Santorum 2016?

Alex Pareene, in an otherwise excellent Super Tuesday wrap yesterday, says:

As could have been predicted shortly after he dropped out of the 2008 race, Mitt Romney is the likely 2012 Republican nominee for president…The real scary news: Now Rick Santorum is the 2016 GOP nomination front-runner.

I’m with Daniel Larison on this one: there’s no way that Santorum is the likely “next time” nominee. And I don’t think that Romney’s nomination this time was a simple consequence of “next in line,” if that’s what Pareene means.

It is true, however, that 2012 will be another data point in support of the idea that Republicans prefer someone with whom they are familiar. Remember thought that there have only been a handful of cases in which Republicans had no heavyweight candidate: the only cycles since party reform like that were 2008, 2000, and perhaps 1996. Ronald Reagan in 1980, and perhaps Bob Dole in 1996, had a major stature that folks such as John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney this year just didn’t have, one that could be both objectively and subjectively described (don’t forget that in addition to being Senate Majority leader and a three-time candidate and 1988 runner-up, Dole was also the 1976 running mate).

Nor was Romney’s nomination inevitable this time around. In particular, it sure seems to me that Rick Perry had an excellent chance of winning, and had his debate performances only been poor, and not consistently disastrous, it’s very possible he would have won.

Still, now that we have the Romney example, it surely gives at least some additional weight to the “next in line” side of the argument.

But clearly, “next in line” isn’t always going to work; as Larison points out it didn’t do Pat Buchanan much good in 1996. And 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.

Of course, we have a long ways to go this time, as far as that’s concerned. If Santorum winds up sweeping the rest of the South and gets several other wins, winding up losing the nomination on delegate accumulation rules, that’s a lot different from if Romney winds up winning all but a few remaining states. And then there’s the running mate, whoever that turns out to be.

So I don’t think Santorum is the favorite for next time as of right now, and I still don’t really believe that “next in line” is really what’s going on in any simple way, but I’m a bit more convinced now than I was before this cycle that Republicans give a boost to those who have run a strong presidential bid in the past.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.