You've probably heard before that when they're looking for a presidential candidate, Republicans tend to nominate whoever is "next in line"-- either a sitting VP, or the person who came in second last time. There are a few good examples: John McCain in 2008, Bob Dole in 1996, George H.W. Bush in 1988, and Ronald Reagan in 1980. All had run for president before, and all seemed to everyone, at least when the campaign started, like the logical choice. The only exception in the last 30 years was George W. Bush in 2000. On the Democratic side, the "next in line" theory might apply to Al Gore in 2000 and Walter Mondale in 1984, but not to Barack Obama, John Kerry, Bill Clinton, or Michael Dukakis. By this logic, Republicans will nominate Mitt Romney in 2012, or maybe Sarah Palin, depending on how you're scoring.
Jonathan Bernstein contends, however, that this theory is largely bunk. Essentially, he argues that there were lots of other reasons Reagan and Dole got the nod, Bush Sr. doesn't really count, it didn't work in 2000, McCain doesn't exactly qualify -- essentially, his argument is that things are a lot more complicated than the simple "next in line" theory.
Fair enough -- things are more complicated. But I think the idea that someone is next in line is really a stand-in for a lot of these factors. What does the person who's next in line usually have? A few things. He has high name recognition at the outset (something that, for instance, George W. Bush enjoyed by virtue of having the same name as his father, despite never having run before), meaning he'll score well in early polls, which are almost entirely based on name recognition. That may not have much real significance, but those early polls have significance for the press, who use them as a guide to who the real players are, and thus who deserves their attention. By virtue of his national profile, the press will also consider him a "serious" candidate, which will influence how they cover him. If he ran four years prior, he probably still has a network of fundraisers, staffers, volunteers, and political friends in places like Iowa and New Hampshire. So he'll raise some early money, and he'll have a visible organization in early states. And so on.
None of this guarantees the guy who's next in line will win the nomination, but it gives him some advantages over his competitors. For instance, Tim Pawlenty will have to do a lot of work over the next few months to get to the place Mitt Romney is right now.
Of course, the changing nature of campaigns can mitigate the early front-runner's advantage. You can raise money faster now, and if you do a good job with social media you can overcome the fact that one of your opponents has lined up most of the county chairs. And also, if you play your cards right you can get a television show in which you walk around pointing at mountains and bears and talk about how your home state is the bestest state ever and people who live in places that are different than your home state aren't real Americans. That can help too.
I still think Romney is the most likely nominee, but he has a few positively enormous hurdles to overcome -- his Mormon religion, which alienates him from many evangelical Christians; the perception, even on the right, that he's an untrustworthy shapeshifter; and perhaps worst of all, the fact that he advocated for and signed a health-care plan in Massachusetts nearly identical to the Affordable Care Act, which all good conservatives agree was the greatest crime against humanity of the last few hundred years. The fact that the "next in line" theory doesn't guarantee anything is why this campaign promises to be a good deal of fun.
-- Paul Waldman
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