August 20, 2015
In 2008, Hillary Clinton underperformed expectations. A majority of clear front-runners win the nomination. She didn’t. However, many have bumps along the road. Hillary ran into the sinkhole that was Generational Political Talent Barack Obama. Many front-runners would have eventually surrendered to him.
With several years to prepare for her 2016 do-over, and the largest front-runner advantage of any non-incumbent candidate in at least 84 years (possibly since George Washington–it’s either him after winning the Revolutionary War, Ulysses S. Grant after winning he Civil War, William Howard Taft who was Teddy Roosevelt’s chosen one in 1908 or FDR in 1932), Candidate Clinton is now struggling with Bernie Sanders.
It is now fair to ask; is Hillary the worst Big Time presidential candidate in American History?
In order to answer the question we need to define it. This is not about resume or qualifications. As Marco Rubio pointed out during the last debate, if the 2016 Election is a resume contest, Hillary wins. We are not talking about performance in previous political jobs or offices. While we do want to consider results, it’s important to keep them in context. Just looking to measure presidential-level political skills.
So time for some subjectively empirical measurements. Or empirically subjective. How do we score these guys and who is under consideration:
Qualifications for Admission (one or more of the following):
- Candidate was Republican or Democratic General Election candidate for president from 1948-present.
- Candidate was considered a front-runner in a nomination cycle from 1948-present and officially declared their candidacy (sorry, Mario Cuomo doesn’t qualify).
- Candidate was a legit threat to win a nomination from 1948-present.
- Candidate was one (or more) of above three conditions before 1948 and I’m comfortable I have enough information about that nomination cycle to render judgment.
NOTE: Many candidates qualify for our project in multiple cycles. They get scored separately. Hillary hasn’t improved. Others did.
So, examples of the above are:
#1 None needed, these are every General Election candidate since Thomas Dewey saved defeat from the jaws of victory in 1948.
#2 Hillary Clinton (2008)
#3 Ronald Reagan (1976). Never the front-runner, but made Gerald Ford sweat and then some.
#4 Abraham Lincoln (1860)
Stuff to Measure:
- Strategic Acumen. How good of a political strategist was the candidate/campaign?
- Clarity of Message. Was it very clear why you should vote for the candidate?
- Retail Communication. Did the candidate connect with a large portion of voters?
- Media Management. How well did the candidate manage the press? Good ads?
- Building a Team. Did the candidate hire the right people and manage them well?
- Track Record. Did the candidate previously win difficult elections, upset favored candidates?
- Results in Context. Did the candidate do better or worse than an average strong nomination candidate would have under similar conditions.
- Nomination or General? Some candidates were good at getting nominated, but couldn’t go the distance. The best were good at both.
- Bonus Points. This is the Carpe Diem Award for especially good judgment in choosing when to run, or making an overwhelmingly smart strategic decision, or doing something every successive candidate tried to mimic.
NOTE: Candidates get credit or blame for everything their employees or surrogates did. You want to be president, you get the plaudits or demerits. No extra credit for delegating or failing to.
NOTE #2: Candidates are scored 0 to 5 on each measure. Maximum total points are 45. Minimum is zero.
NOTE #3: These are approximations. If one candidate got 21 points and another 23, you should consider them fundamentally similar.
NOTE #4: For incumbent presidents running for re-election, I’m measuring how their campaigns compared to their job performance/approval ratings. 2012 Obama is going to score pretty well on this measure because his first term was not stellar. On the other hand, as Nate Silver would tell you, most presidents in his situation do get re-elected, so this wasn’t an absurdly amazing accomplishment.
NOTE #5: Keep in mind how hard it is to qualify for this group in the first place. Over the past 17 elections (60+ years) only 35 individuals qualified. That’s out of thousands and thousands of senators, representatives and governors.
Hall of Famers (1948-Present)
These are the best-case examples. You may argue with the exact order, I’m not sure I wouldn’t order them slightly differently too, but there’s a gap between this group and the next one.
Each of these candidates won in November. Can’t be one of the few best quarterbacks of all-time without winning a Super Bowl.
Barack Obama (2008) 42.0 points
Somebody from the past may top this, Lincoln (1860) is possible, but it’s hard to exaggerate what a big deal this was.
Call it a triumph of marketing, but that’s what we’re measuring here. Note his uneven-at-best job performance and how it didn’t measure up to the promise, but again that makes this more impressive, not less.
Yes, Obama gave a great convention speech in 2004. That did not mean a freshman senator who had never won a tough election was going to defeat Hillary Clinton for the nomination and destroy the GOP on the ground in the fall.
This was Magic Johnson playing center in the deciding game of the 1980 NBA Finals as a rookie and scoring 42 points with 15 rebounds and 7 assists.
Still can’t believe Magic did that.
John F. Kennedy (1960) 40.0
Electing the first Catholic president was probably a harder sell than the first African-American.
The stats say it was more of a positive than negative, but JFK still had to sell the pros first.
