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Republican 2012 Nominee: Who It Won’t Be

Nate Silver looks at the polls and figures that Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Newt Gingrich are the frontrunners for the 2012 Republican nomination.   He notes that Tim Pawlenty and John Thune get high marks from insiders but argues that they have next to no shot at winning. Aside from the difficulty of knocking off four well-known contenders ahead of them,

The other potential flaw in the analysis of candidates like Mr. Pawlenty and Mr. Thune is that some seem to think it an asset that they are bland and unobjectionable. In a primary election that isn’t an asset, but a liability. A primary election isn’t a reality show in which candidates are eliminated one at a time for failing some challenge. Instead, voters pick the one candidate whom they most like, rather than the one they most dislike; a candidate who has strong favorables and strong unfavorables is going to be more people’s first choice than one whom everyone feels indifferent about. Someone with a more distinct and provocative brand — like Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey or Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin — might stand a better chance in an underdog role, although neither is likely to run for president in 2012.

Looking at the anecdotal evidence, I can only think of two nominees in my lifetime who weren’t leading contenders well ahead of the race:  Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis.  Carter, of course, won the presidency in 1976 and Dukakis, rather spectacularly, didn’t in 1988.   Both were Democrats.

The Republicans have  nominated an early frontrunner every quadrennial in the primary era: McCain, Bush, Bush, Dole, Bush, Bush, Reagan, Reagan, Ford, Nixon, Nixon, Goldwater, Nixon, Eisenhower, Eisenhower.  Unlike the Democrats, who parcel out votes proportionally (moreso since 1984 than previously) the GOP has a winner-take-all system.  This makes it extremely hard for someone who isn’t an early favorite to gain steam over a long race.  If you don’t win at least one primary in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina, you’re toast.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    In recent history Republicans have tended to dominate whoever was next in line. That may be a consequence of the winner-take-all system since the next-in-lin candidate tends to have a stronger organization in the early days of the primary campaign.

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  2. Neil Hudelson says:

    I would argue that when Nixon won the nomination for 68, he wasn’t the front runner going into that race. Romney, Rockefeller, and even Reagan were all the early favorites, with Nixon being the “also-ran.”

    Considering his one presidential loss, followed by a gubernatorial loss in his home state, most people early in the race had doubts he could win.

    That said, since I wasn’t alive at the time, I may just be interpreting history a bit different than you.

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  3. Republicans have tended to dominate whoever was next in line.

    Paging Dr. Freud…

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  4. Chad says:

    You can easily argue that at this point heading into 2008, Rudy G. was the GOP frontrunner. How’d that turn out? He was easily ahead in the polls until the actual campaigning started.

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  5. TG Chicago says:

    It’s worth remembering that at one point it looked as if McCain’s campaign would implode before they even got to Iowa. During much of 2007, the leading contenders were Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson, with McCain, Romney, and Huckabee considerably behind.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nationwide_opinion_polling_for_the_Republican_Party_2008_presidential_candidates

    Heck, McCain was occasionally coming in 5th place in some polls as late as December 2007, which was when he turned it around, won New Hampshire, and started truly becoming a top contender.

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  6. James Joyner says:

    @Neil: I was a toddler at the time but Nixon was a former two-term VP and the 1960 nominee. He was a frontrunner almost by definition.

    @TG Chicago: McCain was the second place finisher in 2000, which made him a frontrunner. Yes, many wrote him off early after a series of stumbles. But he had the name recognition and infrastructure to pull it off.

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  7. TG Chicago says:

    McCain was a distant 2nd place finisher in 2000. In Nov. 2006, the polls show that Giuliani was the clear frontrunner. McCain was sometimes polling below Condoleezza Rice.

    In early 2007, McCain was a pretty clear #2… but his support was half of Giuliani’s. And McCain dropped from there. To say that McCain was “a leading contender well ahead of the race” is highly dubious. I guess if by “leading contender” you mean “among the top 5″, then I’d agree. But by Silver’s chart, Pawlenty is in the top 5 right now. So by that definition, he’s a top contender.

    To put it another way, I don’t know that you can support the notion that being a second place finisher in one cycle makes you an automatic frontrunner in the next. Was Pat Buchanan a frontrunner in 2000? He was the runner-up in 96.

