Nelson Rockefeller's Lesson for Mitt Romney

Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, out-funded and out-organized, is winning presidential primaries and caucuses because of Mitt Romney's Rockefeller problem. 

In his bid for the White House, Romney faces challenges similar to those Nelson Rockefeller, 49th governor of New York, faced during his 1964 presidential primary fight against the U.S. Senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater. 

Rockefeller was a liberal Republican whose views were generally closer to the Democratic Party. In his time, conservatives were based in the Midwest and were growing in number in the West and South, while the moderate-to-liberal wing of the GOP was based in the Northeast and was the dominant force in the party. This latter wing was nicknamed me-too Republicanism for running on a platform resembling the Democratic Party (synonymous with today's Republican in Name Only [RINO]).

To run against John F. Kennedy for the presidency, Rockefeller needed first to win the primary. Thinking his liberal Republican establishment support was secure, Rockefeller tried to court the growing conservative wing of his party. To this end, he developed a well-crafted friendship with Goldwater, who was the leader of that conservative wing and Rockefeller's eventual primary opponent.

Things changed, however, and Rockefeller stopped courting conservatives for two reasons: the liberal GOP establishment became upset with his tacit move rightward, and conservatives themselves would never fully embrace a liberal New England Republican. While Nixon managed to unite the party's two factions in 1960, Rockefeller failed to do so four years later. Instead of seeking conservative support in the GOP, Rockefeller decided to viciously attack conservatives. In his biography on Goldwater, author Lee Edwards writes, "Rockefeller indicted conservatives and insisted that real Republicans had to save the party and the nation...." This tactic backfired. While the primary race ended up close, Goldwater won 51% to Rockefeller's 49%. The conservative wing of the GOP had shocked the liberal wing.

In his 1965 book, The Agony of the GOP, 1964, the late Robert D. Novak stated:

The real weakness of the Rockefeller bandwagon...was its lack of jubilation or happiness. Rockefeller was far in front of the pack, but not many Republicans were terribly happy about it -- even if they weren't particularly unhappy about it. The truth is that Rockefeller was failing to excite real enthusiasm.... He was failing to pick up new converts... Rockefeller was front runner by process of elimination rather than because of his inherent political strength.

Rockefeller, while supported by the liberal establishment, experienced great difficulty generating enthusiasm within both wings of the GOP.

Mitt Romney has Rockefeller problems. Romney is also a former New England Republican governor who ran for office as a liberal. As former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson explained, "Romney's main political vulnerability is a serious one. Running for Massachusetts' governor in 2002, he was a pro-choice, economically centrist, and culturally liberal, business oriented Republican." At least to date, conservatives in the GOP refuse to embrace Romney due to his Massachusetts' record. Like Rockefeller, this prevents him from uniting the party.

Meanwhile, Rick Santorum's rise is a reflection of many things, including great timing, persistence, and likeability. However, Santorum's years of staying consistent to his conservative beliefs about government are of great magnitude. That 1964 primary race, which started a major shift in who controls the GOP, from me-too Republicans to conservatives, set the stage for Rick Santorum today. Conservatives love him. Since 2008, Romney's problem has always been finding out how to be loved by them too.

After Goldwater's extraordinary loss in the 1964 general election to Democrat Lyndon Johnson, Tom Wicker of the New York Times, in a post election article, stated, "Republicans can win only as a me-too party" (Lee Edwards). Today, we know Wicker was wrong. Voters who grew into the Goldwater wing of the Republican Party were there for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, provided the impetus to win the House in 1994, and have been involved in every campaign since then. Goldwater's issues of low taxes, a smaller federal government, strong military, support for individual rights, and conservative family values, among others, are now mainstream in the GOP.

Goldwater's movement ended the dominance of me-too Republicanism and eventually turned the GOP into a national conservative party. This is why, today, against all odds, a traditional conservative like Rick Santorum is rising.

Chris DeSanctis is an adjunct professor in the Department of Government and Politics at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT.  He can be reached at

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