August 24, 2015
Our multi-part series reviewing past candidates to see where/how 2016 Hillary Clinton compares rolls along with a look at the worst of the best and the best of the worst.
Part One gave us the 6 best presidential political performances since 1948. These are our Hall of Famers.
Part Two included 9 more General Election winners. These are our All-Stars. Of the 15 best performances in the last 17 election cycles, all were candidates who won election or re-election. After all, winning is sort of the idea.
We now begin with Part Three. Things get more complicated now, as 3 types of candidates score mostly equally. They are:
Shaky Winners (won the Election, but don’t try this at home)
Solid Losers (the deck was stacked against them, either facing a great candidate, or fighting adverse conditions, or both)
Great Try (didn’t even win the nomination, but made something out of seemingly nothing)
Remember, we just care about political skills as it relates to the campaign. Some candidates were much better at running for president than being president, even the political part of being president.
On to the first group:
Shaky Winners (1948-Present)
Interesting group of two. Beyond the scores, these two scenarios just aren’t like the others.
Richard Nixon (1972) 28.5 points
This was the toughest campaign to measure. It was as big a landslide as any president has ever won. The winner was less popular than many of the previous landslide winners. That’s a pretty good argument in favor of Nixon’s political skills as a candidate.
He did draw the most advantageous opponent possible. George McGovern was an excellent candidate in the primaries (more on him later), but he was a general election nightmare. This wasn’t just fortune, Nixon actively strategized to draw the weakest possible opponent.
Between trying to locate as much dirt on Ted Kennedy as possible (not that hard when he’d recently driven Mary Jo Kopechne off a bridge and left her to die), and attempting to rattle/sabotage the Ed Muskie campaign, Team Nixon was actively trying to stack the deck.
This sounds bad, but trying to wind up with the weakest possible opponent is both an old technique and a current one. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri brags in her new book about all the money her campaign spent trying (successfully) to get Republicans to nominate Todd Akin in her last election.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In 1966, California Governor Pat Brown was worried about George Christopher, the moderate Republican Mayor of San Francisco (yes, SF had a GOP mayor). Wanting an easier matchup, his campaign worked actively to discredit Christopher, using a hazy milk pricing issue from World War II to weaken him. Christopher lost the primary to Brown’s favored choice.
You might have heard of him. Ronald Reagan.
Nixon was correct about his ideal opponent. He was correct that an opening to China would help. He was correct that raising more money than any presidential campaign ever previously had would help. He was correct that wage and price controls to hold down inflation would help. He was correct that a massive Social Security cost of living adjustment would help. He was correct that an imminent end to the war in Vietnam would help.
Nixon the President and Nixon the Candidate were working in lock-step. Entering 1972, the economy was a little wobbly, Muskie (who did well as the Dems VP nominee in 1968) was his likely opponent, and Vietnam was still a mess. Many thought Muskie could and would beat him.
You can see why Nixon didn’t want to take any chances. His 1960 loss to Kennedy was disappointing, very narrow, and very controversial (we’ll never know exactly how many votes were stolen in Cook County, IL and South Texas). In 1968, Nixon was almost undone by LBJ’s bombing moratorium. Both JFK and LBJ’s minions used a dirty trick or seven against him.
So Nixon went all out and it worked. The problem is then it blew up. He basically used too much of his ammunition getting elected and didn’t have much left to stay afloat. The campaign crossed the line repeatedly until it got caught, at which point things others got away with in the past were uncovered.
Many of Nixon’s economic decisions in 1971-72 contributed to inflation issues in 1973-74, which combined with the first Arab oil embargo, threw the economy into severe recession. People talk about tapes, Woodward & Bernstein, the televised Watergate hearings and all sorts of things when discussing Nixon’s downfall. They forget to note unemployment and inflation rates doubled during the scandal.
The lesson is it is possible to try too hard to win. Nixon was always a grinder and after almost three decades in politics he’d managed to leverage every resource he could imagine. When Eisenhower and Reagan ran for re-election, they had the luxury of not needing to exert themselves the same way. As such, they not only did similarly well at the ballot box, but were able to govern afterwards.
