Fairfax Media

By Brendon O'Connor

Now the 2014 US midterm elections are over, it's time to start thinking about who will be the next president. For those who think it is way too early for forecasts and discussions, just look at the current jockeying, fund-raising, collecting of staff and actual campaigning already going on in the US.

If the past is prologue this is how things will turn out in 2016. In other words, if we let history be our guide this is the likely path of events to selecting the next American president.

The most noticeable trend is that electoral success leads to predictable, but generally unsuccessful candidates being put forward by the incumbent presidential party.

Since 1945 the party in power has always put forward a standard-bearer candidate when the sitting president leaves office. This happened in 1960, 1968, 1988, 2000, and 2008. In each case eight years of a particular party being in power led to elder statesmen of the party being put forward.

The standard-bearer was either the vice president or in 2008 when the Veep was totally unacceptable to most Americans and in bad health, the Republicans put forward an only slightly healthier senior member of the party.

This standard-bearer approach attempts to build on the success of the incumbent president; it is a coronation of sorts, however given America's small "r" republican tendencies this often does not turn out well. Based on this history Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016.

What are the historical patterns for the party out of office? After the first presidential election loss for a party, on most occasions they also turn to a standard-bearer; this is particularly the case if a one-term president was defeated.

So in 1952 the Democrats turned to the grandee Adlai Stevenson II (grandson of a former Veep) and in 1984 they turned to Mondale, Carter's VP; in 1996 the Republicans turned to the Senate Majority Leader and Ford's former running mate Bob Dole; and in 2004 the Democrats turned to 20-year Senator John F. Kerry whose face already looked like it was part of Mount Rushmore.

The standard-bearer approach is common because choosing party leaders isn't entirely a democratic process, it is both a popular process and an internal struggle for power (a blood sport, a House of Cards struggle over the carcasses of your "colleagues"). Even the beatific Barack Obama buried opponents from within his own party on his way to success (who killed Alice Palmer's political career? — BHO did!).

Once you get to the top of the heap internally it is not surprising that standard-bearers want their shot at the presidency and often rig the rules to make this easier for themselves; however, apart from Poppy Bush (one of the ultimate insiders of American politics) standard bearers do not become presidents. And Bush Snr who had never been that successful in electoral politics only served for one term. Part of the problem is that people want to try something new, they want a change, even if it means backing a rookie or a Reagan.

So surely the story from here is that once parties realise they are on a losing streak they will wise up and put someone more "electable" forward. No. When the standard bearer loses, the tendency is for the party to go through a period of chaos and soul searching.

In this period of chaos unlikely candidates often come to the fore: the rather extreme Barry Goldwater in 1964, the peacenik favourite McGovern in 1972, the hard-line conservative actor Ronald Reagan in 1980, the too-liberal-for-the-times Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988, and the Mormon Mitt Romney in 2012. These outsiders generally lose, with Reagan being the exception.

After the odd-balls lose or the standard-bearer approach has been exhausted, parties then tend to wise up and select a person from a younger generation within the party with noted political retail skills: Kennedy in 1960, Carter in 1976, Clinton 1992, Bush Jnr 2000 and Obama in 2008.

Sure, some of these politicians were more charming and charismatic than others and some traded on their outsider status (leading to them being considered for part of the primary process as too exotic to be elected).

However, they were all, like Reagan, good at selling themselves (at least the first time around). Given these general patterns for the out of office party, the Republicans will elect a younger politician with a certain panache on the stump in 2016: Chris Christie and Marco Rubio being the obvious examples.

There are a few exceptions to these patterns: the re-emergence of Nixon in 1968 (a year so dramatic that it is not surprising it is somewhat of an aberration) and the selection of Stevenson in 1956 for his second shot at the presidency.

Second chances are now largely a thing of the past in electoral politics in America; as a result the future is unlikely to deliver a Grover Cleveland with non-consecutive terms or candidates like William Jennings Bryan, Stevenson or Nixon who get a second chance as a party nominee. The second coming of Mitt is, thus, highly unlikely.

Predicting the future is generally not seen as the done thing by historians; so political scientists with their economic voter models and polls tend to dominate the conversations. However, polls a year out from elections are notoriously unreliable and voter models often get things wrong.

History turns out to be a useful form guide to predict what is likely to happen in 2016; up until a point of course. Luckily, politics during the endless campaign seasons occasionally surprises us with an Obama or a Palin. To understand the likelihood of such candidates, readers of literature or viewers of reality television are likely to be better placed than historians or political scientists.

This article was originally published in Fairfax Media