You have to give him this much: The man was determined to be president, and he had no problem outpacing his opponents. He spent years crisscrossing the nation by bus, rail and plane. No room was too small, no town too obscure. Earnest and intense, he checked off all the right boxes, from a successful private-sector career to four years as a progressive GOP governor of a Democratic-leaning state. The media initially loved him, though it didn’t long go unobserved that he was something of an Etch-a-Sketch candidate. “Everyone who heard [him] agreed with all that he said,” observed the New Republic, “and no one knew quite what he meant.”
His name was Harold Stassen.
Today, Harold Stassen is remembered as the “Grand Old Party’s Grand Old Loser”—the onetime “Boy Governor” who ran for president 10 times between 1948 and 1992—a “perennial, never-say-die candidate” whose quixotic, lifetime quest for the White House obscured an otherwise brilliant public career.
A self-made man who put himself through college working as a Pullman car conductor, Stassen became a successful attorney and, at age 31, the youngest man ever to have been elected governor of a state. His career included wartime service in the Pacific and five years as president of the University of Pennsylvania. When he died at age 93 in 2001, he was the last surviving American signer of the United Nations Charter.
During his first presidential run, in 1948, Stassen racked up four primary victories, nearly costing New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, the Republican front-runner, his party’s nomination. On the strength of that first campaign, many observers regarded him as the prohibitive favorite for the GOP nod in 1952. When General Dwight D. Eisenhower declared his own candidacy, Stassen dropped out of the race and went on to serve for five years in Ike’s administration.
Of course, he isn’t remembered for all those things. He is Harold Stassen, who ran for president 10 times.
Mitt Romney will not suffer Harold Stassen’s fate. But his decision not to seek the presidency in 2016 raises an interesting question: When did it become conventional wisdom that there is no second (or, at least, no third) act in presidential politics?
Henry Clay, whom Abraham Lincoln called his “beau ideal of a statesman,” ran for president four times. No one remembers him as a joke. William Jennings Bryan was a three-time Democratic presidential nominee. Also not a joke. Adlai Stevenson, twice nominated. Hubert Humphrey, Stassen’s fellow Minnesotan, ran three times. Ronald Reagan lost the GOP nomination in 1968 and 1976 before his victory in 1980. Definitely not a joke. Richard Nixon: lost in 1960, won in 1968. A joke, but for other reasons.
Today, it is nearly inconceivable that serious politicians can run multiple times for the presidency, especially after losing a general election. Every four years, the Mike Huckabees and Rick Santorums reemerge, but their campaigns are usually about something other than winning the presidency—building a personal brand, perhaps, or sending a message. The real contenders—those with a plausible path to the White House—don’t get a permanent free pass. This relatively new, unforgiving rule is partly a reflection of the presidency’s growing power since the 1930s, but it is also a product of how the nominating process has evolved. Until 50 years ago, a small number of big-state political bosses tightly controlled the selection of presidential nominees. In the late 1970s, all of that changed. The rising influence of television increasingly made politics resemble entertainment, while the fallout of the Vietnam War and civil rights movement shattered the authority of political bosses and elite political institutions. Out of this disruption came the system we know (and love, and loathe) today—the four-year presidential horse race, the campaign reality show, Iowa and New Hampshire, Super Tuesday, a nauseating array of debates and candidate forums.
This is not a format that is hospitable to “losers.” The modern nominating process has an unwritten rule: You lose, you leave. To understand how it all came to be, it’s necessary to wind the clock back to 1967.
Late that year, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, an anti-war liberal from Minnesota, sent shock waves through the political system when he challenged Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination. Most observers initially thought that McCarthy was committing political suicide. Notwithstanding the normal challenges of unseating an incumbent president, McCarthy proved a lazy and diffident candidate. During his 15-day campaign swing through New Hampshire, he routinely skipped scheduled events, refused to make obligatory early-morning appearances at factory gates (“I’m not really a morning person,” he explained) and delivered dry, pretentious speeches that tended to anesthetize his audiences. When Johnny Carson, the host of NBC’s popular Tonight Show, asked what sort of president he would be, McCarthy replied, “I think I would be adequate.” Polls initially had him below 10 percent.
On January 31, 1968, everything changed. Roughly 67,000 Viet Cong troops launched a massive invasion of South Vietnamese cities. The Tet Offensive cost the Viet Cong enormous troop losses but shook the confidence of many American voters who had believed the administration’s assurances that the United States was turning the corner in Southeast Asia. In the turmoil that followed, McCarthy scored a stunning upset in the New Hampshire primary on March 12, winning 42 percent of the vote to Lyndon Johnson’s 49 percent. Because of a quirk in the state’s electoral system, McCarthy actually earned more delegates than the president. Days later, Robert Kennedy joined the fray, and on March 31, LBJ dramatically announced his retirement from politics.
That spring, Kennedy and McCarthy battled it out in several hotly contested primaries, culminating in Kennedy’s narrow victory in California on June 5 and his tragic assassination the same evening. By August, when the Democratic National Convention opened in Chicago, 38.7 percent of Democratic primary voters had cast ballots for McCarthy and 30.6 percent had cast ballots for Kennedy, meaning that over two-thirds of primary voters had supported self-identified peace candidates. By contrast, only 2.2 percent of voters had supported Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s heir apparent, who reluctantly echoed the administration line on Vietnam and who had not competed in a single primary.
By all reasonable expectations, the Democrats should have nominated an anti-war liberal. But in 1968 only 15 states chose their delegates by primary. Almost three-fifths of convention delegates were selected by county committeemen, state party officers and elected officials. As early as June 2, even before Kennedy’s assassination, the vice president’s advisers had sewn up enough delegates to secure the nomination. Humphrey did not need grass-roots support to win; he had the party bosses.
Given the sharp divisions within their party, it was almost inevitable that the Democrats would fight and fracture, as indeed they did. Amid reports that various groups planned to disrupt the convention, Mayor Richard J. Daley, the legendary Chicago mayor and party fixer, mobilized law enforcement to stand watch over the city.
Daley wasn’t exactly imagining an empty threat. Under the direction of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, the “Yippies,” a motley band of agitators who combined New Left politics with street theater tactics, had all sorts of wonders planned for the benefit of Humphrey’s supporters. Among its designs were enlisting 230 “hyper-potent” men to seduce the wives and daughters of prominent delegates and injecting LSD into Chicago’s water supply. There were also planned demonstrations by more serious activists aligned with the National Mobilization Committee to End the War (the MOBE), as well as Gene McCarthy’s supporters, who were deeply embittered that the party was about to coronate a man who had not competed in a primary.
As expected, the convention descended into chaos. Inside the hall, city policemen treated pro-McCarthy delegates brutally, refusing entrance to Allard Lowenstein, a prominent anti-war activist delegate from New York who would be elected to Congress later that fall, and roughing up Alex Rosenberg, a delegate who headed New York City’s most important Democratic reform club. “I wasn’t sentenced and sent here!” Rosenberg screamed as the police dragged him away. “I was elected!” When CBS reporter Mike Wallace tried to cover the mayhem, a police officer punched him in the face.