Mark Shields: Not your father’s Republican Party

Mark Shields


Let us stipulate that Republicans have consistently been a lot more orderly than the Democrats. For example, in the past 60 years, the Republican presidential candidate who was leading in the polls one year before the party’s nominating convention has become the GOP’s nominee 12 months later in 13 of the 14 elections. The lone exception was former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who led the field in 2007 before making the terminally dumb decision to skip the decisive 2008 contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina and fading into irrelevance.

By contrast, front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination, when the party has not had an incumbent in the White House running, have won the nomination only three times — John F. Kennedy in 1960, Walter Mondale in 1984 and Al Gore in 2000. Democrats who led the field before either fading or not competing have included then-Sens. Edward Kennedy, Edmund Muskie, Gary Hart, Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman and then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. Eventual nominees George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama all trailed badly in the year before their conventions.
But with the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland barely 13 months away, this GOP race is without a front-runner. The most recent national poll of Republican and Republican-leaning voters by Quinnipiac University produced a statistical fluke: Five declared or likely GOP candidates — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and neurosurgeon Ben Carson — all tied, with just 10 percent each. The current Democratic race is not yet a race, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton coasting as the preferred pick of 57 percent of her party’s voters, which translates into a 42-point lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The historical patterns of the two major parties are now totally reversed. The Republican race for the 2016 nomination is undoubtedly the most wide-open since World War II, while the Democratic front-runner is now further ahead than any of the party’s non-incumbent nominees have been in six decades. It’s no longer your father’s — or your grandfather’s — Republican Party.
Another major change among Republican voters is that they no longer seem disposed to reward candidates who have been the runners-up in past presidential competitions with the next nomination.
Think about it. What did Republican presidential nominees Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney all have in common? Each of them had run before — twice before in the cases of Dole and Reagan — and finished second before the party chose them as its nominee. But former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania — who won 11 state primaries and caucuses in 2012, finishing second to Romney for the nomination — is currently getting no respect from GOP voters for that good showing. In the most recent measurement before he formally announced his 2016 candidacy, Santorum was the choice of less than 1 percent of his party’s voters.
Instead, Republicans, who regularly fault Barack Obama for having been only “a first-term U.S. senator” and for his having had “no executive experience” before running for president, are now excited about Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, all of whom are first-term U.S. senators with no executive experience. Not to mention Dr. Ben Carson, who has never served a day in public office. This is obviously a very different Republican Party and campaign.

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