September 1, 2015
I swear, this series will end one day, maybe even before the voters start caucusing in Iowa. Maybe. For now, it’s time to look at the mediocre at best nominees. Let’s see how close these are to what Hillary might look like if she reaches next fall semi-intact.
Unlike previous sections, we’ll start with the worst scores first.
Nomination Winners, General Losers (1948-Present)
A couple of these candidates were ok in the primaries, before falling on their face in the fall, but most showed definite warning signs while trying to earn the nomination.
Thomas Dewey (1948) 17.5 points
Dewey was not a bad candidate in 1944. He was in 1948. What happened? There are two reasons a candidate takes a step back in a repeat run. The second of these is covered in the John McCain (2008) comments further down the page. The first and most common is The Freeze.
1944 Tom Dewey was on the make. A semi-legit presidential candidate in 1940, age 38, as New York County District Attorney, he was now Governor Dewey and the front-runner.
This version was aggressive, as would befit an ex-prosecutor. Though there were limits on how hard he could hit incumbent wartime president FDR, Dewey did not hesitate to make his case.
After winning the nomination, Dewey, realizing full well he was an underdog, campaigned energetically, attempting to draw a contrast with the aged, enfeebled Roosevelt, barely hanging on after twelve years of Depression and World War.
Roosevelt rallied and won by a decent margin, though this was the closest of his four elections.
To some extent, Dewey actually foreshadowed JFK’s 1960 campaign. If you can picture Kennedy running against a creaky Eisenhower, trying to win a third term, under the idea the Cold War was too dangerous to turn over to anyone else, it’s a reasonable proxy.
Dewey never had Kennedy’s charisma, but he was young, energetic and very capable, having become a national hero in the 1930s for successfully prosecuting several Mafia kingpins. In 1946, he was re-elected in New York by the widest margin in state history (keep in mind, FDR and Teddy Roosevelt were among his predecessors).
Sounds like the kind of guy you would want to nominate in 1948, right?
Problem was he didn’t exist anymore. The young Dewey of 1940 and 1944 was now suddenly an accomplished middle aged establishment figure, head of one of two main factions in the Republican Party.
As expected, Dewey had to deal with Robert A. Taft, his opposing GOP chieftain, leader of the conservative wing. The surprise was young Harold Stassen (covered in part two), who was the new, fresh face, having resigned his Minnesota governorship to enlist in the War.
With Stassen playing the role of 1940 Dewey, and Taft on the right flank, 1948 Dewey tried to steer a moderate course to avoid losing the nomination he thought rightfully his. With Truman and the Democrats in turmoil, the general election was his to lose.
Which he famously did. While Truman scrapped and clawed and fought, Dewey disgorged a stream of platitudinous drivel. Not an exaggeration–the man said “our future lies ahead.”
Dewey was never a people person, not naturally outgoing with strangers, more concerned about not embarrassing himself and upholding the honor of his office. These aren’t bad traits per se, and it is possible to win high elected office, even the presidency with them.
However, the longer someone like this holds office, the older they get, the more seemingly favorable their odds, the stiffer and more impersonal they get. Especially if that individual is highly intelligent and aware of how the wrong statement could be perceived.
The Freeze. Lacking charisma, avoiding a strong platform of issues, playing not to lose, Dewey froze. Even near the end, when signs were showing Truman had a pulse and was verbally eviscerating Dewey on a daily basis, he still held his fire.
Nobody has to worry about Hillary Clinton failing to go negative, or failing to respond to incoming fire. She won’t assume it’s her general election to lose. That’s assuming she gets there.
In addition to the email/server snafu (not a trait shared with Dewey who was disgustingly honest–almost to a fault), Hillary lost ground over the past few months due to a freeze of her own, a refusal to talk to reporters, to state her position on the Keystone XL pipeline, etc.
Much like Dewey, Hillary is weakening as a candidate with more practice, moving from a 2000 senate run in New York where she exceeded expectations, to an uneven 2008 presidential excursion, to an extremely choppy 2016.
Some of her best moments in 2008 were when she was in an underdog role. Unfortunately, Hillary was set as an overwhelming favorite, and by the time she would fall behind another candidate (be it Bernie, Biden or someone else), the loss of momentum might be deadly enough to render the advantage of playing underdog meaningless.
George H.W. Bush (1992) 19.5
Wasn’t expecting to see him this low on the list. Second-worst nominee out of the past 34. In 1980, Bush was a successful underdog candidate. In 1988, he struggled with, but ultimately conquered The Freeze, effectively framing Michael Dukakis as a bad idea, while staying in the Gipper’s 3rd Term lane.
