2016, despite the fact that he is very obviously telegraphing his intention to run (for an overview of the whole Santorum discussion, read this). It’s not like they’re ignoring Santorum in the face of massive evidence of his popular support, either; Santorum is firmly in “Other” territory in national polling (it must be said that he does considerably better in Iowa polling, though still not great considering he effectively tied Romney in Iowa in 2012).
There are two reasons why Santorum is on the outside looking in with respect to the 2016 field: he’s a lousy candidate on the stump and his policies are perfectly calibrated to turn-off Republican donors. Bush II wasn’t a great candidate in the pure theater sense–not a great orator, not a quick thinker off the cuff–but he never had a series of nasty/reactionary episodes like Santorum did, from “JFK made me want to throw up” to “Obama is a snob because he thinks people should go to college” to “I’m the only candidate in the race who will talk about the evils of contraception” (which, well, there’s a reason for that, Senator). Polished candidates don’t flash their resentment/radicalism/personal nastiness like that, even if it’s bubbling under the surface. Worse, he’s identified as the hardest-right religious conservative candidate in the field (that whole contraception thing didn’t help), which is simply not appealing to the libertine/”libertarian” big-money folks who make up the core of the Republican money machine. Byron York gets the flaws, but thinks that Santorum’s economic populism (which, it seems to me, is much more rhetorical than actual, but I digress) ought to balance that out. But Larison is right; if Santorum’s biggest problem is that Republican donors don’t care for his social radicalism, the last thing that’s going to win them over is a platform based on economic populism (though I agree with James Joyner that Larison overestimates the degree to which Santorum’s muscular foreign policy stances would hurt him in a GOP primary).
It’s pretty likely that 2016, like 2000, 1968, and 1952 before it, is going to a “reset” year for the Republicans at the presidential level. These things seem to come along every 4 or so presidential cycles, and always involves some course correction back toward moderation (at least in terms of style and rhetoric). Although the center of the party keeps moving further right, it’s still not prepared to nominate someone from its far-right fringe, even if it is that person’s “turn.” Arguably it was the Republican domination of the White House in the 1970s and 80s that caused such a long break between the last two resets (1968 and 2000), though this whole “periodic reset” thing is all just a theory I cooked up today so I’m not ready to really go to the mat over its validity.
The upshot? Sorry, Rick Santorum, but 2016 probably still ain’t your year.