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Ted Cruz and the Republican Party's next-in-line problem

Ted Cruz came in second in 2016, so he sees himself as the next-in-line frontrunner for 2024. Funny, Rick Santorum thought the same thing six year ago.

Nearly a decade ago, former Sen. Rick Santorum ran a surprisingly competitive presidential campaign, before ultimately coming up short against former Gov. Mitt Romney. As the 2016 cycle approached, the Pennsylvania Republican saw himself as a national frontrunner — since he was the next in line, which in GOP politics, often has real meaning.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is apparently thinking along the same lines. Politico reported:

Sen. Ted Cruz on Wednesday argued he is particularly well-positioned to win the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, citing his second-place finish behind then-candidate Donald Trump in the party's 2016 primary. The remarks from Cruz (R-Texas) came in an interview with The Truth Gazette, a conservative news service operated by 15-year-old Brilyn Hollyhand.

"You know, I ran in 2016," the senator said. "It was the most fun I've ever had in my life. We had a very crowded field. We had 17 candidates in the race — a very strong field. And I ended up placing second.... There's a reason historically that the runner-up is almost always the next nominee."

Asked whether he'd consider another White House bid, Cruz replied, "Absolutely. In a heartbeat."

So, is he right? Is the most recent runner-up "almost always" the party's next presidential nominee? In Democratic politics, no. In fact, in recent decades, it's only happened once (Hillary Clinton came in second in 2008, before winning the nomination in 2016).

But in Republican politics, it's a very different story. Ronald Reagan won the GOP nomination in 1980 after finishing second in 1976; George H.W. Bush won the nomination in 1988 after finishing second in 1980; Bob Dole won the nomination in 1996 after finishing second in 1988; John McCain won the nomination in 2008 after finishing second in 2000; and Mitt Romney won the nomination in 2012 after finishing second in 2008. As patterns go, that's quite a few data points.

So, does Cruz have a point? If Donald Trump doesn't run, should the Texas senator be seen as the likely 2024 nominee?

He probably shouldn't start writing his acceptance speech just yet.

The pattern is interesting, but there are exceptions. For example, Pat Buchanan came in second in 1996, but he was crushed by George W. Bush in 2000 and ended up running on the Reform Party's ticket. Santorum came in second in 2012, but when he tried again four years later, the former senator finished in 11th place in Iowa and promptly quit.

The runner-up is "almost always the next nominee"? Not exactly. The next-in-line thesis works, except when it doesn't.

I won't pretend to know what the GOP's 2024 field will look like, or who the top contenders will be. But I think it's safe to say historical patterns like these should be seen more as fun trivia than reliable predictors of future events.