U.S. senator Ted Cruz of Texas isn’t currently subscribing to the strongly held belief among most Republicans that Donald Trump is going to be the 2024 Republican presidential nominee. Indeed, as he told the conservative news site the Truth Gazette this week, he’s bullish on the prospects of another potential candidate: himself. Politico explains:
Asked … whether he would consider launching another bid for the White House, Cruz responded: “Absolutely. In a heartbeat.”
“You know, I ran in 2016. It was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. We had a very crowded field. We had 17 candidates in the race — a very strong field. And I ended up placing second” Cruz said.
“There’s a reason historically that the runner-up is almost always the next nominee,” Cruz continued. “And that’s been true going back to Nixon or Reagan or McCain or Romney that has played out repeatedly. You come in with just an enormous base of support.”
Cruz is articulating a “next-in-line” hypothesis about Republican presidential nominees that used to be close to conventional wisdom, based on the idea that Republican elites and voters alike are risk-averse and hierarchical and tend to think prior second-place candidates have earned the top position on the ticket. It’s a claim we haven’t heard in a while, for the rather obvious reason that political novice Donald Trump blew away a huge field of more conventional rivals in 2016 (including Cruz) and still dominates the party to this day. Indeed, because Trump stands astride the GOP like a colossus, perhaps the only people who really remember much about Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign are those who are still angry at him for refusing to endorse Trump at the National Convention in Cleveland (an act of defiance for which the Texan has paid with many acts of abasement toward the Boss).
But let’s humor Cruz enough to examine his “next-in-line” claims (borrowing from an analysis I did for FiveThirtyEight back in 2009).
If you want to argue that a non-disastrous prior presidential run is, all other things being equal, an asset for a candidate, that’s hard to deny. But finishing second and thus becoming “next in line” hasn’t necessarily been a qualifier. In 1952, Republican nominee Dwight D. Eisenhower had never run for office before. In 1960, his vice-president, Richard Nixon, who had never run for president before, won the GOP nomination without any serious challenges. In 1964, Barry Goldwater, who had only briefly and unsuccessfully let supporters promote him as a candidate in 1960 (and if there was any real threat to Nixon, it wasn’t Goldwater but his ideological enemy, Nelson Rockefeller) won the nomination. The second-place finisher (in terms both of total delegates and persistence in running) was Pennsylvania governor William Scranton, who as it happens never ran for public office again. The 1968 nominee, Richard Nixon, didn’t run in 1964 and finished first, not second, in his previous candidacy. Moving along to 1976, the Republican nominee had not only never run for president before; Gerald Ford had never run for anything outside his House district in Michigan (he became vice-president when Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace, and president when Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace).
Finally, in 1980 you arrive at a contest in which the “next-in-line” hypothesis fits, with Ronald Reagan, who very nearly beat Ford in the 1976 nominating contest, winning the big prize. It’s highly questionable, though, that Reagan won because hierarchy-minded Republicans saw that he had finished second four years earlier and decided he deserved a promotion. He was, preeminently, the leader of a conservative movement that was in the process of conquering the GOP. Early in the 1980 cycle, Reagan ran as the “inevitable” nominee (bands were instructed to play “Hail to the Chief” during his campaign appearances) and promptly lost Iowa to the harder-working George H.W. Bush. Only when Reagan fired his campaign manager and ran a harshly ideological campaign against Bush in New Hampshire did he get his mojo back and win the nomination.
Yes, in 1988 Bush succeeded Reagan after finishing second in 1980, but nobody really thinks his long-forgotten presidential campaign mattered remotely as much as his eight years as Reagan’s very loyal veep. Bob Dole finished second to Bush in 1988, and subsequently won the nomination in 1996. But deeming him “next-in-line” means ignoring the 1992 Republican nomination fight in which Pat Buchanan managed to throw a scare into Poppy. And indeed, Buchanan upset Dole in New Hampshire in 1996, and was second-place overall that year. Buchanan ran in 2000 but went nowhere, leaving the nomination to be fought out between novice candidates George W. Bush and John McCain.
McCain’s nomination in 2008 was really the closest approximation of the next-in-line scenario one can find: He had finished second in 2000, winning New Hampshire, and reprised that New Hampshire win in 2008 en route to the nomination. But anyone familiar with the actual contest understands that McCain won the nomination after a demolition derby in which he was more the survivor than the victor (he nearly dropped out early on thanks to financial problems); Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee took turns as the front-runner before these candidates along with Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson succeeded in knocking each other out.
Cruz cites Romney’s 2012 nomination as another next-in-line winner. But arguably Mike Huckabee (who won more delegates and stayed in the race longer) finished second in 2008. And 2012’s clear second-place finisher, Rick Santorum, finished 11th in Iowa in 2016 and dropped out immediately.
Suffice it to say that the “next-in-line” hypothesis is very weak, and will probably be weaker in the immediate future given Trump’s power in the GOP, which will likely deliver the nomination to the 45th president or whomever he chooses to make his MAGA successor. It’s also a very dubious credential for Ted Cruz, who probably does not want to remind Trump too often that he fought him to the bitter end in 2016 and then took forever to come around to supporting him.
You know what Cruz’s happy-talk about 2016 really sounds like? The fond recollections of a has-been pol who knows that his last run is as close to the presidency as he will ever come.