History Says Mitt Romney Will Be the 2012 Republican Nominee

How your unconscious mind shapes you.
Dec. 5 2011 5:24 PM

The Royal Road to Romney

Republicans always nominate the runner-up from four years ago. Is Mitt next?

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.
Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich

Photograph of Mitt Romney by Scott Olson/Getty Images. Photograph of Newt Gingrich by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

So Herman Cain dropped out of the race. Yawn.

And Newt Gingrich is surging. Yawn again.

Republican primary voters aren't enthused by Mitt Romney. But he is the more disciplined candidate. And he has better organization skills. And a bigger war chest. ... Yawn, yawn and yawn.

If you really want to know how the GOP presidential primary is going to turn out, you don't need much analysis. You didn't have to wait this long, either. Long before trapeze artists Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain ended their acts with spectacular thummps, long before the false springs of Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee, long before today’s leading candidates had even declared they were running—all you had to know is that the winner of the GOP presidential primary is the candidate who came in second last time wins this time.

In the last primary, in 2008, Sen. John McCain was the winner. Mitt Romney came in second.

So, yes, it's going to be Romney this time.

Sorry, Tea Party.

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(Corollary to the succession rule: If there's a sitting Republican president who can run again, or if there's a Republican vice president, he wins the nomination. By contrast, Democratic nominees are usually not the candidates who came in second in the previous primary, and usually not the early front-runners. Democrats who become president or vice-president, however, usually enjoy the same succession rule as their GOP counterparts.)

Here's the evidence going back three decades.

Ronald Reagan won the nomination in 1980. He had come in second in 1976.

Reagan was still president in 1984, so he won the nomination again.

In 1988, George H. W. Bush, who had been vice president, won the nomination. That year, Sen. Bob Dole came in second.

In 1992, Bush was president, so he was nominated again. After he lost the general election to Bill Clinton, there was an open GOP primary race in 1996. The winner was Dole. Runner up: Pat Buchanan.

In 2000, Buchanan ran as the candidate of the Reform Party. So the GOP picked the next best thing–the eldest son of the last Republican president. George W. Bush won the general election and was president in 2004, so he won that year’s nomination. Sen. John McCain came in second.

In 2008, McCain won the nomination. Romney came in second.

Still holding your breath for 2012?

There’s nothing supernatural about this pattern. The GOP is a smaller tent than the Democratic Party, with fewer competing worldviews, so Republican primaries tend to be less fractious. Republican voters and funders also tend to coalesce faster around front-runners than do Democratic voters and funders. 

But things could turn out differently this year because the Republicans, in an underreported story, have changed how their primary functions.

In the past, the candidate who won an early voting state such as New Hampshire or Iowa captured all the delegates from that state. Now candidates will win delegates in proportion to their share of the vote. A candidate who wins a divided field in New Hampshire with 30 or 40 percent of the vote will only get 30 or 40 percent of the delegates. Every state that holds a primary before April will allot delegates proportionally.

One reason the GOP succession line has worked so smoothly is that the primary system has privileged early voting states. Front-runners tend to win early states, and winning early states has usually given front-runners unassailable momentum.

The winners of early states this year will get lots of media oxygen, but if Romney “wins” New Hampshire with only 30 percent of the delegates, it will be harder to declare that a real victory. A primary where the candidates have to do more than win early states and let momentum do the rest could pose a serious challenge to the Republican succession train.

Besides being more democratic (with a small d), the new system could prolong the Republican primary well into the spring. A similar system led to the exciting 2008 Democratic primary. For months into 2008, well after the GOP's winner-take-all system had anointed \McCain as the Republican nominee, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were duking it out. The country was transfixed by the Democratic primary. So the new primary rules offer the GOP a chance to dominate presidential election coverage well into 2012.

Obama also used the long 2008 Democratic primary to build organizational muscle in many states that helped him in the general election. Proportional voting may have hurt the early Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, but it arguably helped the Democratic Party. The same could be true of the GOP this season. (Real intraparty democracy is fundamentally good for parties.)

Lots of commentators think that Romney would do better than Gingrich in a long race, where organizational skill and money count for as much as charisma. In such a scenario, a Romney win would continue the GOP’s rule of succession, but it would be the result of a process profoundly more democratic. Everyone, Democrats included, should be cheering.

Shankar Vedantam covers the social sciences for NPR. Follow him @HiddenBrain and on Facebook.