August 21, 2015
We continue our look at the ghost of election cycles past to see if Hillary Clinton is really as bad a politician as many are saying.
If you haven’t read Part One, highly recommend catching up on the whole architecture of this attempt to quantify opinions. Plus, you can read about the 5 best presidential politicians since 1948.
Moving on to the next group….
Each of the following candidates won election or re-election in the year listed below. The truly historic performances were covered in the Hall of Fame group.
This group either didn’t do quite as well (fewer electoral votes and/or lower popular vote %) or had much easier circumstances, or both.
A couple of winners did not score as well as these guys and show up in another batch, but these are most of the rest of the November winners since 1948.
Being elected president is really hard. These candidates (and their campaign teams) or their heirs should be proud. As you read, ask yourself if 2016 Hillary fits in to this group at all (only two General Election winners fell below this level).
NOTE: Remember, scoring is out of 45 possible points. 2008 Barack Obama leads with 42.
Lyndon Johnson (1964) 36.5 points
LBJ’s landslide was statistically comparable to Ike in ’56 and Reagan in ’84, but he winds up in this second group instead. Being the 6th best presidential politician of the last 17 elections is no insult, but this wasn’t quite as impressive as a few of the others.
It’s tricky to separate the president and the presidential politician, but LBJ the candidate had the benefit of LBJ the president, who was quite popular in the Summer of 1964. He also benefitted from passing the Civil Rights Act just in time to oppose Barry Goldwater.
Johnson handled the transition after JFK’s assassination tremendously well, and many Americans were not up for making yet another change. Goldwater did not debate Vietnam with him, which was both good in the short run and damaging in the long run.
After the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (i.e. LBJ’s blank check) passed the Senate with bipartisan support, both sides shut up. This gave Johnson a chance to focus attention elsewhere and brand Goldwater a warmonger who would lead the country into a nuclear war.
That worked. Vermont voted Democrat for the first time ever. LBJ won a number of reliably Republican states. The lack of debate on Vietnam would cost him later, driving him from office after being rebuked in the 1968 New Hampshire primary. This is why he’s not in the top group.
Still a masterful campaign, and one that built some of the foundations for Democrats in New England and the Middle Atlantic states. While Johnson famously remarked that his Civil Rights bill would turn the South over to the GOP for generations, he got some geography back in return.
LBJ even got away with keeping Robert F. Kennedy off the ticket, choosing Hubert Humphrey over the dead president’s brother (and Johnson mortal enemy). Again, he may have outsmarted himself.
Richard Nixon (1968) 36.0 points
This was Nixon’s most impressive campaign, even if it wasn’t his biggest victory. Two presidents have won election after previously losing the popular and electoral vote. Thomas Jefferson in 1800 (defeated John Adams in a rematch of the 1796 election) and Nixon in 1968.
Andrew Jackson (1828) and Grover Cleveland (1892) followed losses with wins, but each had won the popular vote, in Jackson’s case with a large plurality. The success rate for previous losers (of PV + EV) is under 10%. Sometimes, like Hubert Humphrey in 1972, the candidate can’t even get nominated again. When they are re-nominated, the loss the second time is usually larger than the first.
To iincrease the degree of difficulty, Nixon lost an additional election in between. Attempting to find a way out of challenging Kennedy in 1964, he ran for Governor of California in 1962 and didn’t get real close to beating incumbent Pat Brown. Four years later, Ronald Reagan defeated Brown by a million votes.
In 1968, Reagan challenged Nixon. Nixon fended him off. How?
Incredible discipline and great strategy.
Goldwater was too hard core to win, but he still had his followers in the Party and Reagan was an available replacement.
Nixon needed to move rightward enough to block Reagan while keeping Nelson Rockefeller away on the left. The Goldilocks strategy is very appealing, but as Scott Walker would tell you right now, it’s not easy.
In 1966, Nixon campaigned tirelessly for Republican candidates during the midterm elections. It worked in two ways. First, he built loyalty across the Party, with liberals, moderates and conservatives all recipients of his aid.
Second, candidates he helped did very well. Republicans picked up 47 seats in the House and Nixon was the leading spokesman. The stench of failure was dissipating.
While Nixon built, Rocky dithered, waiting to throw his hat in the ring. Reagan was interested, but only becoming governor at the beginning of 1967, was unable to openly campaign at first.
This allowed Nixon to lock in delegates early. As strong as LBJ looked in ’64, Nixon saw the opportunity as Vietnam began weakening him and was ready.
Meanwhile, as Nixon was preparing, all hell broke loose. After Gene McCarthy finished a strong second in New Hampshire, LBJ abdicated. Soon after, Bobby Kennedy entered the fray. Hubert Humphrey waited in the wings.
Martin Luther King was killed, then Kennedy. Humphrey won the nomination, under great duress and with much protest. George Wallace entered the race as an independent.
After spending multiple years preparing to run against LBJ, Nixon repeatedly saw everything change and still managed to adjust without having to ditch his message.
This was the New Nixon, prepared like a new consumer good, with the help of Roger Ailes, future creator of Fox News. Roger can sell.
