Mike Huckabee has decided not to run for President in 2012. If the GOP holds true to form, this means that Mitt Romney will most likely be their 2012 Presidental candidate.
There's an interesting pattern to Republican primaries: if there is a serious second-place contender for the nomination, that runner-up is very likely to take the nomination next time there is not a sitting GOP president.
Let's look at the history of the nomination, back to 1960:
- 1960: Nixon, the sitting VP, wins the nomination. The only other Republican candidate to get votes from delegates is Barry Goldwater. Nixon, of course, goes on to lose to JFK.
- 1964: With Nixon declining to run against JFK again, a divided GOP picks Barry Goldwater (the second place finisher from 1960) as their nominee. Nelson A. Rockefeller comes in a decent second in the voting, but at the convention is booed and heckled by right-wing delegates for over a quarter of an hour when he comes to the podium to speak; not really a clear second-place finish.
- 1968: Nixon comes back on the scene and wins the nomination, with Reagan a close second. In fact, Reagan got more of the popular primary vote than Nixon. An interesting also-ran was George W. Romney, Mitt's father.
- 1972: With Nixon the sitting president, there's no serious contest for the nomination.
- 1976: After Nixon resigns in disgrace, Ford is the sitting President, and one would think him a shoe-in for the nomination. Yet Reagan (the second place finisher from 1968) makes a strong showing and comes close to taking the nomination away from Ford.
- 1980: Reagan (second place finisher from 1968 and 1976) takes the nomination and the Presidency. (And begins killing the American economy.) Runner-up George H.W. Bush becomes VP.
- 1984: No one makes a serious primary run against the Gipper.
- 1988: Sitting Vice President George H.W. Bush (second place finisher from 1980) gets the nomination and the Presidency. Bob Dole makes a decent showing in the primaries, carrying 5 states and getting about 19% of the vote, a clear runner-up.
- 1992: Sitting President George H.W. Bush is the GOP nominee, without serious opposition. (Pat Buchanan got some votes in the primaries, but did not win a single state.) Bush goes on to lose to Bill Clinton.
- 1996: Dole, the GOP's second place finisher in 1988, gets the GOP nomination, and goes on to lose to Clinton. Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes are the other GOP candidates of any significance, but neither of them has ever been elected to office, and they each win only a handful of states. There is no clear runner-up who is a viable candidate.
- 2000: Pat Buchanan, the closest thing the Republicans had to a second-place finisher in 1996, runs on the Reform Party ticket. Playing on his father's connections, George H.W. Bush becomes the Republican nominee; runner-up John McCain wins primaries in seven states and gets over 30% of the popular vote. Bush goes on to steal the general election and brings the American Century to a shuddering collapse.
- 2004: George W. Bush faces no significant opposition for the Republican slot; and thanks to the fact Kenneth Blackwell, the co-chair of his re-election committee, is the Ohio Secretary of State and is in charge of the election process in that key battleground state, he "wins" another questionable "victory" in the general election.
- 2008: John McCain, the runner-up from 2000, is the Republican nominee. The runners-up are Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, with 11 states and 22% of the vote for Romney and 8 states and 21% of the vote for Huckabee.
So in summary, since 1960, the Republican Presidential nominee has always been either a sitting president, a sitting or former vice president, the son of a former President, or the second place finisher from the last contested primary. There's nothing mysterious about the pattern; it indicates that it takes substantial groundwork to be taken seriously by the Republican establishment.
The Democrats, on the other hand, are much more open to fresh faces: Obama and John Kerry both clinched the Democratic nomination on their first run, as did JFK, Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Dukakis, and Bill Clinton. (The exceptions were, interestingly, all Vice Presidents: Mondale was briefly a candidate in 1976 before becoming Carter's running mate, VP, and then the 1984 nominee; and both Gore and LBJ had made previous presidential runs (in 1988 and 1960, respectively) before running as sitting VPs.)
With Jeb Bush declining to run and Dick Cheney not in the running, if the pattern holds, Romney will be the nominee. In 2008 some pundits speculated that Huckabee remained in the race as long as he did in order to try to set himself up for this "runner up" phenomenon; but with his decision not to run, it's now Romney's race to lose.
So I'd put my money on Romney taking the GOP nomination and losing to Obama, with at least a 50% chance of some teabagger running as a third-party candidate and getting at least 5% of the popular vote.