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April 30, 2014 1:07 PM Perry “Next In Line?”

By Ed Kilgore

There’s already been some Twitter-jokes about Dick Morris’ touting of Rick Perry’s 2016 prospects as the “kiss of death” for the Texas governor. But since Morris is just raising the banner of the famous “Next In Line” hypothesis of GOP presidential nomination contests that others will pick up sooner or later, we might as well take the con man’s argument seriously.

For those unfamiliar with the meme, “Next In Line” is one of those theories that sounds compelling thanks to the very limited sample size of recent presidential nominating contests. But it is based on the idea that Republicans are “orderly” and “hierarchical,” and naturally gravitate towards presidential candidates who have already been vetted in previous contests.

Now to some extent, the “Next in Line” meme is based on truisms: obviously, someone who has already run for president has, other things being equal, a relative advantage in name ID, contacts in key states, and fundraising networks. That’s true for any office in either party. But the idea that Republicans just “fall in line” mechanically behind the previous second-place finisher starts falling apart when you look at individual cycles. It doesn’t really apply to Nixon ‘60 or Poppy ‘88; far more important than their performance in previous nominating cycles is the fact that both were sitting vice presidents when they first won a presidential nomination. It doesn’t apply to Goldwater; yes, he won a smattering of delegates in 1960, but the only real threat to Nixon that year was Nelson Rockefeller. Nixon ‘68 is indeed an example of a thoroughly vetted, previous candidate winning the nomination, but the “Next In Line” hypothesis would have suggested a ‘64 also-ran like Romney (who pulled out before NH in ‘68), Scranton (who didn’t run), or Rocky (who entered late in ‘68 and fell short).

In 1976, the nominee was appointed president Gerald Ford, who had never run for president. You can argue that 1980 nominee Ronald Reagan won because he ran a close second in ‘76, but the more important reality is that as the great symbol of a rapidly rising conservative movement, he would have won the first time around (technically the second, since he briefly ran in ‘68), perhaps easily, had he not been facing an incumbent president.

The candidate who best fits the “Next in Line” hypothesis was Bob Dole in 1996. Still, Dole won against as weak a field Republicans have ever experienced before 2012. W. was by no means “Next in Line” in 2000. And in 2008 and 2012, while previous candidates did win, anyone who watched the actual competition in either year would be hard pressed to imagine it as a matter of disciplined Republicans falling into line behind the “inevitable” nominee.

If “Next in Line” really was some sort of iron law, of course, it’s unclear it would stipulate a 2016 nomination for Perry, who dropped out of the 2012 contest on January 19 after finishing fifth in Iowa and a very poor sixth in New Hampshire. Yes, there was a brief moment in the early autumn of 2013 when Perry looked like a king-hell rising star and Mitt Romney’s worst nightmare, but he rapidly blew it via a variety of issue mispositionings and debate gaffes, and perhaps the most overrated campaign organization in living memory.

Morris deems Perry Next-In-Line simply by dismissing the other 2012 losers as, well, losers, and then suggesting that Perry can do better this time if he does this and that and doesn’t do this and that. If he had some ham, he could make a ham sandwich, if he had some bread.

The reality is that proponents of Next-in-Line, along with other theories that dismiss disorderly factional fights in the GOP as so much thrashing about before the Establishment’s favorite is accepted, have a real problem in 2016. Nobody’s got a significant early lead in the polls. Christie and Bush have serious handicaps, particularly in the “electability” department that sometimes makes Establishment types grudgingly acceptable to grass-roots conservatives. Paul Ryan appears uninterested in running. Important party factions like the antichoicers, the Christian Right leadership, and Republican governors, don’t seem to have a consensus favorite. You could make a case, on paper, for someone like Scott Walker, who scratches more itches than most. But he’s got ethics problems and the kind of personality that makes him reminiscent of 2012’s on-paper winner, Tim Pawlenty, who never even made it to 2012.

I suppose you could say that on such a muddy track, Rick Perry’s got as much of a chance as anybody. But if he does somehow win the nomination, there will be nothing “orderly” or predictable about it—other than that Dick Morris will get a new lease on his shady career for having prominently “mentioned” him so early.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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