He was viable.

Question Day: Who Is a Viable Nominee?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Commenter zic asks: "In looking at the Republican bench, the professional politicians all seem to have major flaws. Is there someone outside of politics who might make a viable alternative (a Steve Forbes/Ross Perot candidate?)"

Major flaws . . . such as having signed into law the close cousin of the health care policy your party most hates? (That was Mitt Romney.) Major flaws, such as having seriously alienated key party groups by championing campaign fiance reform and, during his bipartisan phase, consorting with known Democrats? (John McCain.) Major flaws, such as beginning your campaign by admitting marital infidelity on national television? (Bill Clinton.) Major flaws, such as inexperience and, oh yeah, being a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama?

Every successful nominee has had major flaws. Every single one of them. What matters is whether party actors find a particular flaw disqualifying, and that's hard to tell in advance. Even flaws that have created media firestorms have sometimes turned out to be either irrelevant or, eventually, indulged by party actors when the real decisions are made.

As far as viable outsiders, here's what we know: Every nominee during the modern era, and everyone who even came close to being the nominee, has had two things in common. First, they've all had conventional qualifications -- generally, at least four years in a significant office such as governor or senator (or at least being near the end of their fourth year by Election Day, as Obama was). Second, they've all mostly supported the policy preferences of their party's mainstream.

Neither is an Iron Rule of Politics; both have gray areas. A few House members have run fairly serious campaigns: Do they count? What about generals, or cabinet secretaries? Couldn't they win a nomination? We don't know the exact parameters of conventional qualifications, but we do know that no one in the Steve Forbes mold has come close to the big prize, although many have tried. On policy, the difficulty in assessing it in advance is that nominations are one of the major ways that parties settle on their positions. So when there is a real split -- say, between Scoop Jackson Democratic hawks in 1972 and George McGovern doves -- the outcome of the fight defines the party mainstream. And sometimes those are serious divides. For the most part, however, today's parties have clear mainstreams, and most of the prominent candidates fit safely within them. The big exception is Senator Rand Paul; in my view his unorthodox views make him an unlikely nominee.

In any event, Democrats will most likely nominate Hillary Clinton and Republicans will nominate one of the dozen or so viable nominees who fit comfortably within the template. Yes, each one has flaws, but overall Republicans have a deep, solid field of candidates running for 2016.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net