Past Is Prologue in the GOP Primary

We don't want to wait three whole weeks to find out who's going to win the Iowa caucus — or the Republican nomination, for that matter — so historical analogies of primaries past are becoming a political pundit fad.

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We don't want to wait three whole weeks to find out who's going to win the Iowa caucus — or the Republican nomination, for that matter — so historical analogies of primaries past are becoming a political pundit fad. Usually, the best way to predict who's going to win the Republican presidential nomination is to look at what candidates like Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have done before -- and how voters have responded to them. But these guys don't seem very much like Republican candidates of yore. They seem like Democrats.

Let's check out the models:

Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama

Who's who: Romney is Clinton, Gingrich is Obama.
Why: Romney has the money and establishment support Clinton had. Romney has by far raised the most money and gotten the most endorsement from Republican lawmakers. And, like Clinton, he's making the case based on his experience -- though for him it's in the business world, while Clinton's was in Washington. (Ironically, Clinton argued she'd be better able to deal with stubborn Republicans in Congress after her years warring with them as first lady -- particularly with Gingrich.) Both backed the single policy pushed by the opposing party that angers the base the most -- in Romney's case, health care, in Clinton's, the Iraq war. Both we're seen as being too willing to change their beliefs to match the latest polls. Gingrich, on the other hand, excites the base. He's the ideas candidate, just as Obama was the hope candidate. And he could be helped by a long primary fight into the late spring, because Republicans are dividing delegates proportionally in early contests -- meaning a second place finish can be almost as good as a first.
Problems: Obama was the one with a strong organization in early and later state elections -- which is what Romney has. Just as in 2008, voters in 2012 want change, but Gingrich spent decades in Washington, sticking around even after he left office for the city's fancy suburbs.
Sample analysis: "But being Clinton in 2012 might be better than being Clinton in 2008. … Now, though, after four years of economic distress and harsh political battles over major reforms, the competence and maturity that Romney seeks to project — particularly in areas of economic policy and business savvy — might find a large, ready audience": The Hill's Niall Stange, November 7.
Sample analysis II: "Romney has followed the Clinton playbook so closely, her former aides say, you’d think she won her party’s nomination": Politico's Ben Smith and Maggie Haberman, December 12.
Predicted winner: Gingrich.

John Kerry vs. Howard Dean

Who's who: Romney is Kerry, Gingrich is Dean.
Why: In 2004, Kerry's chances looked so slim that when The New Republic published endorsements for each of the candidates in the race, it didn't bother with one for Kerry. Like Romney, Kerry wasn't very charismatic. Dean, on the other hand, said the things Democratic voters were dying to hear, especially that the Iraq war was wrong. But even Dean's pollsters knew that once voters started thinking about electability, Dean would lose. Likewise, a University of New Hampshire poll shows that 57 percent of Republican voters in the state think Romney could beat Obama, while only 10 percent think Gingrich could.
Problems: Dean was little-known outside of Vermont before he began his presidential campaign, while Gingrich is one of the most recognizable political faces of the last 20 years. Dean made mistakes on the campaign trail because he was a n00b, while Gingrich is so proud of his ability to manipulate the press that he lets his campaign staff brag about it. Dean was far better organized than Gingrich.
Sample analysis: "So we move forward to John Kerry... One of the reasons I keep hearing from our inside-the-Beltway intelligentsia to support Romney is he's the only guy that can win. You've heard that, too. 'Romney's the only guy that can beat Obama, and we've ... got ... to beat ... Obama. That's all that counts here, gotta get rid of Obama. Romney is the only guy that can do it.' That just seems to be a fait accompli, seems to be -- and I'm thinking, that's exactly how John Kerry got the Democrat nomination back in 2004. … [Democrats] didn't want Kerry, and as the campaign unfolded, it became obvious they were not really enamored with John Kerry, but he was the nominee and they put up a good front." Rush Limbaugh, November 16.
Predicted winner: Romney

Kerry vs. Dean Variant I

Who's who: Gingrich is Kerry.
Why: Voters are overcompensating for what they think their candidate lacked in the last election -- it was eloquence in 2008, in 2004 it was manliness.
Sample analysis: "In 2004, the Democrats were furious at what they considered the fraud to end all frauds: the selling of George W. Bush as a decisive military leader and all-American tough guy. So they nominated John Kerry for the presidency, hoping that having a real combat veteran as their standard-bearer... Newt Gingrich’s recent rise in the polls is being sustained, in part, by a right-wing version of exactly the impulse that led Democrats to nominate Kerry: a desperate desire to somehow beat Barack Obama at his own game, and to explode what conservatives consider the great fantasy of the 2008 campaign — the conceit that Obama possessed an unmatched brilliance and an unprecedented eloquence." Ross Douthat, The New York Times, December 11.
Predicted winner: Gingrich

Kerry vs. Dean Variant II

Who's who: Romney is Dick Gephardt, Gingrich is Dean, A candidate to be named later is Kerry
Why: Gephardt and Dean both desperately needed to win Iowa. They aired a ton of negative ads against each other, which some say turned off enough voters that they picked a third candidate (Kerry.) This week, Gingrich and Romney are harshly attacking each other, with Gingrich saying Romney is a robber baron and Romney saying Gingrich is a corrupt influence peddler.
Sample analysis: "One of the very plausible outcomes of a food fight between the top two contenders in a multicandidate race in which there’s little to separate the candidates is that voters will be disgusted with both and find a new horse. Could Rick Perry -- or even Rick Santorum -- wind up benefitting?" Jonathan Bernstein, The Washington Post, December 12.
Predicted winner: Santorum or Perry

Walter Mondale vs. Gary Hart

Who's who: Romney is Mondale, Gingrich is Hart
Why: Mondale was the establishment pick in 1984, but he didn't set Democrats' hearts aflame. Several Not Mondale candidates came and went before Gary Hart won the title. Hart, like Gingrich, was constantly talking about his ideas. Mondale famously quipped at a debate, "When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad, 'Where's the beef?"
Problems: Mondale won Iowa easily; Romney is struggling in that state. Hart surprised the press by winning the underdog-loving voters of New Hampshire. Romney has long had a solid lead there. Hart was the attractive one, Romney is the party's dreamboat. Hart presented himself as a fresh outsider running against an "old-fashioned" liberal Democrat; Gingrich is appealing to voters by being more conservative, not less.
Sample analysis: "In 1984, everyone – the press, pundits and party elites – knew that the race for the Democratic nomination would come down to Walter Mondale and some other candidate. For the two years prior to the first votes in the Iowa Caucus the party, press and political insiders were obsessed with the search for “the other candidate.” … ut once the world knew Hart was the other candidate, voters defected from Glenn, Cranston and the other candidates in droves – there was no one left with which to split votes and Hart started to win state after state starting with New Hampshire." Former Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, Fox News, November 29.
Sample analysis II: "Hillary as Mondale, Again," Steve Kornacki, New York Observer, February 29, 2008.
Predicted winner: Romney
The weird thing here is the previous races people are using as templates for Newt vs. Mitt were all Democratic. Why is that? Maybe it's because this year Republican voters are acting like Democrats, who are concerned with ideological purity. Maybe it's because Republicans usually want to nominate the next guy in line, but this year, they have a general desire to pretty much burn down Washington DC.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.