Why History Says that Mitt Romney Will be the GOP Nominee
I'm far from 100% sold on Mitt Romney at this point in time. While the Governor is able to speak articulately and passionately on a number of issues that matter to me, such as taxes, spending, and national defense, his record as Governor of Massachusetts and as a candidate for the Senate in that state leaves lingering doubts that the man may be just a little bit wobbly at a time when iron is required.
Even with the allowances that must be made for a Republican running for office in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the desire for a candidate whose conservatism is absolutely unquestioned and undiluted is certainly understandable. Yet, at the same time, I would be reluctant to write the man off -- and I would certainly discourage any Republicans from doing so -- since a fair examination of historical trends suggests that Governor Romney will likely be sworn in at the 45th President of the United States at noon on January 20, 2013.
First, let's look at the practical case that Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee for President. Looking at the current field, it's hard to deny that he's the front-runner for the nod. He leads in fundraising by a mile -- and he has the ability to self-fund if necessary. He leads in every national poll. In a divided and fractured field he has the clearest path to the nomination: skip Iowa, win New Hampshire, prove his conservative credentials by winning South Carolina, and then outlast the rest of the field.
Now, let's combine that with the historical case. There have been twelve seriously contested Republican nomination contests in the last seventy years -- eleven where there was no incumbent President and one (1976) where there was a serious possibility of the sitting President being denied re-nomination. The results of those contests show some very consistent patterns. Consider this history:
1944: Tom Dewey wins the nomination after leading on the first ballot at the 1940 Republican National Convention.
1948: Former nominee and New York Governor Dewey wins again. The runner-up is Senator Robert Taft of Ohio.
1952: Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the Second World War, barely defeats Senator Taft for the nomination.
1960: Vice President Nixon takes the nomination over the nascent campaigns of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
1964: Senator Goldwater leads a conservative insurgency that allows him to defeat Governor Rockefeller. Former Vice President Nixon declines to run for the nomination.
1968: Nixon, after leading throughout, defeats Governor Rockefeller and California Governor Ronald Reagan at the convention.
1976: President Gerald Ford, having taken office two years previously, barely defeats former Governor Reagan.
1980: Governor Reagan takes the nomination with relative ease with a strong second-place showing by former Ambassador, CIA Director, RNC Chair, and Congressman George H.W. Bush whom he also selects as his Vice President.
1988: Vice President Bush defeats Senator Bob Dole of Kansas to take the nomination.
1996: Senator Dole defeats a divided and weak field to take the nomination before losing the General Election.
2000: Texas Governor George W. Bush, after being the overwhelming early front-runner, defeats Arizona Senator John McCain for the nomination and wins the Presidency.
2008: Senator McCain defeats former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.
Six of the ten individuals were nominated after coming in second in the previous contest. In fact, in only three (arguably four) of the races was the nominee not the previous campaign's runner-up. In 2000, George W. Bush had the advantages of being a President's son and massive early support -- as well as a very weak Republican field in 1996. In 1976, Gerald Ford had shaken up the dynamics of the previous race by taking office after Nixon's resignation. And, in 1952, Eisenhower won the nomination over Senator Taft -- barely. The year 1964 is an arguable case because neither the Goldwater nor the Rockefeller campaigns of 1960 ever really got off the ground.
Finally, in only one -- perhaps two at the most -- of those contests would you have had a difficult time picking out the Republican nominee a year or more in advance. Of course, 1952 is an exception, given the campaign to draft Eisenhower into the race. And 2008 could be considered one, depending on where you start from.
In other words, if you look at the history of modern Presidential elections, the Republican Party has a strong tendency to nominate candidates who have already run relatively successful campaigns for the Presidency and they tend to coalesce around those candidates fairly early on.
The Republicans also pick known quantities. With the possible exception of George W. Bush (whose status as a former President's son makes him fit the pattern in any case), every Republican candidate for the Presidency in the modern era has been a national figure for the better part of a decade before he won the nomination.
To put it another way, the only time that the early front-runner for the Republican nomination for the Presidency has been definitively upended in the last seventy years was when the man who led Allied forces to victory in Europe ran and, even then, it was a near thing. That is the singular clear exception to the pattern. In Mitt Romney, the Republicans have a candidate who meets the key criteria of both having previously run an acceptable campaign for the nomination and who leads in the early polls. It would be an extraordinary thing for him not to be nominated, frankly. It would require the emergence of an outside candidate whose stature dwarfed the field -- a black swan event that appears unlikely at this point in time.
This pattern, it should be noted, is peculiar to the Republican Party. The Democratic Party, in contrast, over the same period has a history of turning to Dark Horses and Hamlets -- candidates who emerge out of nowhere to take the nomination and certain winners who, for one reason or another, refuse the call. Candidates such as Ted Kennedy in 1976 (and perhaps 1984 and 1988), Mario Cuomo in 1988 and 1992, and Al Gore in 2004 and 2008 have declined to make winnable races while, at the same time, candidates such as Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Michael Dukakis, Jimmy Carter, and George McGovern have come seemingly out of nowhere to take the nomination.
To put it another way, in nomination races without an incumbent since the advent of the modern Democratic primary and caucus system after 1968, the early front-runner for the nomination has won only in 1984, 2000, and -- arguably -- in 2004. In the Republican Party the early leader is the overwhelming favorite. In the Democratic Party they're a dark horse.
This is the fifth Presidential election that I've been privileged to follow up-close. This is the fourth open race for a Republican nomination that I've had a chance to render opinions upon. In these campaigns -- every campaign since the start of the internet era -- I have watched enthusiastic Republicans waste great energies in support of "true conservative" candidates with zero chance of winning the nomination. While history is not destiny, it is a force of undeniable power.
Governor Romney is reliable and clean. There's a lot to be said for that. While I will not begrudge some their passionate efforts on behalf of candidates with no plausible chance of being elected President in 2012, I must point out that the paramount objective for all of a conservative and liberty-loving temper must be the election of a President and a Congress who are capable of dealing with an economic crisis that threatens the prosperity and the strategic architecture of the entire world. Mitt Romney may not set the soul afire, but is that what we really desire in the chief executive of a republic? The Founders created a government designed to be led by men, not messiahs.
The greatest danger faced by the Republican Party in the next election is not defeat at the hands of the Democratic Party; it is a Democrat victory enabled by the actions of fanatical self-styled "true conservatives" who would rather sustain their own feelings of moral superiority than they would win. Yes, Governor Romney is not the candidate of conservative dreamers, but fanatics who consider compromise synonymous with treason are likely to achieve little in a democracy. It is worth recalling that many of the nation's greatest Presidents entered the office in the face of a tepid public while most of those who were hailed and generally cheered upon their ascension take a place today among history's greatest failures. The office of the Presidency is so extraordinary that it is nearly impossible to tell how someone will do there until they get the chance to do it. History, however, suggests that we have always been better off when the office was occupied by intelligent but normal men than we have when it has fallen into the hands of so-called saviors.