Worst for Nixon, the final voting margin proved much of what he did was not necessary.
George H.W. Bush (1988) 27.5
While you can accuse Nixon of trying too hard to win, for most of the 1988 election cycle, Bush was trying not to lose. As a challenger in 1980, Bush ran a very credible race (you’ll see him in the Close But No Cigar group of best candidates not to get nominated). However, even then, he did best when the odds were longest, and worst when they were best. With lots of momentum in New Hampshire, he squandered it.
As both the sitting VP and second-place finisher from last time, Bush entered the ’88 competition as the presumptive front-runner.
However, much as Clinton does now, Bush had a legal cloud. The Summer of 1987 was Iran-Contra hearings day after day. The Veep refused to disclose what he had advised the president. Reagan’s approval rating wasn’t much higher than Obama’s is now.
Bush had no message. He was facing Bob Dole, someone familiar with and comfortable with the media, who had served as Senate Majority leader until Republicans lost seats in 1986 and now lead the minority.
Dole was on the ticket in 1976, and ran unsuccessfully in 1980, so he was no amateur. With some feeling left behind in the Reagan boom, Dole ran as a primeval John Kasich, concentrating on lowering the deficit and looking after working Americans.
Not only did Dole win Iowa, but TV evangelist Pat Robertson finished second, Bush an embarrassing third. With more money, more organization, and use of Air Force Two, he was still flailing.
A well timed attack ad on Dole turned things around in New Hampshire, and the less coordinated Dole (see Part Six) soon faded, with Bush sweeping most of the remaining contests.
This still left the matter of the general election, and coming out of the convention, Micheal Dukakis led Bush by 17 points.
Three things saved the VP:
- A strong series of attack ads against Dukakis.
- Several mistakes by Dukakis (covered in depth in Part Five).
- A very strong final few months for Reagan.
Beyond being willing to hit Dole and Dukakis when needed, Bush deserves credit for sticking with Reagan. In retrospect, it’s clear the Gipper link and the idea of Bush as a third term proxy was a big part of the win.
In mid-late 1988, the economy was strong, INF missile treaty with the Soviets complete. Reagan had triumphantly visited Moscow in the spring. Bush could brag about his ability to continue the work with Gorbachev.
In 1987, the failure to get a deal at Rekjavik was fresh, Iran-Contra everywhere. In October, the stock market lost over 20% of value in a single day. It would have been easy to look for some separation from Reagan, but Bush refused.
Of all the candidates who most closely resemble 2016 Hillary, 1988 Bush is the one who won the presidency.
The problem is she won’t have Reagan to run with. Though it’s quite possible Obama will be more popular in a year than he is now, there’s little chance of as much foreign policy success as Reagan had in his final year.
Worse, even if by some miracle a new moderate leader took over in Iran and looked like they wanted to make peace with Israel, this advance would happen with Hillary gone from the State Department.
If anyone gets to bask in Obama’s reflected glow, it’s likely Biden, who could actually try the Bush ’88 program and hope for the best.
Solid Losers (1948-Present)
Think these will make clear sense.
Gerald Ford (1976) 31.0 points
Being the best loser is probably not the best consolation. Still, Ford’s one presidential campaign was impressive.
After pardoning Nixon early in his tenure, Ford’s approval rating went underwater, rarely to return to positive territory.
The economy was in recession, and even after the recovery began in early 1975, inflation was an issue. Voters to the center-left were mad about the pardon, mad at the Republican Party, having given Democrats huge margins during the 1974 midterms.
Meanwhile, conservative Republicans were angry about the Helsinki Accords, and displeased with Rock Star Secretary of State Kissinger. Team Ford was pleasing nobody.
The best Republican politician of the second half of the century challenged Ford in the primary. A Democrat with the perfect pitch for the post-Watergate era faced him in the general.
