'Next in line': why Republicans have no clear heir apparent in 2016

Republicans love to nominate the 'next in line' for presidential elections, or so the thinking goes. Well, this time, all the potential next-in-lines are no-sure-things.

By , Contributor

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    Rick Santorum speaks in Sevierville, Tenn., at an event organized to motivate voters and members of the tea party last month. By some measures, he's the Republicans' next in line for 2016, but his polling is weak.
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Many commentators have embraced the “next in line” theory of Republican presidential nominations. When no Republican president is running, the theory holds, the party goes for the candidate “next in line,” somebody who has either sought the nomination before or has run on the party’s national ticket. Examples include Richard Nixon in 1960 and 1968, Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain in 2008, and Mitt Romney in 2012.

The theory is hardly airtight. A handful of examples hardly make an iron law, and there are exceptions.  In the 1996 GOP primaries, Pat Buchanan won more than three million votes and Steve Forbes topped 1.5 million. Four years later, however, Mr. Buchanan left the GOP to run on the Reform Party ticket and Mr. Forbes lost the Republican nomination to George W. Bush. 

Still, the “next in line” notion is a reasonably good starting point for sizing up the next nomination contest.  Past candidates have experience and name identification that could help them in the future.

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So who is next in line?

In the 2012 nomination race, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum finished second to Mr. Romney, posting some statewide victories and ending up with  3.9 million votes. Despite this showing, Mr. Santorum is currently scoring  in the low single digits – which should not be surprising. After an initial burst of interest and attention, Santorum proved to be a wobbly candidate. He never built a serious war chest or campaign organization, and he showed a penchant for gaffes. Just before the Michigan primary – where about a third of GOP voters were Catholic – he said that JFK’s remarks on the separation of church and state made him want to “throw up.” After giving Santorum a test drive, Republican voters decided that the ride was way too rough.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also has a claim to be next in line. In the 2008 nomination race, he got nearly as many votes as Romney and actually  won more delegates. He opted out of a 2012 race, but polls show that he still has good name identification and favorability ratings. GOP voters watch his program on the Fox News Channel, where he benefits from his warm personality. Like Santorum, however, he has often made verbal blunders, such as  his comment earlier this year about women who “cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government.” 

Mr. Huckabee has an additional problem: his waistline. After a diabetes diagnosis years ago, he lost a hundred pounds. Unfortunately, he has since regained much of the weight, and a presidential campaign would inevitably raise questions about his health and ability to bear the burdens of office.  Indeed, he invited such questions with the title of his book: "Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork."

In other words, Huckabee has to watch what comes out of his mouth – and what goes in.

Yet another contender for “next in line” status is Rep. Paul Ryan, who served as Romney’s running mate. Representative Ryan is a smart man with a good grasp of the issues, but his vice presidential candidacy was underwhelming. His debate performance was stiff and did not carry his home state of Wisconsin for the GOP ticket. And since he has never run a national race on his own, his fundraising capability remains a question mark.

If we really stretch the definition of “next in line,” we might include Texas Gov. Rick Perry. For a brief moment in the summer of 2011, he loomed as Romney’s major competitor. But a late start hobbled his campaign organization and health problems impaired his ability to maintain focus. He became a national laughingstock with his infamous “oops” debate moment, when he could not recall the third of three cabinet departments that he planned to abolish. That moment will follow him in any future race.

Mr. Perry is leaving the governorship this year, which will be both an asset and a liability. On the one hand, he will have more time to master national issues. On the other hand, he might find that it’s harder to raise money. In 2012, Texas accounted for  59 percent of his campaign funds. As one Texas contributor explained to blogger Rich Galen: “We are a Texas business. Perry is either going to be President of the United States or he's going to be Governor of Texas for the next three years. In either case, our name is going to be on that first finance report.” In a 2016 race, Texans will have less reason to support him, especially if Sen. Ted Cruz is a candidate.

One of these people could still end up as the nominee, but only by fixing his problems and developing his strengths. There is nothing automatic about being “next in line.”

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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