Kennedy had legit competition for the nomination (Hubert Humphrey, LBJ, and Adlai Stevenson among others), and played it perfectly. JFK won outside (Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries) and inside the convention’s smoke-filled rooms.
He then defeated Richard Nixon who ran one of the better losing campaigns and won twice himself later.
The only reason Obama scores higher is how quickly he pulled everything together. Team JFK was plotting and practicing for years.
Jimmy Carter (1976) 38.5 points
Remember, this is not a list of most successful presidents. It’s not a list of who was most politically-savvy while in office.
Every cycle, somebody tries to duplicate Carter’s feat of materializing out of total obscurity in an Iowa corn field and winning the nomination.
Nobody’s done it since.
The 1976 Democratic field was the largest until the 2016 Republicans. It wasn’t as strong, but several prominent senators tried to play.
In August of 1975, Carter was where Bobby Jindal is now, only with less name recognition, less funding, and no TV debates.
The Jindal comparison only extends to the polls. Carter had a pitch-perfect message and wunderkind pollster/consultant Pat Caddell, who while in college helped 29-year-old Joe Biden upset a popular incumbent senator in Delaware.
Keeping Carter behind Obama and Kennedy were:
- His inability to quickly unite the party after he got rolling–ABC meant Anybody But Carter in May of 1976 to some northern Dems.
- Almost blowing a 33 point lead over Gerald Ford, only winning by 2 points at the finish line.
Basically, Carter had trouble closing, but this was the best total underdog campaign in American presidential history.
As a result, every four years, a new Santorum has delusions.
As a frame of reference, Carter was more of a longshot than 2008 Huckabee or 2012 Santorum. Try picturing President. George. Pataki.
Dwight Eisenhower (1956) and
Ronald Reagan (1984) 38.0 points
So two of the more popular presidents of the 20th century won landslide re-elections. Big deal, right?
Yeah, actually. When someone wins that easily, it seems like a foregone conclusion.
Not saying either were likely to lose, but blowouts were not guaranteed.
24 months before Election Day, Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress in the 1954 midterm elections (wouldn’t get the House back for 40 years, Senate for 26).
18 months before Election Day, the economy was in recession. Remember, Herbert Hoover + Depression = Republicans was still a thing.
13 months before Election Day, Ike had a major heart attack and was semi-incapacitated until Spring 1956.
Eisenhower won well over 400 Electoral Votes and by 15 points. This was even better than it looked, Democrats still had a stranglehold on the Deep South.
Damn good politician.
Yes, it was really Morning in America in 1984. However, there was a competing narrative, and Mikhail Gorbachev was still an unknown Politburo member.
The Berlin Wall was fully upright, graffiti, barbed wire, guard towers and all.
Inflation was down, unemployment down, and GDP up, but the most recent recession had only ended in early 1983. Unemployment was higher than Election Day 1980.
The economy would continue to expand for all but 6 of the next 200 months (hadn’t happened before, hasn’t since), but nobody could have imagined that.
In late 1983/early 1984, eventual Democratic nominee Walter Mondale LEAD Reagan in head-to-head polling matchups.
Reagan won 49 states. The Gipper’s reputation was earned.
Harry Truman (1948) 37.5 points
This is the all-time recovery, although as you’ll see later on, Ford actually made up more ground before falling just short.
You can make the argument that Truman should rank even higher, but Thomas Dewey helped make this possible by trying to run out the clock (more on that when we get to him).
Truman made 3 crucial decisions, all of which seemed semi-insane at the time:
- He supported a strong (for the time) Civil Rights plank in the Party platform (when platforms mattered and conventions spent days on them), which prompted the Dixiecrats to walk out on him.
- Called the “Do Nothing” Republican Congress back into session in unbearably humid, non-air conditioned DC.
- With no money for national radio, spent weeks west of the Mississippi, pulling his train into towns nobody had ever heard of.
The first of these things was apparent suicide. Dewey was already favored, before Truman pissed away four states to Strom Thurmond’s new Dixiecrat Party that Democrats had carried in every election from 1880 to 1944 (and were among the few who voted for Stevenson in 1952 and 1956).
However, it helped Truman with urban blacks and probably won him Illinois and California.
The second item helped Truman frame Republicans as the problem and the sometimes overwhelmed incumbent as the agent of change. Dewey’s silence/caution/etc. helped “Give ’em Hell Harry” get away with this.
Third, Truman’s interesting geographical decision won him several western and plains states which had actually favored Dewey over FDR in the 1944 election.
A concentration on local, rural and agricultural topics at each whistle stop (NOTE: A whistle stop is what it sounds like. No fancy train station in these towns), personalizing the election for millions of Americans who had never seen a president up close.
Was a great contrast to the distant New Yorker Dewey.
Can’t emphasize enough how crappy the Dewey campaign was, and the economy picked up as 1948 continued, but a great win for Truman and defeat for conventional wisdom.
This concludes the absolute top performances. We’ll pick up with the regular All-Stars in Part Two.