Somehow, Ford came within one debate gaffe of winning the election.
First, he hired Jim Baker to run the campaign. This provided the necessary organization to leverage the advantage of flying around in Air Force One.
Second, Ford chose Kansan Bob Dole as his running mate and put him in the old 1952 Richard Nixon attack dog mode. By having Dole go after Carter, Ford could stay presidential and above the fray.
Meanwhile, Dole stayed west of the Mississippi for the entire fall with a message targeted to western voters. This was very similar to the Truman approach of 1948, just with the understudy instead.
Much as Truman did better in the West than normal, so did Ford, winning EVERY state west of the Mississippi except Missouri.
Unfortunately, Ford lost Ohio along with a few other Midwestern states by a narrow margin (Ohio was extremely close). These losses were likely due to lack of support from urban Catholics, many of whom voted for Nixon and Reagan.
In his debate with Carter, Ford claimed there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, home to the Polish, Hungarian and Czech relatives of many voters.
Though Ford probably just meant he wasn’t accepting Soviet domination (by the time Ford died 30 years later, it was thought his controversial Helsinki Accords actually served as a Trojan Horse for the Soviets on this issue), it cost him, perhaps enough to change the election outcome.
That’s why Ford is the best loser instead of one of the better winners.
Adlai Stevenson (1952) 29.0
Tricky to measure, but the Democrats excitement in trying again with Adlai four years later is either a sign of total insanity by a party still controlled by insiders, or solid evidence he ran pretty well the first time.
Stevenson managed to win the nomination without running in any primaries. Much like his counterpart Eisenhower, Adlai played the reluctant candidate, not removing himself from consideration, but waiting for the convention to draft him.
Though Estes Kefauver won the majority of primaries (and ended any thoughts Truman may have had of re-election after beating him in New Hampshire), he was well short of the necessary delegates and Stevenson won on the 3rd ballot.
Being coy about running frustrated his biggest supporter, Truman, but added to Stevenson’s mystique as an intellectual who was deigning to run for president. The approach was of questionable value against Ike, but it got Stevenson nominated twice.
While the liberal internationalist Stevenson appealed to northern voters, the VP selection of Alabama Senator John Sparkman allowed Adlai to hold the entire Deep South, without the breakaway Dixiecrat problem Truman faced.
Though Stevenson lost the general election by 11 points, and only held 9 states, he was in a similar position as John McCain in 2008, following an extremely unpopular incumbent and competing with a very strong opponent.
While McCain technically lost by a smaller margin, neither candidate won any swing states and Stevenson arguably held on to his base better.
Hubert Humphrey (1968) 27.5
With the possible exception of Ford, Humphrey had the widest range of obstacles.
First, he was Lyndon Johnson’s VP at a time when Johnson was very unpopular, not just in the county, but with a substantial part of the Democratic Party. A majority of Democrats had turned against the Vietnam War and Humphrey couldn’t break with LBJ and get the nomination.
A percentage of Dems supported Gene McCarthy, the first anti-war candidate into the race. Others fervently followed Bobby Kennedy. When RFK was killed, Humphrey wasn’t an acceptable substitute.
Humphrey went to the convention, which was arguably the most chaotic in American history (at least if you count cops whaling on protestors on national TV), having avoided all primaries and caucuses.
This was wise, as he would have likely lost the contests, but it made his candidacy less legitimate with many and led to a complete overhaul of the process for 1972.
After winning the nomination under protest, Humphrey went into the fall trailing Nixon and with a giant LBJ anchor around him. Worse yet, segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace was running as an Independent, cutting into Humphrey’s ability to attract pro-war Democrats, and taking away the once safe South.
At one time, Humphrey was at least popular with the liberal Stevenson wing of the party, having been one of the earliest and loudest civil rights advocates. However, many of those voters were against the war, leaving Humphrey with literally no base of support beyond party loyalists.
