In addition to their growing ideological divide, the two major political parties in the United States have established a completely different approach to selecting their nominees for the Presidency. The Republican nomination tends to go to a well-known, although not necessarily beloved, candidate who has run previously for national office. Democrats get swept up in the moment frequently picking a newcomer who embodies the prevailing mood of the day.
From an electoral viewpoint this has generally worked well for the Democrats. The notable misfire was the nomination of the anti-Vietnam War candidate George McGovern in 1972 who was routed by Richard Nixon in the general election. But starting with Jimmy Carter in 1976, continuing with Bill Clinton in 1992 and most recently Barack Obama in 2008, candidates rising from obscurity have resulted in Democratic electoral victories.
Republicans have rewarded persistence – but with mixed results. Ronald Reagan prevailed in 1980 after having lost to Gerald Ford in 1976; George H.W. Bush won in 1988 after having run in 1980 and then serving as Reagan’s Vice President. George W. Bush won in 2000 without having previously lost, but had the built-in advantage of the Bush family name and network in claiming the nomination.
The GOP’s habit of selecting a previous year’s also-ran has produced some notable flops. U.S. Senator Robert Dole had lost to George H.W. Bush in 1988, but was rewarded with the party’s nomination in 1996 only to lose to Bill Clinton. In 2008, the 2000 primary runner-up U.S. Senator John McCain became the Republican standard-bearer, and was run down by Barack Obama.
This brings us to the upcoming 2012 race and once again the front-runner is a losing candidate from a previous campaign cycle. The GOP race has begun to take shape over the past few months with several potential heavy weight candidates declining to run, and others making their candidacies official. Through all this former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has emerged as the front-runner. He consistently leads in national polls. More importantly, his fundraising has left the other candidates in the dust. Romney is expected to report having raked in close to $20 million in the second quarter, about four times more than any other candidate is expected to have raised.
Despite his financial showing and strong polling numbers there is unease about a Mitt Romney candidacy that permeates the party. Driven in large measure by Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan, which was disturbingly similar to the reviled Obamacare, many Republicans are looking for a fresh face.
This has created a second tier of candidacies vying in the "not Mitt" primary. In recent weeks Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, a favorite of the tea party movement, has emerged as the leading challenger to Romney moving into a statistical tie with him in the crucial first caucus state of Iowa. Georgia businessman and talk show host Herman Cain, another grassroots darling, is also showing viability.
But evidence of the degree to which the race remains unsettled is the continued pining for additional candidates to enter the race. A delegation of power brokers from Iowa paid a visit to Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey in an effort to entice him to run. He declined. Currently, the most talked about non-candidate is Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is by all accounts seriously considering jumping into the fray.
If Perry decides to run the dynamics of the contest would dramatically change. Although he would start out behind, the sitting Texas governor would quickly be able to compete with Romney financially. Perry’s persona and policies also appeal to the conservative base of the party, giving him a shot at winning over those currently supporting Bachmann and Cain.
Perry has the potential to quickly emerge as the leading "not Mitt" candidate. The big question then would be: can Perry or any fresh face convince the broad spectrum of Republican voters to abandon their historic tendency to nominate the known quantity and take a chance on a national newcomer?
In 2010, as the tea party movement swept the nation, we learned that the old rules of politics no longer necessarily apply. As the economy continues to sputter and foreign wars drag on voters are going to be looking for fresh faces and new ideas.
Thus the stage is set for historic and current trends to collide. Will the GOP again nominate an also-ran, or will it be more like the Democrats and go with a fresh face that captures the national mood. The answer to that question will ultimately determine whether Mitt Romney or the "not Mitt" ends up as the 2012 Republican nominee for President of the United States.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)
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