The Modern Nomination Process and “Retreads”

As Mitt Romney’s abandoned proto-candidacy fades in the rear-view mirror, I suppose the rather vapid (and often uninformed) outburst of nostalgia for the lost days of being able to run for president unsuccessfully again and again will fade as well, though it could be revived every time a retread’s campaign crashes and burns. There’s another, unusually confused effort today at Politico Magazine from historian John Zeitz, which appears to argue that American politics has been robbed of “return acts” by the advent over forty years ago of a presidential nominating process dominated by voters.

In Zeitz’s defense, the piece reads like it was born as a 10,000 word essay that got edited down to about 2,000 words. But worse yet, it grafts a dubious hypothesis onto a conventional account of the well-known story of how the parties got rid of the smoke-filled rooms after 1968 (though his Chicago-1968 explanation doesn’t really account for how and why Republicans went along). Apparently we are to believe that retreads Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey were given a second chance by “bosses” in 1968 that they would not have received had the primary system been fully in place.

There are a few problems with the assumptions here. Nixon swept all but one contested primary in 1968, only to have his nomination threatened by favorite sons in alliance with “bosses” backing Nelson Rockefeller (who reemerged late in the process after withdrawing) and Ronald Reagan (who declared his candidacy on the eve of the convention). And I doubt too many Democrats really thought of Humphrey as a “retread” in 1968; his brief 1960 candidacy (snuffed by JFK in West Virginia) had long been eclipsed by his role in the passage of civil rights legislation and then his vice presidential service under LBJ. As for his terrible performance in primaries–well, Humphrey didn’t even announced his candidacy until the filing deadlines for all the primaries had past. Yes, that reflected his correct belief that state delegations selected without primaries could nominate him, but it doesn’t follow that he would have failed to do reasonably well in primaries had he run (even as an undoubted “retread” four years later, he represented a late threat to George McGovern until a relatively close loss in California).

The more you look at it, the axiom that the “bossed” era was more conducive to “retreads” than the primary era looks awfully thin. Does anyone really think William Jennings Bryan owed his three nomination to “bosses?” Yes, had the post-1968 rules been in place in the 1960s, Democrats probably wouldn’t have twice nominated Adlai Stevenson. But they might have twice nominated Estes Kefauver, who swept the 1952 primaries and did very well until late in the process in 1956. After 1968, Republicans nominated “retreads” Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008. “Retread” Gary Hart might well have won in 1988 had he not succumbed to a sex scandal, and having run in 1988, Al Gore was a “retread” in 2000. And today, of course, “retread” Hillary Clinton’s looking pretty good in the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination contest.

When Romney was making noises about running I pointed out that very few losing major-party nominees had turned around and successfully run for the White House without at least taking off a cycle. That should not be extended into an argument that any “retread” is doomed.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.