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Could Mitt Romney Be the New Dick Nixon?

Did ya hear the news? Mitt Romney may run for president again! A little birdie told Bob Schieffer so.

Our guess is that, like so many anonymous reports, this one will turn out to be false. Still, it’s not that uncommon for general-election losers to try again. The tradition dates to 1800, when Thomas Jefferson avenged his 1796 loss to John Adams and became our third president.

In recent years, recycled candidates have been somewhat less common. Plenty of candidates have lost their nomination fights and run again — as Romney did in 2012 after losing in 2008, and as Ronald Reagan did in 1980 after failing to win the Republican nomination in both 1968 and 1976. But no general-election loser from a major party has tried again since George McGovern, who lost to Richard Nixon in 1972 and ran a quixotic bid for the Democratic nomination in 1984.

That may be because these candidates don’t have a very good track record. Since 1856, when the Republican Party first nominated a candidate for president, general-election losers from the major parties have run again for president somewhere between 14 and 18 times, depending on how you count several debatable cases. (Samuel Tilden, for example, won the popular vote in 1876 but lost in the electoral college. In 1880, he never officially declared his candidacy, but was considered the front-runner and still received votes at the Democratic convention.)

Only two of these candidates won the presidency: Grover Cleveland in 1892 and Nixon in 1968.


Perhaps Romney could turn to Nixon for hope. Tricky Dick successfully reinvented his public image: the new Nixon!

But Cleveland and Nixon are the exceptions — and both came back after losing exceptionally close races. Cleveland, who won the presidency in 1884, lost the electoral college to Benjamin Harrison in 1888 but won the popular vote. Nixon, in 1960, nearly won the popular vote against John F. Kennedy.

Romney’s loss to Barack Obama in 2012 was no landslide, but it probably wasn’t close enough to convince Republicans that Romney would have won if only circumstances had been a little different. Romney performed, at best, in line with what would be expected by prediction models based on economic fundamentals — and perhaps a little worse. And his campaign was derided by some Republican activists after its get-out-the-vote system, Project ORCA, failed on Election Day.

In some ways, this assessment is unfair to Romney. Incumbent presidents aren’t that easy to beat, even under middling economic conditions. Romney raised an enormous amount of money and avoided major scandals. Down the ballot under Romney, Republicans failed to win the Senate, but they did hold on to the House of Representatives. His nomination wasn’t a disaster on the scale of McGovern’s.

Still, since some Republicans thought right up to the last minute that the election was theirs to lose, our guess is that they won’t want any more of Romney. And Romney will probably find something else to do with his time.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.