August 13, 2015
Outsider candidates aren’t a new thing. Popular outsider candidates aren’t a new thing. Supposedly this is the year of the outsider, but what is an outsider anyway?
Lots of candidates like to consider themselves outsiders. Some underdogs are outsiders, but not always. Often, an underdog tries to pick up some outsider patina in an attempt to seem like more than just an establishment afterthought (ex: Santorum, Rick).
So the first task is to figure out what makes a candidate an outsider. Here are some possible signs a candidate is actually marching to the beat of his or her own jazz band:
- It is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that respected party officials and the media who collude with them wish said candidate would evaporate immediately.
- The candidate appears uninterested in appealing to regular donors and local campaign workers or is at least relying on bringing in lots of outsiders.
- The candidate is attempting to push the ideology of the party in a new direction.
- The candidate has never held elective office or served as a military general/admiral.
- The candidate is challenging an incumbent president who still has the support of the party infrastructure, or a favored possible nominee with a virtual endorsement monopoly.
Very few candidates will qualify on all measures, but it’s a quick unscientific cheat to see how much of an outsider any particular contestant is, and how outsiderish this or any other election cycle is/was.
Let’s take a look backward to see how some figures from the past scored. One thing you’ll notice is that it’s possible to run as an insider one round and an outsider another.
1964: Barry Goldwater (2.0) (R) was definitely an insurgent candidate, temporarily taking over parts of the party apparatus with the help of operator Clif White.
However, he won the nomination by earning a bunch of delegate votes outside the primary process, which did not yet resemble what we see today.
He was also a two-term senator in good standing, and while many elements of the party establishment tried to block him at the convention, they’d had at least 18 months warning, as Goldwater was considered a likely nominee by early 1963.
At best he earns 2 outsider points (1 for ideology, half points for angering establishment and relying on outside support).
1968: Gene McCarthy (3.0) (D) picks up a full point for challenging incumbent president Lyndon Johnson and another for basing his campaign on ending U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
We can give him a total of three (half for upsetting some party elders and half for relying on college students to campaign for him–they were trying to convince regular primary voters).
Ronald Reagan (0.0) (R). The Gipper actually gave it a try in 1968, only a year after taking office as Governor of California. He earns no outsider points for this first effort.
Waiting until late in the process to make his move, his campaign operatives worked within the established state delegations. In the wake of Goldwater’s nomination, he was breaking no new ideological ground. No bridges were burned with eventual nominee Richard Nixon.
Robert F. Kennedy (0.0) (D). Great example of outsider patina, but no outsider points. In contrast to his brother’s finely tuned campaign operation (run by RFK), Bobby attempted to appear more spontaneous.
However, his campaign infrastructure included people who worked for JFK and plenty of associates from RFK’s stint as Attorney General. Fundraising wasn’t an issue.
He also did not challenge a sitting president, waiting for LBJ to announce he wouldn’t seek renomination before jumping in. McCarthy was the first candidate to break with the president and party leadership on Vietnam, Kennedy followed.
This wasn’t an outsider, it was a Civil War, as Bobby attempted to take the party back from LBJ. Nothing happening this year is as messy or has equal pathos.
1972: George McGovern (2.0) (D). One point for ideology. Another for his role in completely overhauling the nomination process to bring in many former outsiders as delegates.
Even giving him two points total is pushing it a little as he got the party to sign off on what he was doing without them quite understanding the impact.
Dick Cheney headed the VP search committee that picked Dick Cheney, but McGovern creating the new rules that nominated McGovern is more impressive.
1976: Jimmy Carter (1.0) (D) ran a smart and effective underdog campaign in the aftermath of Watergate. In many ways he became a template for future candidates as he practically moved to Iowa in 1975 and retail campaigned his way through the state.
The combination of time on the ground and being from outside DC was a winning combination. From a polling rounding error in August 1975, he outdistanced 8 other candidates in the Iowa caucuses, finishing second behind “uncommitted”.
We’ll give him a point for overall innovation and having a brainy 20-something by the name of Pat Caddell figure this path out, but that’s being generous.
Ronald Reagan (3.0) (R). This was an outsider run. Three points (GOP establishment was not happy he ran, challenging a sitting president, major ideological push to the right).
Not an outsider in 1968, front-runner and nominee in 1980, but major obstacle in ’76.
1980: Ted Kennedy (1.5) (D). This is about as insidery as challenging an incumbent can get. Teddy gets a point, maybe point and a half for fighting Carter in the primaries and being a generally bad sport at the convention.
Carter had pissed off enough Democrats in Congress by late 1979 that a good amount of elected officials were on board, more than the amount of Republicans who supported Reagan four years earlier.
Kennedy was attempting to push the Democrats back leftward (despite how he’s sounded in his post-presidency, Carter was no liberal in office), but Carter was more of an outlier than he was.
1984: Jesse Jackson (2.5) (D). Democrats didn’t want to say much out loud, but Reverend Jackson’s presence was fine as a candidate, but would not have sufficed as a nominee.
