Since presidential election party nominees have been selected through the primary process over the past four decades, there have been five elections in which the Republican Party selected nominees who had been the runner-up in previous party primary campaigns.
In 1980, it had been Ronald Reagan, after running a close second to Richard Nixon in 1968 and to Gerald Ford in 1976. In 1988, it was George H.W. Bush, after having run second to Reagan in 1980 and winning in the 1984 general election as the incumbent Vice President.
Since then, the results have not been very good in the general election for GOP presidential nominees who had been the runner-up in a previous party primary campaign.
This was the case for Bob Dole in 1996 (who was the primary runner-up to George H.W. Bush in 1988), John McCain in 2008 (who came in second in the primary to George W. Bush in 2000), and Mitt Romney (who was the primary campaign runner-up in 2008 to John McCain).
You can imagine that after a grueling primary campaign, the infrastructure and goodwill that was established on the part of the runner-up can still be maintained for a later campaign. Primary campaigns can be a messy affair though – in each of these three election years, the nominee was ultimately too damaged by his own party during the primaries to win the general election thereafter.
Clearly, turning to past runners-up in these election years proved to be an unwise strategy for the GOP.
Since 1972 (after a violent party convention in Chicago in 1968), the Democrat nominee has been selected through the party primary process, and in no case since then was the nominee previously a party primary runner-up.
Jimmy Carter did not run prior to winning the nomination in 1976. Mondale, the 1984 nominee, flirted with running in 1976, but withdrew before the primaries. Ted Kennedy, the runner-up in 1980, did not run in 1984. Michael Dukakis did not run prior to winning the nomination in 1988; nor did Bill Clinton before he won his nomination in 1992. Al Gore, the Democrat nominee in 2000, ran in the 1988 primaries, but came in a distant third to Dukakis that year. John Kerry did not run in 2000, the election year prior to his race in 2004, in which he became the Democrat nominee.
This look back at recent history may provide an interesting lesson for Democrats as the establishment has already begun to build a groundswell for the nomination of Hillary Clinton, the runner-up to Barack Obama in the fractious and vicious party primary campaign of 2008.
The Clinton campaign was full of arrogance in 2008, as it followed a strategy of inevitability and underestimated the potential of upstart Obama (see: How Hillary Clinton turned an air of certainty into a losing run). Now, three years out from the presidential race in 2016, Clinton has secured the earliest endorsements in recent memory (see: Missouri Sen. McCaskill backs Clinton for president in '16 and Wesley Clark, Retired Army General, Gives Early Endorsement For Hillary Clinton). While the early push for Hillary will intensify over the next year, there are many other huge egos that will also make a run for the Democratic nomination in 2016. Some of them may be hoping for a respectable second place showing, if in fact Hillary wins, so then the runner-up could run again in the future.
Let’s remember that in the three elections of the past two decades when Republican runners-up lost in a subsequent general election, the GOP nominee ran against a perceived Washington outsider and media favorite (Clinton-Dole, Obama-McCain, Obama-Romney).
This is why the tables will finally turn against the Democrats in presidential politics in the next two elections, especially with all the news since November about the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote and minority advantages – these dynamics will lull the party into believing that it is invincible in presidential politics.
In 2016, watch the Democrats coronate Hillary Clinton, the Beltway insider, the old guard Democrat, who is owed her due after the loss in 2008. At the same time, the Republicans will be far more likely to nominate a newcomer, someone fresh to presidential politics, as the Democrats did in 2008. The runner-up from the 2012 GOP presidential primary, Rick Santorum, could certainly make a run for it in 2016 (see: Rick Santorum Trades Politics For Movies As CEO Of Faith-Based EchoLight Studios), but I suggest that the politics of the day will finally be looking forward in the Republican Party, and not back.
Establishment Democrats will fall in line in 2016 because they want to make history by electing the first female president. Yet, if the recent results for major party nominees who were prior-year runners-up prove a trend, then it is far more likely that the first female vice president will have been elected in 2016 and not the first female president – and she will be a Republican.
Republicans: support Hillary for the Democratic nomination in 2016. You heard it here first.