The obvious answer is we don’t know, but allow me to reverse-engineer the question.

Ramesh Ponnuru’s latest column for Bloomberg purports to offer two reasons why Romney beats Not Romney:

[T]he Republican establishment almost always wins presidential-nomination contests, and conservative insurgents almost never do. Since 1984, nobody substantially to the right of the party establishment has won the nomination. Make a mental list of the last four Republican nominees — George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush and John McCain — and the notion of a Romney victory in the primaries becomes less surprising.

Establishment-oriented candidates keep winning for two reasons. The first is that the party establishment has moved to the right, too, co-opting conservatives who might otherwise have overthrown it. ***


The second reason the establishment wins is that its opponents never unify behind another candidate.

Although there is something to both points, I started a straightforward critique focusing on the first. Ponnuru’s argument discounts not only the value of prior experience running for president, but also the roles resume and regionalism play alongside ideology in selecting a GOP nominee. Reviewing the GOP candidates for the nomination in 1988, 1996, 2000, and 2008, it is difficult to find a non-nominee who was substantially to the right of the eventual nominee with experience running a national campaign or an equal to better resume.

For example, in 2008, Mike Huckabee had been a southern governor, but had less experience running for president than John McCain. Also, Huck may have seemed more socially conservative than McCain, but he was arguably less fiscally conservative. In 2000, George W. Bush could draw upon the national experience of his father’s team, was the chief executive of a southern state, and — whatever the right may grumble now — seemed more conservative than McCain.

But what about 1996? Bob Dole was the vice-presidential nominee, and ran unsuccessfully for the GOP presidential nomination twice — losing to Reagan in 1980 and (sitting veep) George H. W. Bush in 1988. But he was a Senator from the plains, as opposed to the south or the sunbelt. On paper, Phil Gramm should have been a formidable rival. Gramm was a Senator from Texas — a party-switcher, but more conservative than Dole. He entered the race with big buzz and even bigger bucks. Gramm ultimately fizzled due to image problems (which is saying something when the competition is Bob Dole) and because social conservatives favored Pat Buchanan, particularly in the early Louisiana caucus. The 1996 campaign may be the best example where the establishment candidate won the nomination due to disunited conservatives.

Phil Gramm would likely be the first to concede that Rick Perry is a better-looking candidate than he was, but parallels remain. Perry is from Texas — a party-switcher, but with a more conservative record than Romney. Perry has been painted by Romney as overly harsh on spending issues, while more hardcore conservatives are offended by his tone and positions on issues like the Texas Dream Act and find him to be a crony capitalist. His early debate performances contributed to a bad image with the base that watched them. Thus, after a splashy entrance, Perry finds himself struggling for the Not Romney vote with Herman Cain.

Speaking of Cain, if you review those past GOP candidate lineups, you will find he fills two familiar slots: Fiery Talk Show Guy and Unelected Businessguy With a Tax Plan (presumably to compensate for the lack of political resume). If Rick Perry has to worry about being Phil Gramm, Herman Cain has to worry about being the lovechild of Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes.

Update: Ponnuru responds, but it seems he views this post as more of a critique than it is. I “started” that way, but his column was ultimately a springboard for the Perry-Gramm comparison. He also argues that resume is a third reason establishment candidates tend to win. Again, he has a point, although by restricting his analysis to post-1984, he gets to take as a given that Reagan shifted the entire GOP to the right after gaining experience running against Nixon in 1968 and Ford in 1976. Reagan showed that a less-establishment conservative can win, given the right resume and prior experience running… but Reagan was a much better candidate than Gramm or Perry so far.

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