Whose Turn Will It Be to Be the Republican Presidential Nominee in 2016?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

With Rick Santorum's withdrawal from the 2012 Presidential race, the punditocracy is now focusing on the possible choices for Mitt Romney's running mate, as well as on the head-to-head contest between Romney and President Obama. A few have commented on Santorum's future prospects, focusing on his assertions that "the fight is not over," and similar comments. To me, however, the most interesting question is whether Santorum will become the presumptive nominee in 2016 (or, should Romney beat the odds and be the incumbent in 2016, in 2020). Will the political class decide that it is "Santorum's turn"?

To be clear, there is no good reason why a party's presidential nomination should go to the person who is (through some mysterious process) deemed to be next in line. The party's voters can presumably find a candidate's qualities appealing (though not quite appealing enough) in one year, but not in the very different environment four or eight years later. Certainly, the Democratic Party has no tradition or pattern of rewarding also-rans in primaries with subsequent presumptive front-runner status. The Democrats, for that matter, often seem to treat their nominees who lose general elections as lepers (see Dukakis, M.), leaving those who lost in the primaries as after-thoughts, at best.

The Republicans, however, have shown a clear pattern of awarding the nomination by entitlement, at least in the last generation or so. In January, February, and into March of this year, it was fun to imagine that Romney might lose, which allowed everyone to treat the primaries as meaningful. But it was never really in doubt. Romney was next in line, and the establishment treated him that way when push came to shove. They often quite conspicuously held their noses, making it more difficult for Romney to close the deal. Still, the endorsements came when needed in Florida, in Wisconsin, and so on.

In 2008, the supposed centrist John McCain was nominated (defeating the conservative alternative, Romney), after being treated as the nominee-in-waiting for eight years, following his shockingly shabby treatment by the Bush team in 2000. Even though McCain stumbled during the pre-primary season in 2007, he was able to re-emerge from supposed oblivion, with the blessing of the party's establishment.

There was no race in 2004. In 2000, no candidate could plausibly claim to be next in line, and the race opened up to a legacy nominee, who really had no hope of winning in such a strong economy. We know what happened next. In 1996, it was Bob Dole's turn, for having been a party stalwart forever (and a one-time losing Vice Presidential candidate). 1992 was another incumbent's year. In 1988, George H.W. Bush was next in line, for having served so humbly under Reagan, after placing second in the 1980 primaries.

Admittedly, there are only a few data points to work with here. They all, however, support the next-in-line theory of Republican nominations. (As a possible datum contradicting the theory, 2000 could have been viewed as the year in which it was Dan Quayle's turn; but the party unceremoniously spurned his ambitions. His claims to be that year's "next guy in line," however, were rather weak, to say the least.)

If the theory is valid, however, one must ask: Will 2016 be a year in which it is someone's turn, or a year like 2000? One possibility is that the VP nominee in a losing 2012 race could become the next guy (or, much less likely, the next gal). Short of that, Santorum's claim would be that he is the equivalent of Romney in 2012, McCain in 2008, and Bush I in 1988. He ran surprisingly strongly. He came in a decent second place. He exited with some dignity. He stayed in the game. "I've got next!"

The counter-argument to that story is that Santorum's second place finish was pure happenstance. In a year in which stronger potential candidates refused to run (Huckabee, Palin), Romney's competition resembled little more than the alumni of a clown college. Pawlenty, Bachmann, Perry, Cain (Cain!), Gingrich, and Santorum. Punch lines all. Santorum just happened to find a billionaire to back his superPAC at a time when only the execrable Gingrich and the impossible Paul remained. Had the timing worked out differently, it could just as easily have been Bachmann who won the Iowa caucuses (which, it is easy to forget, Santorum won this year), and Santorum would have dropped out with poll numbers rounding down to zero. Furthermore, Jeb Bush (who also stayed out this year) could jump in front of everyone to be dubbed the next guy in line for 2016.

All well and good. As I am not in the prediction game (for this kind of thing, anyway), I am simply laying out some of the more obvious possible story lines for 2016. What I find interesting at this point in the analysis, however, is whether Santorum might be able to pull off what Romney and McCain pulled off in their respective years. That is, could Santorum take a hard right policy agenda into the primaries (and, in McCain's case, eight years of undermining any claim to being a moderate or a maverick), only to be viewed somehow as the moderate alternative to someone even crazier than any of the 2012 crowd?

Note that this does not actually require that Santorum run against someone who is crazier than he is. Romney was not to McCain's right in any meaningful sense in 2008, but McCain was "the moderate." Because political insiders tend to view a placid demeanor as one strong marker of being a moderate, Santorum could be re-branded as Mr. Middle. Or, at least, Mr. Has-To-Sell-Himself-to-the-Suddenly-Skeptical-Base.

Stranger things have happened. William Rehnquist is no longer viewed as an extremist Supreme Court justice. Bruce Fein is now a moderate legal commentator. The current version of Romney is somehow mistaken for an earlier version of Romney. It might take an especially strong shake of the Etch-a-Sketch to make people forget about Santorum's anti-college, anti-contraception, anti-JFK performance in 2012 (to say nothing of "man-on-dog" and the Google bomb of Santorum's name). Our political insiders, however, surely have proved over the years that they possess the arm strength to wipe Santorum's slate clean. Then, it would be Santorum's turn.