Somehow, Humphrey made it close, losing the popular vote by less than 1%. Some of this was LBJ’s bombing halt, but not all. I’m not real sure how he did it, but he deserves credit. Few others would have continued to fight with the deck that stacked.
As an example of someone once liked by liberals, then supplanted in the heart of the left by others (McCarthy and McGovern were the 1968 version of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren), Humphrey is a good comp for Hillary.
This isn’t very encouraging. Not only did Humphrey not win in the fall, but he relied on two things for nomination that Hillary cannot.
First, as mentioned, he skipped the primaries. Hillary needs to face Sanders and possibly Biden in every state. In order to win, she actually needs to win the delegates out in the field.
Second, the incumbent president, who controlled the party apparatus to a greater extent than President Obama does today (due to the post-1968 reforms) was determined to get Humphrey nominated as his successor.
Not only is it harder for Obama to guarantee this, but it’s not certain he would even favor Hillary in a contest with his VP Biden. Odds are he would stay neutral or support Joe.
Let’s just say LBJ’s Justice Department and FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover would not have investigated Humphrey the way Hillary is under scrutiny now (what Hoover would have extorted in return is another matter).
Perhaps worst of all, part of the reason Humphrey survived the nomination battle and almost beat Nixon was his reputation for extreme honesty.
If anything, there was less overall trust in 1968 than now. Johnson was completely discredited due to years of unrealistic estimates and claims regarding the war. The New Nixon was still remembered as shady by many a voter.
The Hump was the honest one. Methinks that’s not Hillary’s angle.
Jimmy Carter (1980) 27.5
Separate Jimmy Carter, candidate, from Jimmy Carter, president. The first guy had to run on the second guy’s record. While President Nixon seemingly did everything in his power to improve his candidacy, President Carter wasn’t doing a great job of looking out for his second term.
His first challenge cropped up in the primary season when Ted Kennedy decided to finally live out his destiny and familial responsibility at Carter’s expense.
By the fall of 1979, Americans were tired of being lectured by their sweater-wearing president about a crisis of confidence. Being stuck in long gas lines wasn’t fun either. Kennedy led the incumbent in many polls.
By the time voting started in early 1980, things had changed. Kennedy wobbled and 52 American hostages were taken at the embassy in Iran.
While the hostage crisis is often blamed for Carter’s defeat by Reagan, he actually skillfully used the first months of the debacle to get past Ted, leveraging the instinct of the public to rally around the president.
Not only were Carter’s approval ratings in early 1980 the highest since his first year, he chose to stay at the White House working on the hostages instead of doing the normal amount of campaigning.
It worked, and Carter secured the nomination, even after California Governor Jerry Brown decided on an encore performance of his unsuccessful 1976 attempt to stop Jimmy at the last minute.
What Carter did not have in the fall of 1980 was a unified Party. Kennedy was not the most cooperative loser during the convention, focusing on himself and his supporters rather than rallying behind Carter.
Meanwhile, the president had spent most of the past four years pissing off Democratic majorities in each House.
Besides Reagan, Carter also needed to deal with liberal Republican congressman John Anderson, running as an Independent and with about 15% in the polls by late summer.
Carter pushed forward. The hostages were still stuck in Iran after a failed helicopter rescue mission. The economy was falling into recession. Interest rates topped 20% as Fed Chairnan Paul Volcker attempted to finally choke out inflation.
Previous presidents facing these conditions were behind in the polls. In a better situation 12 years later Bush 41 was gasping for air. Yet somehow, Carter was virtually even with Reagan until the final week.
Between skipping debates with Anderson and insisting on only meeting Reagan head-to-head (Reagan eventually gave in) and keeping the focus on scaring the country about what Reagan might do in office, Carter hung in.
Ultimately, he lost rather badly at the end, but given the product he had to sell, Candidate Carter earns great credit for postponing the inevitable.
Richard Nixon (1960) 26.0
JFK won this more than Nixon lost it. It’s similar in some respects to the Clinton/Obama nomination fight of 2008.
