...or has FiveThirtyEight's Ed Kilgore taken what he calls an oversimplification and applied a very narrow definition to it as means of mythbusting?
The concept in question -- the myth regarding the GOP selection of presidential nominees based on who is next in line -- certainly is a simplification, but the best theories are parsimonious: simple while being powerfully explanatory or predictive. The best way to disprove any theory is to narrowly define its concepts. All this just seems like a measurement issue to me. If you narrowly define someone's next-in-line status as simply having run before (and done reasonably well), then sure, you'll be able to find instances where that "was trumped" by having been a vice presidential candidate or having name recognition or money or grassroots support.
But this is where I differ with Kilgore. All those other factors are part of this. The theory isn't next-in-line (as I supposed it has sadly been dubbed and poorly described) so much as it is heir apparent; someone who has been there (whether as a vice president, vice presidential candidate or presidential nomination candidate), and has some name recognition, money and grassroots support because of it. And this is how I've approached this concept when I've brought it up in this space in the past; as something more broadly defined.
And I bet you're saying to yourself, "This heir apparent sounds an awful lot like a frontrunner." That's because it is. It's the same thing. And as William Mayer has pointed out time and time again, frontrunners usually win in the post-reform period (the McGovern-Fraser reforms that served as the impetus for the system of presidential nominations our country's two major parties employ). [Yes, there are exceptions to that rule as perhaps you were able to glean from the title to Mayer's article.]
Fine, but what does this have to do with the so-called next-in-line theory? Well, much of this has to do with the choices given voters when the primaries and caucuses begin anew every four years. Kilgore alludes to this in his post, referring to the "psychological assertions about the nature of Republicans as opposed to Democrats." But this next-in-line, or heir apparent or frontrunner or whatever you want to call it theory incorporates (or should) what's happening in the invisible primary period between presidential elections because a lot this has to do with what the party establishment is doing behind the scenes before the first ballot is cast in Iowa. This isn't about voters so much is it is about the rules and/or actions of the parties' elites (see Cohen, et al. -- The Party Decides -- for more on the latter).
The thing that separates Republicans from Democrats in this area is the combination of a more homogeneous base of elites and the winner-take-all rules in the delegate selection events. The Republicans just haven't had as much of a "big tent" issue among the various factions of their party as the Democrats have over the last nearly four decades. Have there been divisions at the elite level around particular candidates vying for any given Republican nomination? Yes, but they have been more muted than on the Democratic side. [Again, there are exceptions. 2008 comes to mind.] But Republican candidates who "have been there" have just been better able to take advantage of their greater number of connections to those elites (and the elites vice versa), their endorsements and the attendant financial windfall. Republican elites simply line up behind those they know, whether that means a consensus behind George W. Bush (that's how the former president fits into this) or a slim plurality for John McCain. There's a relationship there. The candidate knows he or she needs the elite level support to win the nomination and the establishment within the party needs a candidate who can get elected and push the agenda of the party.
So this isn't a question of narrowly defining "next-in-line" so much as it is about how that status works in concert (and overlaps) with other factors (like electability in McCain's case) to make Republican's who are "next-in-line" more likely to emerge as presidential nominees than Democrats in the same situation. That status, though, is the tie that binds the contested nominations of the post-reform era together on the GOP side.
What does that portend for 2012? Both Romney and Huckabee (and even a lagging Palin) have a leg up on others that will contend (or are already quietly contending) for the nomination. All three are logical heirs to the next-in-line label. If, however, the party decides, as it did in 2000, that Romney and Huckabee and Palin are dispensable in the way that Alexander and Forbes and Quayle were, the party is likely to gather around someone who has some institutional strength within the party (Dare I say Haley Barbour? Not without repercussions, I guess.).
As of right now, though, those who are next in line have the best shot at the nomination in 2012.
On the Agenda at the Democratic Change Commission Meeting
GOP Governors in the White House?
The Answer is Yes