How can we possibly be discussing the next Republican nominee, when we don’t yet know whether:

  • 2015 will feature another dip into recession or the sixth year of an increasingly robust recovery;
  • 2014 features a Republican Congressional wave (similar to the Democrats’ victories in 1986) or a fizzle (similar to the Republican fizzle in 1998);
  • Republican governors in New Jersey, Florida, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Ohio, Iowa and Kansas run for and win reelection in 2013-2014, and whether any of them consider a Presidential run in consequence;
  • Republicans are flinging recriminations about a catastrophic war in Iran, or recriminations about an Israeli surprise attack on Iran, or recriminations about an Iranian nuclear test, or recriminations about a diplomatic deal with Iran that hawks claim gave away the store;
  • Something actually happens in the world that we haven’t yet anticipated;

Not to mention whether President Obama wins on Tuesday, and if so by how much.

And yet, even though it’s crazy to pick a 2016 nominee without regard to what actually happens between now and then, there has been a shocking amount of predictability about the overall shape of the GOP races.

I don’t remember what the speculation was in 1992, but after 1994 it was fairly obvious that Dole, as both leader of the Senate and “next in line” had the inside track to the nomination. The only question was whether a plausible alternative – Pete Wilson, say – might give him a run for his money, Gary Hart-style. Nobody did.

Nobody who lost to Dole in 1996 was a plausible 2000 candidate, and speculation about a McCain run began immediately. But by 1998, the toxicity of the Congressional GOP was plain, and Bush’s reelection that year established him very quickly as the establishment consensus candidate untainted by Washington, with McCain running an outsider campaign against his own party as an alternative. In spite of a fairly dreadful campaign, Bush locked up the nomination fairly quickly.

McCain had a hard time in the run-up to 2008 mostly because his party hated him, but he was the presumptive nominee for just about all of Bush’s second term because he had come in second in 2000 and was nationally-known. That he won in spite of the facts that party activists despised him, that the party’s funders didn’t trust him, and that his campaign all but imploded before it really got off the ground, tells you just how hard it is to knock off the guy everybody assumes is going to be the next nominee.

And 2012 told that story again. Nobody wanted to nominate Romney, but everybody assumed he was going to be the nominee. And here he is.

So the party will almost certainly settle on a presumptive nominee within a year or two of a 2012 loss. And then the party will labor to turn that person into whoever it thinks the electorate wants in 2016.

Isn’t politics wonderful?