Nixon had the better resume, Kennedy sounded better. While this was not a nomination fight, in 1960 there was likely less ideological difference between the center of each party than ever before or after.
Nixon, though a strongly partisan Republican was not overly conservative. Kennedy ran to his right on defense issues accusing the Eisenhower/Nixon administration of allowing a dangerous missile gap with the Soviets.
The campaign was decided on execution more than ideology. Nixon ran into some bad luck and a great opponent and didn’t make the tactical moves to overcome it.
Unlike 1968 where Nixon had a stronger message and a stronger staff, in 1960, he was stuck in Ike’s shadow and tried to micromanage the campaign.
His decision to campaign in all 50 states wasn’t quite as stupid as it sounds. Unlike today, when 10 states at most are in play in a close election, most states were up for grabs in 1960. Hawaii and Alaska were new, not reliably Democrat and Republican like today.
Southern Democrats couldn’t be sure to vote for a Catholic (Al Smith, the one previous Catholic nominee lost a couple ex-Confederate states in 1928), and reliably Republican states like Connecticut were at risk if East Coast Catholics turned out for JFK (which they did).
However, Nixon banged his knee on a car door and it became infected, hospitalizing him for two weeks and costing him the time needed to both visit 50 states (which he did) and have enough time for the most important.
Meanwhile, Nixon entered the now-famous first-ever TV debate with Kennedy still looking sickly from the hospitalization. Combined with refusing makeup (JFK fooled him into thinking he wasn’t using any), a 5 o’clock shadow, and sweating under the lights (Team JFK messed with the temperature in the studio too), Kennedy won the debate.
While historians mention those listening on the radio thought Nixon won, it wasn’t just the visual of a confident JFK and pallid Nixon that did it.
An accomplished debater since his days in school, Nixon used traditional debate techniques and directed many of his responses to his opponent, rebutting many of Kennedy’s claims.
JFK spoke more directly to the audience, something we now take for granted, but innovative at the time. Though Nixon adjusted in subsequent debates, damage was done, as Kennedy seemed more presidential than the more experienced Veep.
Nixon ran into trouble with Eisenhower as well. When a sitting VP runs to succeed a two-term president, the popularity and clear support of that president are crucial. If either of those are weak, the successor suffers.
Though Eisenhower was still popular and likely could have won a third term, his standing took a hit after a U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in May. This fractured the first attempt at detente with the Soviets and gave Kennedy more room to criticize the administration.
To keep Nelson Rockefeller at bay before the convention (he was Nixon’s biggest nomination competition), Nixon made some concessions in the platform, most notably increased defense spending.
Logical as sidelining Rocky was, Ike was pissed about the terms and a little less supportive as a result. Later, Maime Eisenhower asked Nixon to avoid overtaxing her husband with excessive campaigning (Ike had suffered from several medical issues). He complied, but lost out on an effective campaigner, while offending his boss.
When asked a couple weeks before the election what important things Nixon had done during the past 8 years, Eisenhower replied that if he gave him a week, he’d think of something.
Many of these errors were minor in the scheme of things and bad luck more than bad judgment. Against a normal opponent, Nixon would still have won.
Instead he lost by 20,000 votes and had to live with the knowledge that had he handled any one of the above items differently, he would have been inaugurated in 1961 instead of 1969.
Future campaigns proved he would not repeat the same mistakes.
Great Try (1948-Present)
Sometimes very good presidential politicians don’t even make it to the Finals. None of these candidates were great yet. If they were completely outstanding, they would have gone further in these attempts. Some would improve with more practice, others were having their moment of glory.
In the past 17 elections, 34 candidates have competed in the General Election, counting the same person multiple times (only 24 actual people). At least 200 attempts fell short. These are the few best.
Ronald Reagan (1976) 31.5
No candidate has defeated an incumbent president in a head-to-head primary struggle. Reagan got VERY close.
The 1976 Reagan was not the juggernaut of 1984, but he was very effective. This was the pre-supply-side economics Reagan, so he ran to Ford’s right on foreign policy and pushed for balanced budgets.
