This article was originally published January 19, 2015. As of January 30, Mitt has announced he has changed his mind and is not, in fact, running for President. Maybe he read this article.
Recently I’ve been changing the way I use Internet and electronic media, and as a result I don’t consume as much political news as I used to. I was thus very surprised to hear by word-of-mouth that Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee for President, is indeed mounting a third Presidential run in 2016. I was surprised because it seemed very clear in the 2014 documentary Mitt, which I positively reviewed on this blog, that 2012 was his last chance and he knew it. Evidently not. Maybe Mitt feels the third time is the charm.
I’m also surprised that Romney evidently doesn’t appreciate what supremely long odds he’s got of making it to the White House on the third try. I’m not talking about polling or inside political dope, which doesn’t interest me as much as it used to. I really don’t care where Romney is in polls or what X percent of likely voters have said, nearly two years before the election, that they will or will not vote for him. I’m talking about historical precedent. Only two people in the history of the United States–Grover Cleveland and Richard Nixon–have ever won the Presidency after failing on a previous attempt as a major party nominee, and both of their cases are distinguishable from Romney’s. If Romney does succeed in his third attempt, he will stand alone in U.S. history.
Cleveland is the only “three-peat” candidate who won after previously having been a losing major-party nominee. The catch? He’d already been President once.
To understand why, let’s look at the history of “three-peat” Presidential candidates, then we’ll turn to the Nixon example, and finally to Romney’s own recent history. Plenty of candidates have tried multiple times to run for President, but the vast majority are either third-party gadflies, like the odious Libertarian felon Lyndon LaRouche, comedians or “joke” candidates like the Smothers Brothers comedian Pat Paulsen, or hopeless perennials like Harold Stassen. None ever had any realistic chance and few ever thought they would. We can dismiss them. We can also dismiss the example of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who ran for President a third time in 1940, and won–but he was already President when he did it. As for Grover Cleveland, who successfully ran for President a third time in 1892, having run in 1884 and 1888 previously, he succeeded in 1884; thus his 1892 race was technically re-election. Only a small handful of people who are not already Presidents have ever actually gotten onto the elite playing field of real-world Presidential politics a third time.
One who did was Henry Clay. Senator from Kentucky and one of the truly great 19th century parliamentarians, Clay first threw his hat in the ring in 1824, though not as an official nominated candidate; the chaotic election that year went to the House of Representatives, but Clay was already out of contention, and the real contest was between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. (Adams won). Clay made it farther in 1832, actually securing a nomination from the short-lived “National Republican Party”–which is not the Republican Party–but had the misfortune to be the fall-guy candidate against popular incumbent Andrew Jackson, who easily trounced him. Clay’s best showing was 12 years later in 1844. He got another nomination, this one from the Whig Party, and this was Clay’s run that was closest to being a modern-style Presidential election. He lost narrowly to Democrat James K. Polk. After his third try Clay was finally done. He died, still in office as Senator, in 1852.
Another 19th century three-peat was Ulysses Grant. After serving two disastrous, scandal-ridden terms in the White House in the wake of the Civil War, Grant went to Europe, then returned home and made a play for the Republican nomination in 1880. He was the first President willing to break Washington’s two-term tradition. He could not secure the nomination, having been outmaneuvered at the convention by James Garfield, who won. But Grant had already been President; he had something of a better ticket to the party than others would have. Thus his case doesn’t resemble Mitt’s either.
Henry Clay was a “three-peat” who came up short each time. To his credit, his final run, in 1844, was very close to being successful. The catch? That was 1844!
These examples are ancient history. When Romney thinks about historical precedent, chances are he’d like to cite Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan as pathways to potential success. Of these two, Reagan was the only three-peat. He tried, not entirely seriously, for the Republican nomination in 1968, ironically challenging Mitt’s father, Governor George Romney of Michigan, and Richard Nixon. (Reagan was Governor of California at the time). He didn’t get very far, but went much farther in 1976, when he challenged sitting President Gerald Ford for the nomination. Ford beat back this fairly serious challenge, and the race positioned Reagan as the heir-apparent in 1980. For Reagan the third time was the charm. But he had never received the Republican nomination before. The first time he got it, he won, thus marking 1980 as the end of a steadily ascendant trajectory through Republican politics.
Therefore, the case Romney probably hopes to be most like is Richard Nixon. Nixon is the only non-President who achieved success (1968) after previously losing as a major-party nominee (1960, to John F. Kennedy). But 1968 wasn’t Nixon’s third attempt–it was his second. Furthermore, the political landscape shifted decisively between 1960 and 1968. The electoral landscape, battered by JFK’s assassination, Civil Rights and Vietnam, was totally different, mainly because formerly Democratic states, most in the South, shifted into the Republican column after the Democratic Party under LBJ embraced civil rights and desegregation. Those states first turned “red” between 1964 and 1968, in time for Nixon’s run, and have been red ever since. (I’m speaking figuratively). Furthermore, Nixon’s loss to Kennedy in 1960 had been by a paper-thin margin. He almost made it in 1960. Thus, the Republican Party was willing to take a chance on Nixon in 1968.
Romney doesn’t have any of these factors in his favor for 2016. The political landscape hasn’t changed since 2012–in fact the divisions have become even more entrenched. It’s not likely that the second half of Obama’s second term will yield world-shaking policies that totally shift the political landscape. And, however close Governor Romney would like to think he came in 2012, the election wasn’t close. Obama beat him very decisively. Far from being a “do-over” following a “squeaker,” as in Nixon’s case, Romney trying again just looks like he’s trying to get another undeserved bite from the apple.
Mitt Romney probably hopes he can follow in the historical footsteps of Richard Nixon. The catch? Nixon wasn’t a “three-peat”–and he came much closer to winning than Romney ever did.
What also sets Romney apart is his utter incompetence as a Presidential candidate. Many Republicans considered the 2012 election winnable; whether they’re right is a debatable question, but what’s not really in dispute is how easily Candidate Romney handed the tools to Obama on a silver platter with which the Democrats could gleefully flay him. The “47%” comment is Exhibit A in that column, but far from the only one; Romney’s history at Bain Capital, his championing of Obamacare (when it was known in Massachusetts as Romneycare), his suspiciously schizophrenic views on abortion and social issues, “corporations are people,” and his troubling tax and financial history round out the list. As for Nixon’s baggage in 1968, there was “Checkers,” but that’s about it. And Nixon did not, as Romney did in 2012, suffer the repudiation of 53% of the American people who decided they didn’t want him. Electorally speaking, I don’t see how Romney gets over these hurdles.
It also seems like a long-shot that Romney could even get the nomination in 2016. The Republican Party has moved so far to the right in recent years that it’s hard to imagine anyone who once positioned himself as a “moderate” navigating the treacherous waters of red-state primarily politics. The fact that Romney did it once is actually a hindrance to him pulling it off again. The Republican Party rarely gives second chances. I just don’t see how he pulls it off.
But, as in all things, in American history too there’s a first time for everything. Mittens may surprise us. I doubt it, but it’s remotely, infintesimally possible. I already have my prediction how 2016 will turn out. But, we’ll see.