Except for 1964, every Republican nominee since 1956 has fallen into one or more of the following categories:
• Sitting president (1956, 1972, 1976, 1984, 1992, 2004).
• Sitting or former vice president (1960, 1968, 1988).
• Previous nominee (1968).
• Runner-up for last seriously contested nomination (1980, 1988, 1996).
• Immediate family member of a past president (2000).
Democrats have no similar pattern (although Sen. Clinton could change that). Some of this is simply due to having won fewer presidential races during this time period. Of course, political patterns get broken all of the time. The people involved change and the dynamics that bring people together change. For example, some of the concerns that brought the Reagan coalition together (such as the Cold War) have changed, so that the coalition isn’t held together in the way it once was.
Taranto’s formula concludes that Goldwater was an outlier. Of course, George W. Bush would also be an outlier had not Taranto arbitrarily added his fifth bullet point. Taranto is not the first to suggest that the GOP tends to nominate only people that have worked through the primary process at least once. It would seem that Republican voters usually like their nominees to have previous primary experience. There are many examples.
If this pattern holds true, McCain will be this year’s nominee. Should he go on to win in November and survive to fill one or two terms, whoever becomes his VP would have a leg up on the following race in 2012 or 2016. Should McCain lose in November, Romney would presumably be expected to get the nomination in 2012.
While Nixon won the nomination in 1968 for the second time, after winning it in 1960 and then losing the general election to JFK, it is also reasonable to say that this second nomination could be considered an outlier, except for Taranto’s arbitrary inclusion of his third bullet point. The trend in recent decades has been to permanently dump candidates that made it to the final round and then failed.
Democrat Grover Cleveland came back to win a second term after losing the electoral vote to Republican Benjamin Harrison. Harrison’s presidency was pretty much a disaster. As things went south for Harrison, Cleveland’s electoral loss despite having won the popular vote looked increasingly unfair. In the next presidential election, Cleveland was able to oust Harrison by winning both the popular and electoral votes, even though, the election featured a third party candidate that took 8.5% of the vote — votes that ostensibly would have gone to Cleveland to give him an even larger win. And then there was William Jennings Bryan, who earned his party’s nomination three times (not all consecutive either), but never captured the presidency.
But all that was a long time ago. It is unlikely that anything like Cleveland’s or Bryan’s story could happen in the current political climate. Al Gore’s decision not to run again in 2004 and 2008 was made with an understanding of this factor. Similarly, John Kerry talks about possibly running again in the future, but his chances of getting the party’s nomination again are slim.
Of course, should McCain get the GOP nomination, another pattern will be violated. We tend to elect people that have high-level executive experience (either elected or military) and reject people whose highest level experience has been legislative. (Commanding a big squadron isn’t enough. We’re talking general or admiral.) JFK is really the only one where we did otherwise, outside of four-way races that produced unusual outcomes. (Also, niether Taft nor Hoover had either federal legislative experience or high level elected/military experience, although, both had high level appointed executive experience.)
But if that pattern is violated, another will be confirmed. Michael Barone calls this the 16-year itch (see here). This could be considered to be an exception to the pattern discussed in the prior paragraph. As each generation of voters comes of age — that is, middle age — and gets serious about politics, they get disgusted with the status quo and are willing to consider less experienced candidates. This seems to hold true unless there are other overriding concerns, such as WWII in 1944. But if this is the case, this pattern might break more favorably for Obama than for McCain.
This year will be a year that the strength of certain political patterns will be tested. If things go one way, the patterns will be strengthened. If things go another way, the patterns will be weakened. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that perspective might be added on a larger pattern that we don’t quite yet perceive.