Santorum for President Round 2

Earlier this week, I postulated that Rick Santorum needs to firmly position himself as Romney's runner-up to put himself in line to be the party's pick in 2016. Salon's Alex Pareene followed the similar logic but took it a step further, declaring, "Now Rick Santorum is the 2016 GOP nomination front-runner."

But political scientist Jonathan Bernstein isn't so convinced by the myth that Republicans turn to the runner-up in the previous presidential cycle to select a new nominee. Bernstein writes:

One could argue that the Huck, not Romney, was really the runner-up in 2008, which certainly doesn't say anything promising for Santorum. Overall, I wouldn't entirely rule out Santorum for 2016 (assuming no Romney presidency), but I wouldn't put him among the top three contenders, either.

My take: Should the Republican nominee lose this fall, Santorum will initially be viewed as the front-runner for 2016, but he'll quickly fizzle out once the race gets under way. Santorum has had the great fortune of running in a remarkably weak field of presidential candidates; he's faced off against a front-runner distrusted by large segments of the party's base and ended up being the only plausible alternative by not mucking up every debate, remaining faithful to his spouse, not leaving Washington in a cloud of ethics scandals, and not serving as a member of the Obama administration. The divide among the Republican base was bound to produce an alternative to Romney, and Santorum just happened to be the last disqualified opponent.

But Republicans will have a much deeper bench next time around thanks to their success in the 2010 midterms. A slew of young, dynamic Republicans are waiting in the wings: Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, or Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, just to name a few. Some of those will surely sputter out as media darlings with no real heft (see Perry, Rick), but with a few more years experience under their belt, they'll all be stronger candidates than Santorum. Even if Santorum does finish as the runner-up this go-around, he will be tarnished by having lost his past two political campaigns.

On another note, Bernstein isn't quite right when he claims that Mike Huckabee was the real runner-up in 2008. Romney dropped out of the race a month earlier than Huckabee in 2008 but still managed to win 11 states; Huckabee only won 8. Romney also got 400,000 more votes, though Huckabee did manage to gather a handful more delegates than Romney by staying in the race a little longer. Either one could have rightfully claimed the mantle of runner-up during the presidential campaign this year. Given that the "next in line" phenomenon is largely a product of what the party elite think—as opposed to how the votes break down—It seems likely that Romney would still have been defined as the inevitable candidate even if Huckabee had run again this year.

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