Some have said this updated Nixon is a model for Clinton, but the comparison breaks down. While Nixon test drove his message in the ’66 midterms, Hillary kept her powder dry in 2014, having already locked down commitments.
She’s now paying for letting herself get rusty and seeming too entitled to really push on the road. More than a decade older than this version of Nixon, she may not have the energy either.
Why isn’t Nixon ’68 in the top group? He almost lost to Humphrey. With a large lead after the conventions, he started playing not to lose. LBJ announced a last-minute bombing moratorium in Vietnam and it tied things up overnight.
Nixon almost saw everything he’d battled back for swept away.
Bill Clinton (1996) 36.0 points
Bob Dole wasn’t a particularly strong opponent. Economic indicators were pretty good. Clinton won easily but it wasn’t a total blowout. That’s why this one is a few rungs down.
Beyond that, this was a clinic, and likely a stronger campaign than Bush in ’04 or Obama in ’12. Clinton moved early on Dole, taking advantage of a gap in the Senator’s funding to define the Republican nominee before he got post-convention funds.
As a result, future candidates would usually choose to skip federal funding for fall campaigns to avoid these restrictions.
What makes this an impressive run is where Clinton stood in November 1994 after losing the midterms badly to Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America.
He brought in Dick Morris to help with strategy and message, triangulating himself as the reasonable option between traditional Democratic liberals and Republican conservatives.
It worked for Bill and it worked three times for Tony Blair in Britain. Sounds easy and logical, but those two pulled it off better than anyone else has.
This is where Clinton’s communication skills were important. As Mitt Romney can tell you, pulling off ideological shifts while in the public eye isn’t easy.
In Britain, Blair is now protesting the impending selection of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader. Mr. Corbyn apparently makes Bernie Sanders sound like Ronald Reagan. After a couple losses, Labour doesn’t want to think about a Third Way, they want some old-time religion.
Cherie Blair, Tony’s wife, is not a politician. She’s not running for leader. Hillary isn’t so fortunate.
Dwight Eisenhower (1952) 34.5 points
Ike easily won the presidency in his first try at elected office. That’s a pretty good record. He beat a candidate (Adlai Stevenson) who Democrats liked enough to pick again four years later.
But, Eisenhower was viewed as non-partisan enough that the Democrats were hoping he would run on their side. After being the architect of D-Day and the victory over Hitler, Eisenhower was going to need to mess up to lose.
President Truman was unpopular and the biggest issue was the stalemated war in Korea, something candidate Eisenhower was uniquely qualified to fix, having enough stature to make concessions to get out and enough credibility to get the other side to give.
Still, Ike made good decisions, both in picking Nixon as his VP and designated attack dog (keeping Eisenhower above the fray) and sticking with him after allegations of financial impropriety. Ike hung in long enough for Nixon’s “Checkers Speech” to save his career (and allow him to show up several times on the list).
George W. Bush (2004) 34.5 points
Trivia Question: How many presidents were re-elected during an increasingly unpopular war?
That was the good part. After juuust winning in 2000, W increased his margin ever so slightly in 2004, taking advantage of difficult-to-like John Kerry.
Karl Rove ran a base mobilization election, while Bush focused on being more likeable than Kerry. This shouldn’t minimize the candidate’s performance. Being a wartime president is brutal.
Before and after presidential photos are always scary, even more so for presidents who oversee long, drawn out engagements. Few other presidents would have had the equanimity to pull this off under pressure.
Given increasing anger over the war, running a unifying re-election (like Ike in ’56, Reagan in ’84, or even to some extent Clinton in ’96) probably wasn’t an option.
Side-effects tho. To get social conservatives to the polls, Republicans put anti-gay marriage initiatives on the ballot in some swing states. In 2004, this was a winner. In 2015, after-effects contribute to a Democratic advantage in the Electoral College.
Absent this effort, he may not have won. Absent Swift Boating Kerry, he may not have won, so it’s hard to criticize the strategy in a technical sense (we aren’t worrying about principle, just candidate self-interest, not passing judgment on any candidate in this exercise).
It set Bush up for a very difficult second term, made almost impossible when events began going against him. For this reason, it’s not a top-tier campaign.
Barack Obama (2012) 34.0 points
Popular presidents get higher scores in their re-election campaigns. Candidates with much lower scores for 2.0 generally lose.
Obama falls 8 points from round one to round two, putting him in a club you really don’t want to belong to.
Still, he won by an adequate margin and is only the second Democrat to win over 50% of the vote twice (FDR did 4x) in well over a hundred years.
Compared to 2008, the campaign and candidate were a disappointment. No real message, way less enthusiasm. Obama ran on “things don’t suck as bad as when I got here.” Not exactly Morning in America.
Like Bush ’04, the campaign was technically very proficient, and Obama made very few mistakes. Mitt Romney didn’t do enough to make the Obamans truly uncomfortable.
This is the equivalent of watching a very talented sports team do just enough to beat a lower-ranked opponent.
Not near the top of the list, but like a team during March Madness, sometimes a president just needs to survive and advance.