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  8. TG Chicago says:

    I guess to put it more simply, my point is this:

    4 years ago, McCain was a clear #2. For the next year, his fortunes dropped steadily. But then at the last moment, he came back and won the thing. Meanwhile, Giuliani was a clear favorite early on and went on to finish very poorly. Same is true for Thompson. Nobody predicted that level of volatility.

    Given that the last nomination contest had such dramatic shifts, I don’t put much stock into predictions this far out.

    If the GOP establishment coalesces around a candidate, that candidate will likely win. But the establishment didn’t really coalesce last time until sometime in earlyish 2008 – relatively late in the process. Given the rise of the Tea Party faction, it seems like it might be even more difficult for it to happen this time around.

    Then again, the GOP insiders might feel an extra need to coalesce early to ward off the possibility of a Tea Party wacko winning. If we see someone like Rove clearly starting to talk up one contender more than the others, then we’ll know that process is underway.

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  9. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    McCain was only a front runner when you control what the definition of “front runner” is. At the beginning of the campaign, no one in their right mind would have called him a front runner. Same with Nixon. Nixon was though to be a loser due to his loss to Kenney and Brown. Reagan certainly was not a front runner against Ford. But after 4 years of Carter he sure was. Bush Sr. was a front runner as he had been VP. Clinton because he had been a Governor. Same with Bush Jr. Had the Huckabee dropped out when he should, or done better, Romney, as a former governor and with executive experience would have won in 2008 and the nation would not be having the trouble it is currently having. It is almost always best if the Chief Executive has some executive experience rather than being a community organizer. What has Obama ever accomplished? At anything? That is that had a positive affect on that which he was supposedly trying to do. That cold hearted MFer did not give a shit about the people of Lousiana’s jobs when he lied about the moratorium. He is one cold fish. He could order the death of millions without blinking an eye.

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  10. Dean says:

    I thought that the Republicans had changed their system so that primaries before April 1 were proportional votes like the Democrats have been?

    http://rncnyc2004.blogspot.com/2010/08/rnc-2012-presidential-primary-schedule.html

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  11. anirprof says:

    Dean beat me to it, and he’s right. GOP has changed the rules and will use proportional rather than winnter take all for the early primaries.

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  12. Aether says:

    The nominee has yet to appear from the aether.

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  13. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III:
    What had Bush Junior ever accomplished? You ignorant troll. Bush Jr. can’t even write his own memoir. If he turned in his memoir for a high school English class, he’d get an “F.”

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  14. Dean:
    So only about half the primaries will be proportional? I knew that the GOP had changed their nomination, I just didn’t know how exactly.

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  15. Rob says:

    They choice looks pretty sick, who who said the owl, we all know if BIMBO Palin runs she would have to have the first chair.

    If she ran with anyone she would take over the campagin and expoit herself at the queen of the runway of deceit.

    God forbid the GOP even considers Sarah Palin she is nothing but a con, phoney, and you betcha a lier. She cons American People and Tea Baggers sure got a dunce when they allowed her to speak for them. Its all about Sarah Palin. MONEY MONEY IS HER GOAL

    We certainly do not need her to solve problems she would create more and have us in a war.

    Sarah get the duck tape out shut your month and go home shut the door and be a real mother for a change.

    Todd you will be soon free , She already has used her children for props. Are we sick of Sarah Palin yet????

    McCain I wish you had her under your bed.

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  16. Rob says:

    They choice looks pretty sick, who who said the owl, we all know if BIMBO Palin runs she would have to have the first chair.

    If she ran with anyone she would take over the campagin and expoit herself at the queen of the runway of deceit.

    God forbid the GOP even considers Sarah Palin she is nothing but a con, phoney, and you betcha a lier. She cons American People and Tea Baggers sure got a dunce when they allowed her to speak for them. Its all about Sarah Palin. MONEY MONEY IS HER GOAL

    We certainly do not need her to solve problems she would create more and have us in a war.

    Sarah get the duck tape out shut your month and go home shut the door and be a real mother for a change.

    Todd you will be soon free , She already has used her children for props. Are we sick of Sarah Palin yet????

    McCain I wish you had her under your bed.

    who would be dumb enough to run with her?????

    Money its going to take a lot, do you think for one sec she will spend her money she has conned everyone out of???????

    Sarah will not be able to pull in the money like she is now a free agent to spout off her face with empty shallow words of making a difference. The only different she wants is her big bank roll. How does that fit you all, she is loadede and you keep on giving her the gift of money

    Rob

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