History is on Romney’s side

Palin shook the political landscape when she announced a first printing of 1.5 million copies of her memoir, Going Rogue — a staggering number that has catapulted her book to the top of the charts. For his part, Pawlenty unveiled a new team of high-profile advisers, a mix of veterans from the successful Republican primary campaigns of George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), along with young blood with new-media expertise.

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These were bold shows of force, meant to signal to party elites and early-primary voters the viability and respective strengths of each candidate. For Palin, her greatest asset is her undeniable popular appeal to the conservative base and to everyday Americans. For Pawlenty, his forte is organizational capacity and the big names on his team.

Compelling though they may be as prospective candidates, Palin and Pawlenty still lag far behind the leader in the race to carry the Republican banner in the next presidential election: Mitt Romney. But Romney is ahead of the pack thanks largely to a prominent blemish on his otherwise sterling resume: He lost the nomination in 2008.

It is a peculiar fact of modern political history that past failure in the Republican primaries is often an indication of future success. Unlike the Democratic Party, which often confers the nomination upon first-time candidates — think, for example, of Walter Mondale in 1984, Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bill Clinton in 1992, John Kerry in 2004 and of course Barack Obama in 2008 — the Republican Party has a record of nominating battle-tested candidates who did not win the race their first time around the bend.

Consider the list of Republican presidential nominees since 1980. Of the five nominees, four had previously lost the nomination, often to a prior loser. The most recent nominee, McCain, lost to Bush in 2000. Bob Dole, the victor in 1996, was defeated in 1988 by George H.W. Bush, who had lost in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, who had himself tasted defeat in 1976 at the hands of Gerald Ford.

This is more than simple coincidence. Losing candidates win their second time around (or in Dole’s case, his third) precisely because they never stop campaigning. Of course, they do not run an overt or visible campaign but instead a covert campaign narrowly targeted to party leaders and opinion shapers.

Romney has been doing just that, choosing wisely not to rely only on the cycle of history to win the nomination. Just after bowing out of the 2008 Republican race, Romney founded a political action committee, Free and Strong America, that has allowed him to raise money at a rapid pace.

That has allowed Romney to collect IOUs in crucial primary and caucus states at an even faster clip. He has moreover kept intact the core of his campaign staff, and it stands at the ready to deploy at his call.

When viewed alongside his frequent public appearances on television and in print, and his attendance at private conservative gatherings, it should come as no surprise that recent polls show Romney maintaining an edge over other prospective candidates, including Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal and both Palin and Pawlenty.

All of this paints a promising portrait of Romney’s prospects for 2012. It remains to be seen whether he will actually run. But given what we know about history —namely, that it tends to repeat itself — two things are more likely than not: first, that Romney will run, and second, that he will win the Republican nomination.

Albert is a professor at Boston College, specializing in constitutional law and democratic theory.