By Shankar Vedantam
Through much of the Republican presidential primary, Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney could barely restrain their contempt for each other. During one Republican debate in New Hampshire in early January, McCain landed a zinger that summed up Romney’s opportunistic positions on various issues: “I just want to say to Governor Romney — we disagree on a lot of issues, but you are the candidate of change.”
As McCain giggled at his own joke, Romney’s eyes flashed fire. A month later, however, Romney was on a podium endorsing McCain.
Losers in presidential primaries have long been adept at moving from stinging criticism of the front-runner to fawning praise of the presumptive nominee, sometimes within hours. But if history is our guide, Romney’s endorsement last week tells us something more interesting than that politics makes for strange bedfellows.
Romney’s behavior follows a pattern that seems peculiar to the Republican Party. For political scientist Jason Berggren, who discussed in this column some weeks ago how Democratic and Republican front-runners often follow different paths to the nomination, what Romney’s endorsement of McCain really tells us is who the Republican presidential nominee is likely to be — in 2012 or 2016.
Republicans who lose presidential primaries fare very differently than Democratic primary losers do, Berggren has discovered. Democrats who come in second in presidential primaries rarely come back to win the nomination the next time around. Like Sen. John Edwards, who came in second in 2004 but third this time, Democrats who lose once rarely do better when they seek the presidency again.
Republicans who come in second, on the other hand, almost invariably come back to win the nomination the next time. Republican voters, in fact, seem to like nominees who have “paid their dues” by running, losing and being gracious losers. Seen in this light, Berggren said, Romney’s endorsement of McCain might be less about his final bow in this campaign and more about his opening salvo for Republican support in the Iowa caucuses four or eight years from now.
“Romney might be thinking ahead,” said Berggren, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. “He knows where the queue starts for 2012 or 2016. I can imagine Romney booking a flight to Des Moines the day after the general election.”
Consider the facts that Berggren has amassed: McCain seems all but certain to win the GOP nomination in 2008. He came in second in the last GOP open primary in 2000 — an open primary being one where a sitting Republican president is not running for reelection.
In 1996, Sen. Bob Dole won the Republican nomination. He, too, came in second in the previous open primary, in 1988.
Ditto George H.W. Bush, who won the nomination in 1988. He, too, came in second in the previous open primary, in 1980.
Ditto Ronald Reagan, who won the nomination in 1980. He came in second in 1976. (You might argue 1976 was not really an open election since a sitting Republican president was running for reelection, but Gerald Ford hadn’t been elected either president or vice president — he took over after Richard Nixon appointed him vice president in place of Spiro Agnew, and then resigned himself.)
When you go back more than 30 years to the birth of the modern presidential primary system, in fact, the only Republican to have won his party’s nomination for president without having come in second in the previous open primary election was George W. Bush, who sought the presidency for the first time in 2000. But even this is barely an exception to the rule, because the Republican who came in second in the previous open election, in 1996, was Pat Buchanan — and he ran for president in 2000 as the candidate of the Reform Party.
Like the good soldier Romney played last week, McCain threw his weight behind George W. Bush in the 2000 and 2004 general election, despite the personal tension between the men. “There was a lot of animosity there, but McCain was the dutiful soldier and becomes Bush’s most ardent champion and campaigns hard for him in 2004,” Berggren said. “McCain understood what it took.”
Rhodes Cook, author of a popular political newsletter and a longtime election observer, said the GOP pattern of ascension might also explain a continuing oddity in the primary race this year: “Maybe that is why Mike Huckabee is hanging around, to win enough primary votes to displace Mitt Romney as number two.”
There are two ways you can think about the Republican Party pattern. One is to cue the soundtrack from “The X-Files” and head toward conspiracy-theory land.
But Barbara Norrander, a political scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said the pattern could be the result of more mundane explanations: The views of the Republican party establishment may matter more to Republican voters than the views of the Democratic party establishment do to Democratic voters, and the GOP establishment might rally behind whoever came in second in the previous race. Another possibility is that the Republican Party has been unusually cohesive in recent decades and therefore has a stable queue of leaders — whoever stands in second place automatically moves to the head of the line.