09/09/2014 10:50 am ET Updated Nov 09, 2014

Will the 2016 Presidential Race Be the "We Told You So" Election?

Joe Raedle via Getty Images

It would be the "We told you so" election: Mitt Romney versus Hillary Clinton in 2016. The campaign would look like an effort to roll back the calendar and say, "Let's get it right this time."

There's plenty of buyers' remorse in the electorate right now. At a time when the world is beset by crises, President Obama's legendary coolness makes him seem weak and detached. The president's careless statements have only amplified that impression, including remarks that "we don't have a strategy yet" for dealing with ISIS and our goal is to reduce Islamic extremism to "a manageable problem." A recent CNN poll offered voters a redo of the 2012 election. The result: Romney would now beat Obama by a decisive margin (53 percent to 44 percent).

Romney encouraged the speculation in a backhanded way when he told a radio talk show host there's "one in a million" chance he will run in 2016: "Let's say all the guys that were running [for the Republican nomination] came together and said, 'Hey, we've decided we can't do it, you must do it.' That's the one in a million we're thinking about."

Romney's comment stirred some excitement among Republicans. They are keenly aware of the country's buyers' remorse. A USA Today poll of Iowa Republican caucus participants raised a lot of eyebrows last month when it showed Romney, at 35 percent, far ahead of all the other contenders. That's partly name recognition and partly Republicans' desire for a do-over. It also reflects the fact that no other Republican contender has caught fire. In three different national polls of Republicans this summer, no potential contender got more than 13 percent support (Romney's name was not offered).

The Republican Party establishment is worried. All their potential standard-bearers -- Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, Rick Perry -- have significant problems. That's why the party elite is fantasizing about either Romney or Jeb Bush. At the same time, Tea Party activists and evangelicals are warning the party not to nominate another establishment candidate like John McCain or Mitt Romney.

"The Republican base will not tolerate another candidate foisted upon us as a guy who can win," said Gary Bauer, a leading figure in the religious right.

It has become rare for a party to renominate the candidate who lost the previous election. It didn't work for Democrats with Adlai Stevenson (1952 and 1956) or for Republicans with Thomas Dewey (1944 and 1948). Both got a smaller share of the vote the second time. Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan three times (1896, 1900, and 1908). Bryan's share of the vote went down each time. Bryan was a populist. So in 1904, Democrats took a different tack and nominated a conservative, Alton B. Parker. That didn't work either. Parker did worse than Bryan.

It did work when Republicans nominated Richard Nixon a second time in 1968. But Nixon had to wait eight years. In between, Republicans suffered the catastrophe of Barry Goldwater's candidacy in 1964. Given the fact that Nixon lost in 1960 by what is still the closest vote in U.S. history (a popular vote margin of 0.2 percent), renominating Nixon did not look like such a big risk.

Romney seems aware of the risk the party would take by renominating him. "I have looked at what happens to anybody in this country who loses as the nominee of their party," Romney has said. "They become a loser for life." But he lost to Obama, and widespread dissatisfaction with President Obama is causing Republicans to fantasize about bringing Romney back to life.

"In many ways, it looks like 2016 will be a referendum on Obama in the same way 2008 was a referendum on [George W.] Bush," Romney's former chief strategist told Politico.

That would certainly be the case if Vice President Joe Biden were the Democratic nominee. But Hillary Clinton? She also lost to Obama. Democrats, too, are longing to go back to the future and redo the 2008 primaries.

Clinton loyally served in the Obama administration for four years. That leads many Republicans to believe she would represent a third term for Obama. But the fierce 2008 primary campaign established Clinton's identity. She has her own distinctive record, plus that of her husband, to run on. President Clinton's economic record stands in sharp contrast to Obama's.

While Romney would easily defeat Obama if there were a rematch right now, he would not do so well against Clinton. The CNN poll shows Clinton leading Romney by an even larger margin, 55 percent to 42 percent. That's pretty good evidence that voters do not see the prospect of a Clinton presidency as a "third term for Obama."