George W. Bush (2000) 34.0 points
This one surprised me a little. Before plugging the numbers into the pseudo-scientific system, I’d assumed Bush 2000 was a further above-average politician than he was.
While his advantage over Al Gore was about what I expected (comparable to Kennedy over Nixon in 1960), each was a rung lower after doing the math.
We’ll fixate on how Gore managed to lose an election after a record-length economic expansion, while the outgoing Clinton had an approval rating in the high 60s later.
Bush 43 is at 34 points instead of 40 for 2 reasons.
First, unlike JFK in ’60 or Carter in ’76 he didn’t overcome major hurdles in the primary. Kennedy had doubters, Carter was in the witness protection program. Bush was an overwhelming favorite.
His problem was John McCain camping out in New Hampshire and pulling off a major upset. They went very negative in South Carolina and saved the day, but you won’t hear about Bush 2000 on anyone’s list of great primary runs.
The favorite hung on. Whatever. He was a great Texas politician in beating Ann Richards in 1994. He had the name recognition and contacts from his dad. That gave Bush a margin for error, which he used. Doesn’t make him a spectacular presidential politician. Good enough though.
Second issue was mis-allocation of resources in the fall campaign. Sounds crazy now, but they thought they could win California.
It wasn’t completely irrational, as the state went Republican each election from 1968 to 1988. Problem is they almost lost Florida. They didn’t make the same mistake in 2004.
Basically, both in structure and tone, Bush was balanced between trying to run as a fairly centrist Republican (kind of the mirror image of 1996 Clinton) and a conservative.
Instead of finding a happy medium, he and the campaign sort of toggled back and forth and it almost cost them.
Still, more often than not, when the incumbent’s approval rating is where Clinton’s was, the party stays in power, so kudos to W for even getting this to the point where anyone cared about hanging chads.
Ronald Reagan (1980) 33.5 points
The Gipper improved in each try at the presidency. His ’84 re-election was his best effort. His first partial try in ’68 didn’t get far enough to make our list. The 1976 challenge of incumbent Gerald Ford shows up later on in the top group of candidates who didn’t make the Finals.
In 1980, Reagan was still climbing the ladder and learning how to consolidate the Party. That’s why despite decisively defeating Carter (largest Electoral Vote defeat of an incumbent), this is near the bottom of the second group.
Bush the Elder upset Reagan in Iowa, and absent some well-timed anger at a debate in New Hampshire, which turned the tide back just in time, one of the more significant presidents in American history could have joined Ed Muskie as an upset victim.
The night of his New Hampshire win, campaign manager John Sears was fired. Our image of Reagan merrily delegating details, planning, and strategy to capable subordinates applies in 1984, but not here. It got ugly and he needed to save himself.
In the fall, putting Carter away took longer than one would have thought in retrospect, and it wasn’t until their one debate in late October that the gap in their support developed. If you watch debate clips, the guy who would be president is very visible, but it took all year to get him there.
Bill Clinton (1992) 33.0 points
Harry Houdini’s spiritual successor debuted as an adultering candidate only a few years after similar issues drove heavily favored Gary Hart from the race. That pretty well sums up the entire Bill Clinton Experience. Repeated survival from things nobody else could endure and few others would cause.
When Hart was exiled from the race when Donna Rice happened in 1987, he’d already introduced himself to Democrats with a strong run in 1984. Clinton went on 60 Minutes to talk about Gennifer Flowers only weeks after being mostly unknown. Skill and luck saved him.
The skill was how well he (and Hillary) and his team handled the fallout. Clinton’s ability to connect with voters on a national level showed for the first time, and his team proved they could handle negative ads better than Team Dukakis did in 1988.
Many front-runners who lose New Hampshire are finished. Clinton called himself the “comeback kid” and acted like he won. Soon enough, he did.
The luck was his competition. 1992 Democrat was a spectacularly weak vintage.
In early 1991 when candidates needed to start making decisions, Bush 41 was riding high in the polls. Many Democrats decided to wait for 1996, leaving Clinton with Paul Tsongas and Friends as competition.
As he closed in on the nomination, Clinton was actually running THIRD in general election polls, behind Bush and Ross Perot. Before the embarrassment could disable the campaign, Perot temporarily dropped out of the race.
Clinton’s team executed a flawless convention (something Democrats had struggled with for the past couple decades), boosting him in the polls.
When Bush tacked rightward on social issues at his convention and Perot rejoined the competition, focusing most of his fire on the incumbent, Clinton had an opening to carve out enough votes to win a 3-way contest.
As he would require in the future, Clinton’s ability to capitalize on opportunity and make some breaks for himself covered for important unforced errors.
This ends our look at the completely successful presidential politicians since 1948. All of the above seem to have demonstrated more ability to build an appropriate message for the cycle, connect with the public, and adjust to new developments than Hillary has so far.
In Part Three, we will look at three groups inhabiting the next rung down on the ladder:
Flawed General Election Winners
Best of the Candidates Who Didn’t Get Nominated
General Election Losers Who Ran Fairly Well
Scores for each group are similar. We’ll see how Hillary compares to these, keeping in mind most didn’t end the cycle with a win.