Importantly in the wake of Watergate and the fall of Saigon, Reagan was completely unapologetic. When Donald Trump compares himself to the Gipper, this is actually the closest version, as Reagan made holding on to the Panama Canal a key issue.
Strategically, after doing more poorly in New Hampshire and Florida than early polling indicated, and having lost the first several contests, Reagan hung in, despite the advice of many.
With help from Senator Jesse Helms, Reagan rebounded in North Carolina and win a majority of the remaining delegates before falling just short.
While attempting to find money to keep the campaign going in North Carolina, they began using direct mail to solicit conservatives. It worked and would provide the basis for a consistent Republican fundraising advantage in the time after the post-Watergate campaign finance reforms and before the rise of the Internet.
After his convention gambit of pre-announcing moderate Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker as his running mate failed, Reagan gave a memorable convention address, which helped set him up for 1980.
The campaign did make a few errors, and could have won if they were as comparatively flawless as JFK or Obama were, but Reagan still ran a stronger nomination race than many winners.
As a point of comparison, take a look in Part Six (when we get there) at the dumpster fire that was Ted Kennedy 1980, to see what a bad incumbent challenge looks like.
George H.W. Bush (1980) 31.0
On average, for his career, Bush the Elder wasn’t real good at running for things. His presidential campaigns would progressively worsen over time. However, for one cycle, Bush looked like he was actually good at this.
Using the Carter ’76 script, Bush camped out in Iowa for months and shocked front-runner Reagan in the caucuses, winning a convincing victory. Not only did he go from unknown to sudden serious contender, but unlike others who have tried this, had the money and organization to go toe-to-toe after Iowa.
Up against the wall, Reagan saved himself in the New Hampshire debate, making Bush look like a weenie (for lack of a better description) in the process. Still, Bush won primaries afterward and was the last challenger standing in a race that included Bob Dole (’76 VP nominee and future GOP presidential nominee), Howard Baker (the next Senate Majority Leader), John Connally (big name, lots of money, took a bullet in JFK’s limo), among others.
He maneuvered himself well enough to wind up on the ticket with Reagan, setting him up for later. Overall, his candidacy was credible enough to make his selection a way to get moderates on board with Reagan for the fall. Not exactly Obama 2008, but a very strong first effort on the national scene.
Bush, like Hillary, was a better underdog than front-runner. In this, his first and best effort, Bush ran to win instead of not to lose, and except for when he was briefly ahead, connected well.
Gary Hart (1984) 31.0
On the one hand, Hart couldn’t even defeat Walter Mondale. On the other hand, most of the guys on this list got nominated the next time they ran. Hart was in as good a position as any after his ’84 run.
Following in the footsteps of Carter and Bush 41, Hart spent a ton of time in Iowa, looking to leverage that into New Hampshire and onward.
It worked. Hart’s 16% compared to almost 50% for Mondale was interpreted as a win. Hart went on to win New Hampshire and plenty of other places over the next few months.
Mondale needed the help of super delegates to gain the necessary total for nomination. Still, while Carter’s VP had unions and other key Democratic blocks locked up, Hart could have won.
His underdog effort lacked the resources in states that relied on strong organization rather than the free media earned by the surging Hart.
When Mondale struck back with an effective series of ads and debate hits (the red phone and Where’s the Beef), Hart wasn’t ready with an effective response.
So why does he rank with Reagan, Bush and McCain (see right below) all of whom would become the next nominee of their party?
Hart did an exceptional job of separating himself from the rest of the field. National Democrats were not yet ready for another southern-fried Carter. They also knew northern liberals weren’t necessarily safe. As the New Ideas candidate, Hart had a message, a brand, and an alternative to the stalemate.
Because he imploded in 1987, this accomplishment is somewhat forgotten, but his position was strong enough that several prominent Democrats stayed out of the 1988 cycle.
