As expected, Texas Governor Rick Perry has jumped into the GOP presidential race, immediately usurping former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s frontrunner status if the most recent Rasmussen Poll is to be believed.
Perry’s entering the race has certainly shaken things up. At this point, the nomination certainly looks like his to lose. As the incumbent governor of one of the GOP’s most important states, Perry certainly towers over the other candidates in terms of his political stature, and enjoys a strong base of support among social conservatives and so-called Tea Party voters.
That said, even a man five feet tall would seem like the giant in a roomful of midgets.
As for Romney, I think he still has a few cards to play. For one thing, he hasn’t really stopped running since he lost the 2008 GOP nomination to John McCain, so he enjoys a head start in terms of name recognition, support among the party establishment, and fundraising.
I think this race still has a ways to go before it is settled. But I do think it will come down to a battle between the Texas conservative versus the Massachusetts chameleon. In addition to their own personal attributes as candidates, each benefits from different historical forces and precedents important in the GOP nominating process.
Since 1960, the GOP has taken a somewhat hierarchical approach to the nomination of presidential candidates who were not incumbents. In other words, the party has generally nominated the candidate who, as a result of events or circumstances, seemed to be the next person in line.
Think about it.
In 1960 Richard Nixon, who had served as Eisenhower’s vice president for two terms, lost narrowly to JFK. After the GOP’s shellacking in 1964, the party nominated Nixon again in 1968. Ronald Reagan, who had almost wrested the nomination away from Gerald Ford in 1976, won it easily in 1980. The party nominated George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president and the second-place finisher to Reagan, in 1988. The GOP turned to Bob Dole, Bush’s runner up in 1988, as its standard bearer in 1996. In 2000, the party nominated George W. Bush, son of the last GOP president. And in 2008 Republicans nominated the man Bush beat for the 2000 GOP nomination, John McCain.
Assuming this dynamic reasserts itself in 2012, then Mitt Romney – who came in second to John McCain in terms of the number of delegates – stands to benefit.
However, the party’s nominating process has historically been influenced by another guiding force: geography.
Since 1928, every one of the party’s successful candidates for president have been born in, lived in, or held elective office in one of two states: Texas and California.
Though he was born in Iowa, Herbert Hoover attended Stanford University and settled in California. Known as the “Man from Abilene” (Kansas), Dwight Eisenhower was actually born in Texas, and carried the then-Democratic state in both 1952 and 1956. Richard Nixon was a native Californian who served as its U. S. Senator; Ronald Reagan became governor of California in 1966. Both George Bushes lived in and won office in Texas.
Additionally, since 1928, the GOP has nominated two Arizonans, two Kansans, an Indianan, a New Yorker (twice), and a non-elected president from Michigan. All of them lost.
So skip ahead to 2012, and Rick Perry – a native Texas who is the state’s longest-serving governor – looks to be in pretty good shape. Not only are the candidates challenging him relatively uninspiring, all of them (with the exception of Ron Paul) hail from states other than California or Texas.
Is the California – Texas axis a decisive element in the GOP process, or is it merely a quirk of history? I honestly do not know. But it has manifested itself enough times that I think it would be a mistake to ignore it entirely.
In the end, I do not think any sort of hidden hand force will guide who wins the GOP nomination. The candidate who runs the strongest campaign, and succeeds in setting the campaign agenda, will prevail. Whether or not the successful candidate emerges strong enough to knock off an incumbent president remains an unanswerable question.
That said, watching for evidence of historical dynamics at work will certainly make the race fun to watch, especially for political junkies like me.