None of these resources were available in 1992. Instead of running for Reagan’s 4th term, Bush was running for his second. Bill Clinton was most certainly no Dukakis. A sitting president, having spent 12 consecutive years in power, was not the same guy who drove around Iowa with an entourage of two in 1979.
Historically, the first (and last) Bush 41 term looks pretty ok. The Cold War and Soviet Union came to a peaceful end. Middle East intervention wasn’t as messy as Round 2 would prove. A small recession was a blip in an otherwise prosperous couple of decades, perhaps a necessary little adjustment as the economy changed.
This isn’t to suggest Bush the Elder belongs on Mount Rushmore, but many historians (and regular Americans) are likely to argue he was more successful than his son or President Obama were.
But they got re-elected. What happened?
First, Pat Buchanan appeared in the primaries. A primary challenge is never a good sign for an incumbent. Bush 43 and Obama did not need to worry about this.
Second, the campaign team from 1988 was missing two key players. Lee Atwater was deceased and Jim Baker was serving as Secretary of State.
Third, Bush’s temporarily high approval ratings after Gulf War 1.0 scared several prominent Democrats away from running. You’d think this was a plus, but it led to some complacency on the Bush team. Where 43 and Obama knew they’d have tough re-elections and planned accordingly, Bush was not as ready.
It also gave Clinton more room to deal with his self-inflicted errors. If there was a better alternative, voters might have abandoned him when his campaign began taking on water.
These factors built on themselves. With Bush still looking like a favorite, casting a protest vote for Buchanan made more sense. This bloodied the president without getting the campaign on wartime footing like the Reagan challenge did for Ford or Ted Kennedy did for Carter.
Combined with missing his A campaign team, this left Bush adrift and vulnerable to an increasingly stronger Clinton. If Bush was a natural tactician like Nixon or a bigger personality like Reagan, this would not have crushed him. But Bush had less margin for error, having already almost blown his 1988 run.
The existence of Ross Perot made it even more likely Bush would stay off track. Contrary to the belief of some, there is little chance he cost Bush the election. At most, a couple states flipped as a result. Some Perot voters would have supported Clinton, some would have stayed home.
But he most certainly did make things harder for a candidate who would have struggled to get his message across under the best of conditions. By the time Baker finally joined the campaign it was far too late.
Clinton had a message. Perot had a message. Bush did not. He definitely suffered by comparison. While Clinton was looking forward and Perot focusing like a laser on the deficit, Bush was hoping people would remember things were worse in 1980.
At the time it seemed amazing to some that a recently popular sitting president could lose to a previously unknown Arkansas governor. In retrospect, measuring their respective political skills on the presidential stage, Bush is lucky it wasn’t even worse.
Al Gore (2000) 20.0
If Florida had gone slightly differently, Gore would have earned distinction as the worst winning candidate.
The story of the 2000 Election is not hanging chads or Supreme Court decisions, it’s how Al Gore made the election close enough to lose.
Ever since Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson in 1836, the formula for winning in the shadow of a successful two-term presidency (if someone got re-elected and is still popular at the end of the second term, they’re successful for the purposes of our analysis) has included a mix of 80% running for their third term and 20% a few minor tweaks to address perceived weaknesses of the exiting incumbent.
Some calculation is necessary. Not all successful second-termers are at the peak of their popularity with 12-18 months to go. Usually, quite the opposite as fatigue sets in. When we look back at how popular Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton were leaving office, it’s easy to forget where they stood a year before.
Faced with this conundrum, Gore created more distance from his boss than Nixon and way more than Bush. This deprived him of a very strong campaigner, as he sought to avoid being overshadowed or tainted with scandal.
Perhaps even more importantly, he lost the ability to run on the Clinton economic record, one that looks still better today, but was the biggest reason for his popularity even then.
Somehow, in a year with a budget surplus, 4% unemployment and low inflation, after 8 years of economic expansion, Team Gore decided to run on “the people versus the powerful.” Excuse me?
Perhaps Gore had preternatural insight into the challenges middle class voters would face over the next fifteen years. If so, if he thought he was the guy to help them (rather than becoming one of the wealthy and connected investor class as he did), he should have remained quiet until he won.
The proof of this tactical mistake was the winning strategy put in place by George W Bush and Team. Knowing the Clinton record was good, they ran against his conduct, not the results. Unusually in an election, the incumbent party candidate found more wrong with the economy than the challenger.
Yes, Nixon’s results were the same as Gore’s. However, Eisenhower had the toughest final year of the three and the economy was the shakiest (unemployment was up to 7%, and Eisenhower’s term saw 3 recessions).
While Ike’s wife supposedly pleaded with Nixon to keep her husband from overtaxing himself, Hillary was more than happy to have Bill occupied.
Combined with Gore’s version of The Freeze, something that made him particularly wooden and impersonal, and a strong effort from Bush the Younger, defeat was saved from the jaws of victory.