John McCain (2000) 30.5
Best example of candidate brand-building. In early 1999, McCain was just another senator. He wasn’t any more viable or plausible than Lindsey Graham is today. If he was known for anything, it was being one of the Keating Five, Senators who took money from S&L pariah Charles Keating.
Of the five, McCain was one of only two to even run for re-election. Surviving the scandal was McCain’s biggest accomplishment in almost 20 years in DC.
Despite this, and the commanding front-runner position of George W. Bush, McCain focused on New Hampshire, using the Carter/Bush 41 Iowa strategy in the Granite State.
With John Weaver (currently running the Kasich campaign) calling the shots, McCain and the Straight Talk Express campaign bus went back and forth through the state, doing town hall after town hall.
Relatively candid (for a sitting senator) and the darling of reporters covering the campaign, McCain got traction and upset Bush in New Hampshire by a considerable margin.
Next up was South Carolina with plenty of military veterans likely to favor the ex-POW over the guy with the cushy Reserves posting (Bush).
W rallied Christian conservatives and buried McCain with negative ads (and some extremely controversial 3rd party robo-calls), before winning the nomination relatively easily.
However, beyond exceeding expectations, the Senator from Arizona was now officially a straight-talking maverick. John Kerry reputedly attempted to convince McCain to join his ticket in 2004, and McCain was an immediate top-tier contender for the GOP in 2008.
When his campaign faltered in mid-2007, burning through money before Weaver was relieved of his duties, the strength of the McCain brand gave him a chance at another New Hampshire-aided surge.
For this reason, 2000 McCain lands in the top tier of nomination losers.
Harold Stassen (1948) 26.0
Older readers will recall Stassen as a joke, someone who was somewhere between Jim Gilmore and George Pataki in multiple nomination contests between 1964 and 1992. Once upon a time, Stassen was at least as likely as the above candidates to win a nomination. Here’s his story:
Elected Governor of Minnesota at the age of 31 in 1938, Stassen was a rising star in the GOP. After winning re-election in 1942, Stassen resigned to serve in the Navy for the duration of the war.
He was then part of the group responsible for the founding charter of the United Nations in 1945. Despite lacking the political base of establishment favorite Thomas Dewey, Stassen was a credible underdog candidate for 1948.
In the years before New Hampshire mattered, Wisconsin was a key contest, and Stassen upset Dewey and General Douglas MacArthur (who wasn’t going to resign from the Army and his job running post-war Japan to run in primaries, but was ready to accept if nominated), becoming the momentum candidate.
After defeating Dewey in Nebraska (Iowa didn’t matter yet), Stassen was arguably the front-runner, more liberal than conservative stalwart Robert A.Taft, less stale than Dewey.
Alas, young Stassen flew too close to the sun, trying to beat Taft in his native Ohio and losing badly. Instead of issuing a knockout blow, he punched himself.
This gave Dewey an opening to get organized in Oregon (the next stop) and after winning the first radio debate in presidential history, he narrowly defeated Stassen, leaving the convention open.
Neither Stassen, nor Taft was willing to support the other to stop Dewey, who ultimately triumphed after the second convention ballot when both threw in the towel.
Given the stature in the Party of his competitors, Stassen deserves plenty of credit for getting that close. He trails the four above him because he didn’t leave himself in position to grab the next nomination.
No matter what he’d done, Eisenhower was the most likely nominee in 1952 from the moment he decided to accept the nomination if drafted. However, Stassen was not the pre-Ike front-runner.
By the time Eisenhower finished his two terms and Nixon ran to succeed him, Stassen was a has-been, someone out of elective office for over twenty years by the time he made his perfunctory attempt in 1964.
From then on, just a punch line, but once upon a time, Stassen was the original young surprise front-runner. Put another way, there’s a decent chance Marco Rubio doesn’t get as far in 2016 as Stassen did in 1948.
This concludes our look at the worst winners and the best losers. Coming up next is Part Four where we look at a couple of candidates who were great in the primaries and terrible in the general election, along with a couple of giant asterisks.