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Morning Jay: Mitt Romney's Perfect Storm

6:00 AM, Nov 9, 2011 • By JAY COST
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There is great consternation among many Republicans over the prospects of a Mitt Romney nomination. I’ve heard various opinions, ranging from “I guess I can live with him” to “I really can’t stand him!” Among the latter camp, there is widespread sentiment out there that the inevitability of the Romney candidacy speaks to a festering divide between GOP elites and the grassroots – with the former controlling the nomination process and thus choosing Rockefeller-style Republicans like the former Massachusetts governor.

Mitt Romney

I am sympathetic to the concern among grassroots conservatives that the GOP elites have political beliefs that differ from the rank-and-file. That being said, I do not think this accounts for Romney's dominance. Instead, I think he will be the nominee largely because of good fortune: the number of potential, top-level challengers was unusually small this year, and the ones who could really have given him a run for his money have all dropped out or flamed out. Romney's moderation and flip-flopping were potential weakness for 2012, but there is nobody of sufficient stature out there to challenge him over them.

When we talk about stature, let's be as specific as we can. We can go back one hundred fifty years and see that candidates who win the nomination from then all the way through today seem to have the same bullet points on their résumés. This is no coincidence. Fifty years ago, political scientist Joseph Schlesinger argued that there was a structure of political opportunities in this country. You cannot go from being a dogcatcher to president; you must follow certain pathways.

Speaking in generalities, the “structure of political opportunity” for the presidency looks something like this:

Obviously, this is not to scale. The bottom two levels are much larger in real life than are represented here (if I drew it to scale the font in the top tiers would have been illegible!). The point is that you don’t just go from being an average Joe to president. You have to work you way up, and there are fewer spots and fiercer competitors on each new rung. Let's follow the trajectory to get a sense of who could have been a contender in 2012.

Once you get elected to office, your next step to the presidency is into what I have here called an "elite class," which historically has been made up of just three types of people: governors of large states, senators, and executive officials of high rank. That’s it.

In fact, check out this list of GOP nominees since the Civil War and you will see only a handful of exceptions:

What we see here is that all but three nominees have either been a high-ranking executive official (e.g. Ulysses S. Grant and Herbert Hoover), a governor of a large-ish state (e.g. Rutherford Hayes and George W. Bush) or a senator (e.g. Benjamin Harrison or John McCain). The only four exceptions have been James Garfield, who was chosen as a compromise candidate after the Half-Breeds and Stalwarts deadlocked in 1880, Alf Landon and Wendell Willkie. Those latter two won the nomination despite their slender qualifications because the ranks of GOP officeholders had been decimated by the Great Depression. So, they did not have the kind of challengers they would have faced 20 years prior. 

Let’s keep moving up the pyramid to see who could practically have contested Romney’s nomination. Who is of “presidential timber" this time around?

First, executive officials. Military generals have long eschewed active pursuit of a presidential nomination, and in the modern era – with its year-long pre-nomination campaign – that means the candidacy of a hero like David Petraeus simply is a non-starter. Other executive branch Republicans in 2012 all have ties to George W. Bush (or, in the case of Jon Huntsman, Barack Obama), which practically disqualify them this time around. That leaves just governors of big states and senators as potentially being of presidential timber for 2012.

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