This would have seemed strange to 1988 Al Gore, one of the youngest serious presidential candidates in American history. That Gore was more quotable and much more conservative. Much like the aging and freezing of Dewey from 1940 to 1948 and even Nixon from 1952 (first VP run) to 1960, what was ambitious in his late 30s was chilly by his late 40s.
The Freeze conquers all.
Walter Mondale (1984) 21.5
When a boring candidate runs against a great one….
Mondale actually did a good job pushing his way past the more dynamic Gary Hart. He ran a couple of good ads, made a few good debate points and rallied the remnants of the New Deal coalition.
As much as possible post-1972, he played a good inside game. Choosing Geraldine Ferraro was a reasonable gamble.
As the Vice President from a seemingly failed presidency, facing Ronald Reagan during a time of national recovery with the Olympics held on U.S. soil, what would you expect?
Bob Dole (1996) 21.5
It’s not that the individuals on this list weren’t qualified for the office. Some were as or more qualified than the candidates who beat them. Some had very distinguished political careers, sometimes making major contributions post-defeat.
None did a great job campaigning in the general election, and Dole is an excellent example of why. It’s a testament to his drive and fortitude that he even got the opportunity to lose in November.
Dole was a respected and consequential senator, serving most of six terms and as Republican leader for over a decade. This is not how to get elected president.
Warren Harding, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama have all gone directly from the Senate to the White House. None got there based on their legislative accomplishments.
In the meanwhile, many of the most respected senators repeatedly tried and failed to get nominated, or in the case of Dole, could not complete the journey.
Great senators are inside players, learning their 99 colleagues. Campaigning for president there are 99 counties just in Iowa. It’s a bigger field and generalities are often more important than specifics.
Legislators compromise, craft deals, look the other way once in a while. Winning presidential candidates strike a bold vision, often ignoring inconsistencies and not worrying about the unacheivable parts.
Senators have records of votes. Many, many, many votes. If you serve for a shorter time, always aware of your greater goal, it’s a shorter record, and one with little controversy. If you serve for decades, you’ll have done or voted for something to offend almost any voter,
Many great legislators know what their tight-knit staff is up to, know details on various bills. Running for president requires delegating, bringing a larger group of people into your circle of trust. Senate staffers often have different skills than campaign specialists. Often office loyalists clash with campaign mercenaries.
So take the above factors, all of which negatively impacted Dole in both 1988 and 1980 and add the freezing effect of being the Republican front-runner for the first time.
No chance of strong message. No chance of dynamic campaign. He won the nomination over a group that included nobody who would ever seriously contend in any other year, before going away quietly in the fall.
Dole’s final service to his nominee successors was showing why relying on federal funding for presidential campaigns is dangerous. Back when candidates still did this, matching funds were available for the primaries, full funding (up to a capped amount) for the fall.
However, there were strict limits on how much you could spend for the primary season if you opted in. After spending relatively heavily to get past his opponents, the Dole treasury was dry until the fall funding package arrived. This kept him off the airwaves and unable to respond effectively as Clinton framed Dole as out of touch and unready to lead the country into the 21st Century.
Adlai Stevenson (1956) 22.5
1952 was a strong effort. 1956 wasn’t. Somehow, Eleanor Roosevelt and several other prominent Democrats actually thought nominating Stevenson in 1960 might work, but his double losses and negative trend make that an absurd thought.
In 1952, Stevenson played the reluctant warrior, not entering primaries, not announcing as a candidate, waiting for the convention to draft him.
Round Two was different. Stevenson actively contested a series of primaries against eventual ticket-mate Estes Kefauver, winning often enough to remain the favorite of the majority of delegates who decided at the convention.
This is one of the few times in American history when the same two candidates faced off in consecutive general elections. The burden is on the previous loser to change approach.
In 1824, Andrew Jackson actually outpolled John Quincy Adams, but there were four candidates, the election went to the House of Representatives, and Adams won under great controversy.
Four years later, he took no chances, running an extremely strong race, even though he could say he should have won the first time. This was the prehistoric version of 1972 Nixon, doing whatever he had to because of previous wrongs.
William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan in 1896 and faced him again in 1900. Having been electrified by his “cross of gold” speech at the 1896 convention, Democrats were willing to give Bryan another try four years later.
Bryan didn’t noticeably adjust, McKinley ran a good re-election campaign, and the margin increased. Despite his grandfather’s presence (also named Adlai Stevenson) on the 1900 losing ticket, the younger Adlai did not learn from history.
This was possibly due to lack of respect for his opponent. While historians would later conclude Eisenhower was actually extremely active behind the scenes, his public persona was that of bemused detachment. The intellectual Stevenson likely could not understand or accept that there was more to Ike than likability and suffered as a result.
