Consider the failed presidential challengers since 1984: Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, John Kerry and Mitt Romney. This list shows that, in the modern era, both Republicans and Democrats have tended to prioritize decades of government experience or deep party ties ahead of far more salient characteristics and considerations like youthful energy and fresh ideas. Rather than selecting future-oriented/anti-establishment candidates to carry their party’s banner, opposition parties have tended to nominate politicians next in the cue—leaders who have paid their dues, by raising gobs of money for other partisans, building chits among activists and elected officials and incubating relationships with Iowa and New Hampshire political operatives.
This has been a mistake. Maybe these candidates would have made good, or perhaps even great presidents—and we’ll never know whether better nominees could have ousted the incumbents these candidates challenged—but these candidates were weak. They have all lacked appeal to an electorate that loathes longtime politicians and they were brought down at least in part by defects associated with a stale politics rooted in their parties’ respective pasts. (The electorate might dislike longtime pols, but given a choice between two establishment candidates, one incumbent and one challenger, incumbent advantage wins.) They show us how parties can become ossified, reliant on their longtime leaders, and how primary voters and partisan leaders can blind themselves to the demands of the political moment.