THE BLOG
01/15/2015 12:04 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2015

Is Mitt Romney the Political Reincarnation of Hubert Humphrey?

Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican Presidential nominee, is making noises about another run for president. He is contacting past financial benefactors and supporters, and telling them that he is concerned with the direction of the country and inquiring about future support.

A 2016 Romney candidacy would have seemed a bit farfetched in the immediate aftermath of his last campaign. The Romney campaign won just 24 percent of the proliferating Latino vote, and Romney could not overcome his image as a patrician out-of-touch with working class Americans. Still, Romney is tempted to join the presidential sweepstakes as polls show him at or near the head of the pack of potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates.

Should Romney run for president again, he would be on the same trajectory as Democrat Hubert Humphrey. Both Romney and Humphrey first sought their party's presidential nomination and lost. Both sought their party's nomination a second time and won, only too lose in the General Election. Humphrey threw his hat in the ring a third time and lost his party's nomination to an anti-establishment insurrectionist candidate. Will Romney suffer the same fate should he declare a third presidential candidacy?

Humphrey, a U.S. Senator from Minnesota, first sought the presidency in 1960. Humphrey had made his name as a tribune of Civil Rights for African-Americans, though he came from a state where the African-American population was de minimis. While in the Senate, Humphrey also championed traditional liberal issues such as economic equality, community service, and arms control. However, in 1960, Humphrey could not withstand the momentum of his more glamorous Senate colleague, John F. Kennedy. Kennedy upset Humphrey, first in Humphrey's neighboring state of Wisconsin, and then in West Virginia. This is significant because West Virginia was about 95 percent Protestant and Kennedy was a Catholic, and because the blue-collar electorate was tailor-made for Humphrey.

Part of the reason Humphrey lost West Virginia was that Kennedy's campaign manager and brother, Robert F. Kennedy, prompted Kennedy supporter Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. to suggest that Humphrey had been a draft dodger during World War ll. The accusations were mendacious in that Humphrey failed his medical examination because of a hernia. Roosevelt later withdrew his charge, but the damage was done. Kennedy won the nomination.

Romney first sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. Though Romney had waged a vigorous campaign in Iowa, spending millions, he lost by nine points to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Half of the state's caucus goers were evangelical voters, and that group backed Huckabee, a fellow evangelical, over Romney by 27 percentage points.

Romney was then embarrassed by U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) in Romney's neighboring state of New Hampshire. By working the townhall circuit, McCain overcame a 12-point deficit to defeat Romney. Romney was also hurt by opponents who portrayed him as a "flip flopper" for his change of position on a litany of issues, including abortion, climate change, and his support for President Ronald Reagan. McCain later bested Romney in Romney's birth state of Michigan and went on to pocket the nomination.

Despite a bitter campaign, McCain considered picking Romney as his vice presidential running mate, but ultimately chose the more provocative and charismatic Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

In 1964, Humphrey was selected by Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, to be his vice presidential runningmate. In 1968, when Johnson, fatigued from the escalation of the war in Vietnam, announced that he would not seek re-election as President, Humphrey entered the race as the establishment Democrat candidate. While Humphrey garnered support with the blue-collar base of the Democratic Party, and much of party high command, he became an anathema to the party's "new left." The new left could not overcome his support of the Johnson policy of sending more ground troops into Vietnam. They called for an immediate troop withdrawal from Vietnam and supported the candidacies of U.S. Senators Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) and Eugene McCarthy (D-MN).

Kennedy was assassinated prior to the election. The insurrectionist forces coalesced around McCarthy as he racked up delegates in the presidential primaries. Humphrey did not enter the primaries, choosing instead to cultivate the support of elected officials who were voting delegates to the Democratic National convention in Chicago. Humphrey garnered the nomination at the Convention despite a large group of protesters outside the Convention Hall at Grant Park who believed the Convention was rigged. They called for an immediate end to the Vietnam War.

During the General Election, Humphrey began to bring some of the "new left" into the fold. In a September 30 speech in Salt Lake City, Utah, Humphrey pledged that as president he would unilaterally halt the bombing of North Vietnam "as an acceptable risk for peace." It is estimated that Humphrey gained more than eight million votes between the Salt Lake City speech on September 30 and the election on November 5. Had the election been held one week later, Humphrey, with his accelerating electoral momentum, might very well have won the election.

In 2012, Romney was an early front-runner. He had the name recognition and had the seal of approval from the Republican establishment. Like Humphrey in 1968 with the "new left," Romney faced significant opposition from the "new right." The Libertarian-oriented Tea Party bloodline of the party was unimpressed with Romney's conservative bone fides. During the primary, Romney tried to propitiate them by calling himself "severely conservative" and taking a hard right stance against illegal immigrants, calling for "self-deportation." Luckily for Romney, the new right was fractured and could not consolidate behind a single Romney challenger. Consequently, Romney garnered the GOP nomination.

President Richard M. Nixon preached the dictum most Republican presidential candidates subscribe to: "Run to the right for the nomination and to the center in the General Election." Romney could not get to the center fast enough because he had been forced to move so far to the right in the primary. In addition, he could not ameliorate gaffes he made during the campaign, most notably the release of a tape at a private fundraiser with well-healed donors where Romney said of supporters of his Democratic opponent Barack Obama: "There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them." Consequently, Romney lost the General Election to Obama.

In 1972, Humphrey chose to seek the Democratic presidential nomination a third time. The establishment was not a monolith in supporting Humphrey. Many thought he had blown the past election by taking too long to partially disavow the unpopular policies of the Johnson administration in Vietnam. In response, Humphrey tried converting his past losses into an asset, stating: "with determination and faith, a man or a nation can grow from defeat."

The early frontrunner in a crowded Democratic field was not Humphrey, but U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME). However, Humphrey did have a loyal base of support from many in the labor movement as well as Civil Rights leaders who remembered his early passion for their cause. However, Muskie faltered and Humphrey once again became the establishment Democratic candidate. Humphrey again secured support from traditional blue-collar Democratic constituencies as well as from some in the Civil Rights community, but he could not overcome the proliferating electoral power of the "new left." They galvanized around the insurrectionist candidacy of U.S. Senator George McGovern. While Humphrey denounced his past support for U.S. involvement in Vietnam, McGovern reminded voters of his early opposition to the Vietnam War with his campaign slogan "Right from the start."

McGovern campaigned from the hard left, proposing to give every American a $1,000 income supplement, and to truncate the U.S. Defense budget. This forced Humphrey to spend much of his campaign excoriating McGovern's plan as too far left. Accordingly, Humphrey appeared less progressive, hurting him with liberal voters. After a victory in the hard fought California primary, McGovern secured enough delegates to win the nomination.

Should Romney choose to run for president again, he will have a similar problem to the obstacle faced by Humphrey in 1972. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, like Muskie with the Democrats in 1972, is winning support from many parts of the GOP establishment. Accordingly, like Humphrey, Romney does not start out as the establishment favorite. Should Bush falter, like Muskie did in 1972, and should the establishment turn to Romney, there is a Libertarian-oriented insurrectionist movement in the Republican Party that favors a candidate well to the right of Romney. This is similar to the liberal insurrectionist movement in 1972 which denied Humphrey the nomination. The "new right" today, like the "new left" in 1972, is searching for a voice from outside of the partisan power structure to challenge the establishment candidate.

It will be interesting to see if Romney decides to make another bid for the presidency in 2016, and if his political fortunes will continue to echo Humphrey's.