Wendell Wilkie did it in the 1940 presidential campaign and George McGovern tried unsuccessfully to replicate the feat when he jumped into the 1968 race.
It was standard practice in 1960 when John Kennedy pulled it off and the same was true in 1968 when Richard M. Nixon won the Republican nomination and later the presidency.
But not since former President Jimmy Carter set the tone for the modern-day, two-year campaign cycle has a dark horse or even a late entrant into the presidential contest successfully secured his party’s nomination. And while this year offers a slightly different dynamic owing to the perceived weakness of the Republican field, it will likely be no different, despite a strong movement to draft New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie into the mix, pundits say.
“In this era where fundraising and media exposure are so important, the idea of waiting until after New Hampshire or waiting for the calendar to turn is an anachronism” said Terry Golway, director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy. “Back in Kennedy’s era that was standard practice, but things have changed.”
As the contest for the Republican nomination heats up and Texas Gov. Rick Perry emerges as the front-runner to carry the GOP flag, the call for Christie to enter the race has continued unabated. The governor has said repeatedly and forcefully that he has no intention of jumping in, but still the draft Christie movement continues.
But even should Christie have a colossal change of heart and decide the time is right, the window for a successful candidacy is beginning to close.
“In the old days, a dark horse could win the nomination,” said University of Virginia Political Science Professor Larry Sabato. “But the process is totally different today.”
According to Golway, Jimmy Carter was the first candidate to begin his campaign for president a full two years before the 1976 election. A little-known governor from Georgia, Carter was perceived as a minor threat until the Iowa Caucuses when he took first. He repeated the feat in the New Hampshire primary.
His momentum picked up and he was eventually rewarded for his efforts with the Democratic nomination. He eventually defeated Republican Gerald Ford and served one term in office.
Since then, a few candidates have attempted a late entry into the race – namely Wesley Clark in 2004 and Fred Thompson in 2008 – but none successfully.
The problem, says Sabato, is that to be taken seriously a candidate must participate in one of the early primaries – the Iowa Caucuses or primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
“Iowa can be skipped; John McCain and Bill Clinton showed that,” Sabato said in an email. “But you have to participate in one of the early contests to be taken seriously. So late this fall would be the effective deadline.”
Christie has shown no signs that he is running, has not formed a committee or raised any money. Not to mention his vehement denials that he has any interest in the job. So why does a breathless media continue to hawk his candidacy with the fervency of a carnival barker?
The answer is easy.
“The fact that we are even talking about Chris Christie this late in the game suggests that this is not a normal campaign cycle,” Golway said. “By this time in the 2008 cycle the nomination was (Sen. John) McCain’s to lose. In 2000, nobody was searching for an alternative to Bush and McCain.”
There is a reason for the weak field.
Golway said despite poor poll numbers, President Obama is an incumbent and often party superstars don’t want to risk a damaging political loss taking on a sitting president.
“This reminds me of 1992, with Mario Cuomo,” he said. “People were just waiting for Cuomo to deliver them from the fate of having to nominate Bill Clinton.”
Republicans are in the same boat this year, Golway said, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Perry leading a field of candidates that thus far have failed to capture the imagination of the GOP electorate.
So is there still an opportunity for Christie – or perhaps another dark horse – to ride into the field and claim the Republican mantle?
“If the early primaries produce basically ‘none of the above’ on the Republican side then maybe, who knows, but it would seem highly unlikely,” Golway said. “Somebody is going to build momentum and become the front-runner fairly soon.”
Sabato agrees, all but ruling out a “white knight.”
“Christie isn’t running, period,” he said. “It’s just down to (former Alaska Gov. Sarah) Palin and she’s waited so long I doubt she has much of a chance to be successful. In the GOP field, what you see is what you get.”