The ignominious end of the shutdown/debt-ceiling standoff has some pundits wondering whether any of the GOP’s star senators—Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio—could be a viable presidential nominee. With Republicans on Capitol Hill vastly unpopular with the nation at large, is this an opening for a governor in 2016?
Chris Christie and Jeb Bush are the obvious possibilities, with obvious problems. Bush is a familiar name—perhaps too familiar. Christie may have trouble with the right. (Although he’s not inherently any less ideologically plausible a nominee than, say, Mitt Romney.) But every four or eight years, pundits’ imaginations get fired by dark horses: last year, Tim Pawlenty and Mitch Daniels had their moments of vogue. In the middle of the George W. Bush years, National Review improbably pinned its hopes on Colorado Gov. Bill Owens as his successor. (Even more improbably, the magazine had a crush on Dan Lungren, then attorney general of California, back in 1996.)
There’s a reason these fantasies never play out: Republican voters not only have a strong preference for familiar names, they also like nationally proven brands.
In the six decades from Eisenhower’s nomination in 1952 to Romney’s in 2012, the GOP unfailing nominated someone who had either run before, already held national office, or had celebrity cachet. Ike was a war hero. Nixon was VP when he first won the nomination. Ford was already president the only time he won it. Goldwater had made his name in 1960 before he became the nominee in 1964. Reagan was not only a governor, he was also a movie star and had run in 1976 before he won the nomination in 1980. Bush I was VP. Dole had been on a national ticket as Ford’s running mate in 1976, ran for president in 1988, and had just stepped down as Senate majority leader in 1996 when he accepted the nomination. Bush II was a first-time candidate for the White House in 2000, but of course his name was identical with that of the last Republican president. McCain had run once before and was perhaps the most prominent person in the Senate when he won the nomination in 2008. Romney ran in 2008 before winning the nomination in 2012.
The absence of dark horses is no accident: Republican voters like familiarity, which connotes to them national appeal, ideological predictability, and readiness for the job. No surprises, no risks—or at least, the risks ought to be known in advance, even if that means nominating a leader obviously past his prime.
In 2016, the party will most likely hew to the pattern of the past 60 years and nominate someone with a degree of national prominence who is comfortably familiar to Republican voters. Jeb Bush’s whole campaign-in-waiting is based on that idea. If he wasn’t named Bush, he’d be Tim Pawlenty.
Not all of the presumed contenders—Rubio, Cruz, Paul, Christie, Bush, and what the heck, Rick Perry—fit the bill equally well, of course, and it’s not necessarily the case that the one that fits it best will be the nominee. But the profile is suggestive. Is Rubio, for example, really well enough known nationally? Perry imploded in 2012, but he’s at least familiar to Republican voters nationwide now, and perhaps that’s more important than his debate performances. (He’d better hope so.) Paul and Bush fit the profile most closely: neither has run for president before, but both are brands familiar to Republican primary voters from their relatives’ runs. Cruz and Christie are plenty prominent, but the GOP has shown a remarkable tendency to go with whoever is next in line.