Former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has stormed back onto the political scene in a big way this month, reaching out to former mega-donors, reassembling the 'old team,' and meeting with fellow potential major candidates. And as poll after poll has shown, rank-and-file Republican Party members across the nation have taken notice.
A surprisingly solid 59% of Republicans say they'd like for the former nominee, who attracted just over 47% of the popular vote in his failed 2012 bid, to give it another go in 2016. Only 26% think he should sit it out. Romney consistently sports the highest favorability ratings of the potentially large field of Republicans candidates, at least where it counts - among the base. Last but not least, he leads comfortably in every national horserace survey of the GOP primary taken to date.
That final fact is somewhat unique in a historical context, and especially so when looking back over the last thirty years. Ex-presidential nominees frequently pop-up in the following cycle's primary polling. But it's much less frequent that they cast such a dominating presence over the rest of the field, so consistently.
In fact, looking back at ALL twenty-one ex-nominee's polling performance in the following cycle's presidential primary in the modern polling era, former presidential nominees can be said to fall into three tiers.
- Tier 1 - this group of former nominees had no trouble recapturing the party faithful's hearts and minds for the second time in a row following their presidential loss. Qualification for membership in this group requires the ex-nominee poll in first place in at least half of the following presidential primary surveys taken that include that candidates name. For example, because Mitt Romney has appeared in eight national 2016 GOP primary surveys to date, and has led in each, he would qualify for membership in this group. Other ex-nominees falling into this group are Al Gore in 2004, Richard Nixon in 1964, Adlai Stevenson in 1956, and Thomas Dewey in 1948.
- Tier 2 - this group of former nominees polled reasonably well in primary surveys taken after their presidential loss, almost always hitting double digits, even finding themselves at the summit of some random surveys. They fall short, however, of the polling status achieved by the failed nominees in the above group. Seven of the twenty-one ex-presidential nominees from 1936 to 2012 fall into this category.
- Tier 3 - ex-nominees in this group are defined either by their surprisingly shoddy, if not embarrassing polling performance in the following cycle's primary survey, or by their unwillingness to even entertain the idea of the presidency ever again, evidenced by their total exclusion from the following primary's polling. Nine of the twenty-one ex-presidential nominees from 1936 to 2012 fall into this category.
Tier 1 consists of five former losing presidential nominees that went on to dominate polling in the following presidential primary, whether choosing to ultimately seek the nomination again, as was the case with Thomas Dewey in 1948 and Adlai Stevenson in 1956, or staying on the sidelines, as was the case with Richard Nixon in 1964 and Al Gore in 2004.
Besides Mitt Romney, I should note Al Gore is the only ex-presidential nominee since Adlai Stevenson in 1956 to dominate primary polling in the cycle following his loss. In 2004 primary match-ups that featured Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, John Edwards, and Howard Dean, Al Gore led in virtually all of them. His polling superiority continued until well after he formally announced he would not be a candidate in the 2004 election.
That's why it should probably come as no surprise that fellow narrow-loser Richard Nixon was also the dominant polling force during the 1964 Republican primary, having lost a painfully close election to John F. Kennedy four years earlier, and a less close gubernatorial election in California in 1962. Nixon led in the final poll to include him, taken in June of 1964, despite insisting he was not an active candidate for the nomination. Both Stevenson in 1952 and Dewey in 1944, lost their respective general election contests, yet dominated polling in the following cycle's primary battle. Both were actually renominated, as well.
The seven former losing presidential candidates that fit into Tier 2 are a diverse group, ranging from Gerald Ford in 1980, to Hubert Humphrey in 1972, to yes, again - Adlai Stevenson (this time in 1960). The most recent example of an ex-nominee to fall into this category would be John Kerry in 2008. After a close loss to George W. Bush, Kerry publicly toyed with the idea of running a second time, and performed reasonably well in polling, averaging 12% in a crowded field, and frequently hitting the twenty-percent range. But it was the field that ultimately did him in. He trailed Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in every survey in which the three's name appeared, and was even surpassed by his ex-vice presidential running mate, former NC Senator John Edwards. Kerry gracefully stepped aside in January of 2007, well before launching any sort of formal campaign apparatus.
According to the Roper Center's i-Poll database, former presidential loser Michael Dukakis mustered 14% of Democratic Primary voters support in an early 1989 survey, the only such 1992 primary poll to ever include the 'Massachusetts Miracle.'
Following his narrow loss to Jimmy Carter in 1976, Gerald Ford reemerged for a rematch with both Carter and Ronald Reagan. Of the twenty-eight 1980 Republican primary surveys taken to include Ford's name, the ex-President led in seven of them, and averaged 28% of the vote, before finally announcing he would not seek another term as President in March, 1980.
Hubert Humphrey did similarly well in polling in the 1972 Democratic presidential primary, having lost the 1968 presidential popular vote to Richard Nixon by less than a point. Of the 18 surveys taken to include Humphrey, eventual nominee George McGovern, Edward Kennedy, Edmond Muskie, George Wallace, Eugene McCarthy, and more, Humphrey led in six.
Rounding out Tier 2, Democrats simply couldn't quit Adlai Stevenson in 1960, not even after two consecutive landslide losses to President Eisenhower. He nearly got away with the nomination for a third time, leading in six of fifteen primary polls that included Edward Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Other strong, though not quite dominant ex-nominees include Wendell Willkie in 1944, and Herbert Hoover in 1936, the former of which actually ran for the nomination again that year, the latter of which did not.
The final group, Tier 3, is littered with the tombstones of ex-nominees that either polled terribly in their cameo appearances in the following cycle's primary surveys, or didn't show up in polling at all. Perhaps the most notable of this group of nine presidential losers is President George H. W. Bush in 1996. Bush had just come off an electoral landslide defeat, though the popular vote was a bit closer. Had he chosen to run again in 1996, Bush would have been 72 upon taking office, one year younger than his boss Ronald Reagan was upon his reelection in 1984. Yet Bush never took the second plunge, and was never included in a single 1996 Republican Primary poll, at least not according to the Roper Center's i-poll database.
The same holds true for former nominee Bob Dole, who never made a single appearance in 2000 Republican primary polling (though his wife, Elizabeth, did quite well). Walter Mondale in 1988, Barry Goldwater in 1968, and Alf Landon in 1940 are all similarly positioned to George H.W. Bush. None of them appeared in any primary polling following their presidential loss. Senator John McCain in 2012, President Jimmy Carter in 1984, George McGovern in 1976, and Thomas Dewey in 1924, all performed relatively poorly against their presidential opponent, and all looked particularly weak against the proceeding presidential primary field, at least according to polling available at the time.
What does all this mean for Romney and the 2016 Republican field? Somewhere between 'very little' and 'moderately consequential.' As discussed ad nauseam on this blog before, early primary polling isn't very predictable. But as pointed out recently at FiveThirtyEight.com, we're now less than one year away from the Iowa Caucus. And these polls are only more likely to reflect the true nature of things on the ground as time goes by. The fact that Romney is doing so well isn't necessarily dependent on name recognition, as many Romney critics have speculated. Again, think John Kerry in 2006, John McCain in 2010, Dukakis in 1990, and Jimmy Carter in 1984. They all had high name recognition, but faded in primary polling in a sea of new faces and fresh ideas. Sure, Romney could fade, and may choose not to run at all. But as time ticks by, he's sitting pretty in the polling.