Since 1952, there have been 10 national elections in which there was no incumbent Republican president seeking a second White House term. In nine of those 10, Republican voters and the party settled early on a consensus favorite, who led the field in the Gallup Poll one year before the party's national convention, and then ratified their early choice in the caucuses and primaries by nominating the front-runner. The lone exception was the election of 2008. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani led in the 2007 polls, but then his campaign imploded and Sen. John McCain of Arizona won the nomination.
If precedent rules, then next July 21, at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena, the GOP presidential nomination will be humbly accepted by New York billionaire-developer Donald Trump, who was the clear leader in Republican polls this past summer. However, Trump's nomination would repeal an equally long-standing Republican tradition of nominating the presidential candidate whose "turn it is." The Republican Party bears a striking resemblance to the local Lions Club, in which service as club secretary last year followed by service as club vice president this year should mean you will be elevated to club president next year.
Recall that in 1976, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan finished a close second to President Gerald Ford for the GOP nomination. So in 1980, it was Reagan's turn. Who finished second to Reagan in the 1980 nomination fight? George H.W. Bush, who won the 1988 nomination over Sen. Bob Dole, who would eventually win the party's highest honor in 1996. More recently, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who had been runner-up to McCain in 2008 (who himself had finished second in 2000 to George W. Bush), made 2012 "his turn" and captured the presidential nomination. To have run before, unsuccessfully, for the nomination is usually, for Republican voters, a positive recommendation for a nomination the next time there's an opening.
Based solely on previous runs for the nomination, former Sen. Rick Santorum, who won 11 2012 Republican presidential primaries and caucuses, or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won eight states in 2008, might have been expected to be a serious contender. But up to now, that has not been the case; both men trail badly by all measures. The leaders, for the most part, have been two men whose turn it isn't — Trump and retired pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who have never won a primary or a general election in any U.S. jurisdiction.
Republicans this time appear to be acting a lot more like Democrats, who have a long history of giving their presidential nomination to the political equivalent of a first date. Think about it. Whereas Republican voters have almost always "fallen in line" and nominated the consensus pick, Democrats have "fallen in love," choosing nominees who are new and have never run before. Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Michael Dukakis and George McGovern were all first-time candidates.
Which brings us to this election cycle, in which both parties appear to be determined to change places. Though underdog Bernie Sanders, a senator from Vermont, is competitive in Iowa and New Hampshire, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who lost the 2008 nomination to Obama, has a commanding national lead among Democratic voters, who seem to think, following past Republican practices, that 2016 is "her turn."
Republican voters, meanwhile, are behaving like Democrats by falling hard and viscerally for the semi-intriguing newcomer(s), whom nobody knows that well, and turning their backs on the fellows who, through public office, either paid their dues or earned their spurs.
Trump and Carson may well fade before February and the showdowns in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Clinton may stumble on her inevitable victory lap. But 2016 could be the year the Republicans and the Democrats, in choosing their nominees, "change places."
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Michael Vadon