And it's not the voters' fault either.

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Romney's Problems Didn't Start in 1968

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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Did the Yippies (and other long-forgotten turmoil from 1968) cost Mitt Romney the 2016 presidential nomination? That’s the story Josh Zeitz tells in Politico Magazine today: Thanks to political reforms after the 1968 election (and the tumult of the Democratic convention), parties lost influence over the presidential-nomination process, and therefore repeat candidates such as Romney can no longer win.

Unfortunately, Zeitz botches the story horribly. 

Let's start with Romney: The process didn't doom him. He was doomed this time because conservatives don’t like him much, and that made winning the Republican nomination improbable.

Then let’s get the nonsense about repeat candidates out of the way. Zeitz frames his history around what he calls an "unwritten rule" of nomination politics: "You lose, you leave." After listing a bunch of candidates who ran multiple times during the earlier convention-centered era (Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon), Zeitz claims that since 1968 it has been “nearly inconceivable that serious politicians can run multiple times for the presidency.”

Yeah. Ronald Reagan captured a nomination on his third try; so did Bob Dole. Second try? George McGovern did that. So did George H.W. Bush, Al Gore and, yes, Mitt Romney. Don't you think Hillary Clinton might have a shot at winning the Democratic nomination this time even though she failed before?

It is true we have no modern Bryans or Nixons, candidates who return from general-election defeat to win a nomination again. But we’ve had only a handful of non-incumbent losers in close elections since the reforms (Gore, Kerry and Romney), so it’s hard to draw much of a conclusion from them.  

Now we get to the important part of what Zeitz gets wrong: the meaning of the reforms after 1968. He has some of it, but totally misses what has prevailed since the 1970s. 

From the 1830s through 1968, national conventions chose nominees. Delegates were chosen by and represented state parties, generally by the formal party. Sometimes, this simply meant the delegation represented the governor. In many states, this meant a small clique of insiders was represented; in other states, the process was more open.

When antiwar Democrats lost the nomination to Hubert Humphrey in 1968, complaining they had been locked out of a process that chose delegates before their candidates started running, their consolation prize was a commission that redesigned the presidential-nomination system. 

After 1968, primaries and caucuses, not the convention, determined the nomination. Voters choose delegates, who serve as scorekeeping markers: The first candidate to earn 50 percent plus one of these markers of the national total wins the nomination.

At first, parties were cut out of the process. The big players in the 1970s were the candidates and, more important, the press. News stories could create or destroy candidacies because primary elections, without the intermediation of the parties, were susceptible to fads and whims.

But that period didn't last. The parties adapted. They learned how to influence the process by steering resources (publicity, money, volunteer time) to some candidates and not others. Indeed, parties infiltrated the campaigns. Lone-wolf candidacies became party-oriented campaigns, staffed with people whose loyalty to the party stretched back far longer than their interest in any particular politician. By the late 1980s, parties again had the dominant role.

But it wasn’t the same as before the reform. The new system allows all party actors to play a part -- including politicians, campaign and governing professionals, activists and donors, and party-aligned interest groups and media -- not only those who happen to control the formal party structures. The old parties were intensely local; now they are more national. We can’t say the current process perfectly represents the party as a whole, though it comes a lot closer than the pre-reform system. 

Overall, however, it’s wrong to believe, as Zeitz does, that the system we've had for the last 25 or more years is basically what reform gave us in the 1970s.

This point is important for understanding the process (and for participating effectively in it). Zeitz mistakenly believes that Romney dropped out because party leaders could no longer select him. But Romney was polling well when he left: his problem was that his support among Republican party actors was a lot weaker than he had hoped it would be.

Parties decide. They just don’t decide the way they did before the 1970s. 

  1. Zeitz at one point lumps Reagan in with his pre-reform politicians, but Reagan’s second and (successful) third runs were post-reform. Dole goes unmentioned

  2. Zeitz also uses Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum as examples of perennial no-chance candidates. They may flop, but lots of candidates flop, and it's a little early to write them off. 

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:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net