Point for never being elected to anything and another for the fit his nomination would have caused. Pre-McGovern, his backers would have qualified as outsiders, but not by 1984, so two points is all he gets.
Jackson ran again in 1988 and was pretty well accepted at that point. Two max for that effort.
1988: Pat Robertson (3.0) (R). Both an outsider and a trailblazer, the TV minister was the first modern candidate to run more as a social conservative than any other type of conservative.
He paved the way for Mike Huckabee (2008) and Rick Santorum (2012) with his strong second place showing in Iowa, behind Bob Dole, but ahead of sitting VP George H.W. Bush.
Three points (establishment veto, never held office, relied on evangelical voters–this was a new thing).
1992: Pat Buchanan (3.5) (R). At least three points. The challenge of a sitting president was very unwelcome Buchanan served in the Nixon and Reagan administrations but was never elected to anything.
1996: Steve Forbes (2.5) (R). It’s an odd comparison, but Forbes sort of filled the same role for the GOP as Jackson did for the Dems. Wouldn’t have made an acceptable nominee, but his presence didn’t really offend anyone and he didn’t bring a new batch of activists with him.
Jackson reminded a party increasingly dependent on African Americans of an important constituency. Forbes pushed the Flat Tax to a party that emphasized tax cuts as a key issue for fiscal conservatives.
Two points (never elected to anything, not a credible nominee).
Forbes ran again in 2000. Same deal.
2000: John McCain (1.5) (R). Mostly in the best tradition of fake outsiders like Carter, but he did continue to push when most of the party big shots were ready to settle on W.
Prior to this round with Hillary, George W. Bush was the non-incumbent nominee to get the largest percentage of endorsements.
One to 1.5 points for general orneriness.
No outsider points when he ran again in 2008. Completely faux on that round.
2004: Howard Dean (1.0) (D). Became Democratic Party chair after the campaign, so how much of an outsider? One point total for the kids with the bright beanies and The Scream after he lost in Iowa.
2008: Mike Huckabee (1.0) (R). Jimmy Carter 2.0.
2012: Herman Cain (2.0) (R). A more charismatic Forbes. Except for the 9-9-9 tax plan didn’t rebel against Republican orthodoxy. Nobody objected to having him in the contest. Two points.
Ron Paul (3.25) (R). Actually served in congress. Not challenging an incumbent. Otherwise as outside as it gets. 3+ points.
Newt Gingrich (1.5), Michele Bachmann (1.5), Rick Santorum (1.0) (R). Figure a point, point and a half for each.
So nobody got all 5 points, but several were at least a strong 3. Many of the candidates we think of as outsiders were only worth a point or two.
On to the present (finally)…
Bernie Sanders (3.5) qualifies as a strong outsider with at least three points, probably closer to four. He’s held public office for the past 30+ years. Other than that, he sounds like most or all of the other 4 things on the list.
He’s comparable to any of the most outsider candidates of the past 50 years.
Donald Trump (2.75) is not as strong an outsider as Bernie. He’s not pushing a new ideology (though it’s new to him), and he isn’t necessarily looking for voters beyond what would normally show up for a Republican primary, but he’s never held office and the establishment wants to light his hair on fire.
Somewhere between two and three points. He’s combining being a legit outsider with the trick of making his tone even more so. Bernie is leading a movement of sorts, Trump is still the guy who donated to many of his new opponents.
Dr. Ben Carson (2.0) hasn’t held office and probably isn’t an acceptable choice to most party bigwigs, but that’s it. He’s a strong conservative with a strong following among at least part of the base. His presence in debates and in the campaign offends zero Republicans. Two points at most.
Carly Fiorina (1.0) has never held office. Absent that she’s a strong insider, having served on a bunch of committees over the past several years.
Probably the most generally acceptable candidate of this type in generations. Will be subject to a lot of scrutiny, particularly on her record at HP, but she appears ready for it.
Not a real outsider, just wants to sound like one when convenient. One point for now
Rand Paul (2.0) could have run a real outsider/insurgent campaign and tried to do the Goldwater/McGovern thing and seize the party and push it in a new direction. Probably too crowded to have pulled it off though. Two points at most so far. One for ideology another for bits of other stuff.
Ted Cruz (2.0). Modern Goldwater (sounds better than Barry, worse than Reagan). Couple points at most. He runs against DC, but not a yahoo, and not that far to the right of the average Republican.
This year is heavy on outsiders, but it’s heavy on everything.
Bernie Sanders is the ultimate outsider, running against the ultimate insider. It balances. If Biden jumps in, the distribution will be fairly normal.
On the Republican side, outsiders are representing close to half of the polling support. That sounds like a lot, and when I looked at the Iowa numbers yesterday and started doing the math, this post was going to be about that.
However, outsiders are more popular a few months before it’s time to vote. Even with the GOP supposedly in a giant tantrum it’s still 50/50, just like it was between Reagan and Ford in 1975-76.
Trump & Friends aren’t the most outsider, nor are they the most popular outsiders. They are the deepest group of outsiders.
Ignore the bleating, everything is plenty balanced for now.