Mitt Romney on Friday announced that he is running for US Senate to represent the state of Utah. He is a formidable candidate with a good chance of winning the Republican nomination and, achieving that, a great chance of winning the general election. Strangely, however, he is not being told to “move on” with his life, unlike another recent failed presidential candidate.
The parallels between Romney and Hillary Clinton are actually pretty striking. Both were born in 1947. Both ran for president twice, losing party nominations the first time around and winning them the second time but losing in a close general election. Both had significant government service prior to seeking the presidency (she as a senator, he as a governor), and both have close family ties to politics (she’s the wife of a president; he’s the son of a governor and 1968 presidential candidate). Both are well-educated, highly intelligent, articulate, and financially successful. Both have been portrayed as possible national saviors from Donald Trump’s worst excesses, but also as somewhat flawed in this mission, having courted his favor earlier in their careers.
Only Clinton, however, has been the target of a multi-year, bipartisan effort to get her to leave politics. Recently, Vanity Fair compiled a video of its editors encouraging Clinton to leave politics and try something new, such as knitting. John McCain(!) urged Clinton to move on from her 2016 loss, saying that “the hardest thing to do is to just shut up.” A letter published last year in the Des Moines Register urged Clinton to “proudly leave arrogance and entitlement behind” and retire. Just this week, Joanna Rice wrote a piece at Politico explaining why Hillary Clinton needs to move on.
At least so far, Mitt Romney has not received similar advice from the world of political journalism. Coverage has been largely positive about his Senate run, although it’s obviously early. Even though he didn’t have a job or notable hobby (except boxing) to turn to after his 2012 presidential loss, he was not extensively told to leave politics. And now that he’s seeking political office again, his party is largely with him.
Why the difference? To be sure, their personal styles are different. Romney may just be better able than Clinton to convince journalists, political actors, and other observers that he deserves more time in public office. There are partisan differences as well. Romney’s 2012 nomination, despite coming after an unusually tumultuous contest in a large field of candidates, ended relatively quickly after the early primaries and caucuses, and his party rallied behind him. Hillary Clinton’s nomination remained divisive and controversial even after the Democratic National Committee certified it, with Bernie Sanders and his supporters (and others in the party) suggesting some sort of corrupt deal to make her the nominee.
All that said, it’s really hard to rule out sexism here as a causal factor. Those who doubt this might note, as FiveThirtyEight recently did, that political journalists and observers have been calling for years for Nancy Pelosi to step down as the Democrats’ House leader but have not issued such calls for the resignation of Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan, who are both less popular and less successful as legislative leaders.
They might note that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been repeatedly urged to retire from the Supreme Court while Stephen Breyer, who is close to her in age, ideology, and length of service, has not.
They might observe, as John Anderson did last year, that other recent failed presidential aspirants — including John Kerry, John Edwards, Al Gore, and even Richard Nixon — went on to write books or otherwise weigh in on politics long after their losses without receiving the same kind of pushback Clinton has faced.
The political science research on this question is somewhat mixed. This study by Regina Lawrence and Melody Rose found that in her 2008 presidential campaign, Clinton faced an unusually high level of “exit talk,” or pressure to leave the race, and suggested that sex might be the causal variable. An earlier study by Kim Fridkin Kahn and Edie Goldenberg found that female Senate candidates faced more coverage of their viability, and less of their issue positions, than their male counterparts faced, and the viability discussion tended to be more negative for women.
However, recent research by Danny Hayes and Jennifer Lawless suggests that the adverse media coverage faced by female politicians is more accurately attributed to partisanship, ideology, and incumbency. (Thanks to Christina Wolbrecht for some suggestions here.)
So we’ll see how Romney is covered as a candidate and, if he’s successful, as a senator. Chances are, though, he’ll be welcome on the national stage for years to come without being told to take up knitting.