Well, here comes the 2012 Republican primary battle… and there it goes. Not since the season finale of The Killing has so much buildup come to so much nothing.
It’s not like we didn’t see this coming. No matter how many entertaining candidates-for-their-own-CNN-show were trotted out, it wasn’t like they were actually going to be President. Since Herbert Hoover became President in 1929 (he’d never been elected to anything, serving as Secretary of Commerce), every Presidential nominee (except sacrificial lamb Wendell Willkie in 1940) has been 1.) a Governor, 2.) a Senator, 3.) a Vice-President, or 4.) a WWII-winning General. That’s it.
Heading into the Republican primary season, the frontrunner was 2008 runner-up Mitt Romney, who followed the John Edwards game plan of turning one term in office and good hair into a permanent campaign. There were three little-known, boring-as-hell former Governors lurking… Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty, and Gary Johnson. With Ron Paul, there was no room for Johnson’s libertarianism; with Romney, there was no room for Huntsman’s Mormon businessman schtick; and Pawlenty let himself get bullied out by fellow Minnesotan Michelle Bachmann, a decision that should drive him to drink daily at this point. The only former Senator in the race, Rick Santorum, 1.) was beaten by 17 points in his last race, 2.) is batshit crazy, and 3.) is literally a synonym for ass juice.
That left three-plus-term Texas governor Rick Perry as the only chance for an interesting race. He had electoral success in a big state, distinct ideological differences from Romney, and a huge pile of money. His biggest problem was that he seemed too much, biographically, ideologically and smirking-wise, like George W. Bush. Perry decided to differentiate himself by proving himself to be dumber and crazier. Somehow, this didn’t resonate with voters.
The primary battle this most resembles is the Democrats in 1992, when the only “President on the stage” was Bill Clinton. The rest of the field was boring/crazy (Paul Tsongas/Jerry Brown), but there was a general sense of unease among Democratic voters about sending Clinton against the incumbent George H. W. Bush. Obviously, though, Clinton’s issues (womanizing, draft dodging) were slightly more exciting than Romney’s (flip-flopping, downsizing). At least Willard could sexually harass somebody for all of our sake.
So where does this snoozefest rank all-time?
While some primaries have been around for a while, choosing a Presidential candidate through them rather than the convention sprung from reforms after the 1968 clusterfuck. So, we’ll consider 1972 on.
The Three Most Boring Primary Races
note: not including races involving sitting Presidents, which are normally uncontested.
3.) 1996 – Republican
Much like Obama, Clinton split the population… half thought he was charismatic and inspiring, half thought he was the harbinger of Armageddon. Republicans believed that with all of his controversies Clinton was eminently beatable, so decided to prove their point by quickly nominating Bob Dole, their most boring establishment candidate, after minimal opposition by crazy fringe candidates (Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes). Clinton won by over 200 Electoral votes, and the Republicans turned to Kenneth Starr instead.
2.) 2012 – Republican
A tedious combination of ’92 and ’96.
1.) 2000 – Democratic
Bill Bradley was the only Democrat who thought it was worth challenging Al Gore, and didn’t get much traction (he won no states). Gore didn’t have to reckon with his discouraged liberal base, until enough of them voted for Ralph Nader to cost him the Presidency.
The Three Most Exciting Primary Races
3.) 1972 – Democratic
The best hope for excitement from the Republicans this year was that the voters were as frustrated as the Democrats in 1972. Although Hubert Humphrey almost beat Richard Nixon in 1968, and won more primary votes in ’72, the liberal base was agitated enough to carry George McGovern to the nomination. Plus, you had frontrunner Edmund Muskie’s crying, wildcard George Wallace’s shooting, and Hunter S. Thompson’s classic chronicle. McGovern ended up winning Massachusetts and Washington, D.C…. Nixon got the rest.
2.) 1976 – Republican
Because the Republicans used a winner-take-all system until 2012, their contests tended to coalesce around a frontrunner earlier than Democrats. But, Ronald Reagan’s challenge to sitting President Gerald Ford was a nail biter. Between falling into the Presidency and pardoning Nixon, Ford didn’t have the natural advantages most incumbents enjoy. Ford kicked Reagan’s ass until March, when The Gipper took North Carolina and started a strong run. The matter wasn’t decided until the convention, when Reagan’s announcement of a moderate running mate eroded his conservative support enough to give Ford a narrow victory. Ford lost a close race to Jimmy Carter, who got crushed by Reagan in 1980.
1.) 2008 – Democratic
Part of the disappointment in this year’s malaise steams from the contrast with the excitement of 2008. A pitched battle between the House of Clinton and a charismatic newcomer, with the likely first woman/first black President at stake. Obama won Iowa, Clinton won New Hampshire. Obama crushed in South Carolina, Clinton won Florida and Michigan (but only got half the delegates, as the states were punished for moving up their primaries). Obama gave his masterful speech on race and went on a run, Clinton stuck around by winning Ohio and Texas. Clinton won more votes, but Obama took the super delegates, leading her to reluctantly concede right before the convention. He beat John McCain handily and she became Secretary of State.