Unable to make criticism of Eisenhower’s first term stick, not willing to run to his right on military buildup to defend against the Soviets (like JFK would against Nixon), Stevenson was stuck and would lose badly.
Ironically for someone celebrated for his brainpower, Stevenson was unable to puzzle out an effective strategy.
Mind you, nobody was beating Ike. Stevenson’s failure just added to the gap.
Mitt Romney (2012) 22.5
Playing it safe does not work for a challenger. Romney basically ran a better version of Dewey ’48, mostly due to technological advances over the past several decades.
Mitt is exactly the type of candidate plagued by The Freeze, actually suffering from it in 2008 when it looked like he might become the front-runner. More on this in Part Six, but as we’ve learned, candidates get more frozen over time, not less.
Romney knew if he sounded too moderate, he might lose the nomination. He knew if he sounded too conservative, he could lose the general. Instead he provided mush.
This resulted in a nomination process that took several months to dispatch opponents that would not have cracked the Top 10 in 2016. His runner-up, Rick Santorum, is currently jockeying with Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal for 12th place in the polling.
Sensing President Obama was weak, but possibly more worried about giving people a reason not to vote for him, Romney was unafraid to criticize the incumbent, doing particularly well in the first debate, but failed to articulate an alternative vision.
Independents divided their vote and Obama did a better job turning out his base. Game Over.
Despite an impressive business background doing quantifiable analysis, strategic planning and other MBA-type stuff, Romney’s team was out strategized and out executed by his opponent.
He made few crucial, deadly mistakes, but also few noticeably strong moves. Like many observers (including me), the campaign was fooled by the results of the 2010 midterms and overall tenor in the country. In a contest requiring boldness, he offered moderation.
Michael Dukakis (1988) 23.0
In many elections, replacing a poor losing candidate with another option would not have made any difference beyond the margin. In this case, a better candidate would have pushed Bush the Elder to the wire, and an excellent one could have won.
As popular as Reagan is today, as well as the last year of his term went (mostly due to major progress with Gorbachev, the fruits of several years of effort), Bush was no more a sure thing than Nixon in 1960 or Gore in 2000.
Neither Kennedy in 1960 nor Bush in 2000 were ever ahead by more than a few points, yet Dukakis once led by 17. What happened?
As mentioned elsewhere, GHW Bush got his act together, got on message and started hitting Dukakis with contrast ads. Bush was never quite as weak as he looked earlier in the race. Some of this was mean reversion, some was better strategy.
Some was Dukakis freezing. As the Democratic Tom Dewey, this was always a risk, and with a big lead, he started playing not to lose. This was a bad combination with the now attacking VP. Think of a football defense going into prevent mode while Andrew Luck still has plenty of time.
The most famous and probably most deadly Dukakis freeze was during a debate when moderator Bernard Shaw asked him how he would feel about the death penalty (Dukakis was officially opposed) if his wife was raped and murdered. Not the time to give a flat, emotionless response.
Some was Dukakis being a solid governor but not the type that would normally win a presidential nomination, let alone one in a year without an incumbent running. If you look at who the out party has nominated in these situations, it’s an impressive list:
1952 Dwight Eisenhower
1960 John F. Kennedy
1968 Richard Nixon
2000 George W. Bush
2008 Barack Obama
These five won 9 presidential elections, a 10th likely if not for an assassin’s bullet. The sixth is Dukakis. One of these is not like the other.
The reason is Gary Hart. He was the 1988 front-runner, the guy who was supposed to take his place on that list. But, as you’ll see in detail in Part Six, not capable, leaving room for Dukakis. Before getting out of the way, Hart provided the service of scaring away other candidates who might have denied Dukakis the nomination.
As the best of a flawed field (weaker than normal given the opportunity), Dukakis got a chance on a stage he probably wasn’t suited to. He then compounded things with weak response and prevent defense.
John Kerry (2004) 23.0
Not historically bad, but made just about every basic mistake in the book. Kerry ranks higher than some of the others because he ran a very solid primary campaign, not panicking when Howard Dean got off to a good start and not becoming a John Edwards victim when he started taking off.
It wasn’t a flashy primary performance, and to some extent Kerry was the nominal front-runner going in, but he still made few mistakes, unified the party and made what appeared at the time a reasonable choice of Edwards as his running mate.
With the Iraqi Adventure starting to come completely undone, there was an opportunity to win the general election. An opportunity, not a likelihood.
Usually a party can stay in office two straight terms. Jimmy Carter’s Democrats are the only exception since Benjamin Harrison and the Republicans were evicted after one term in 1892. W’s approval ratings were decent if unimpressive and the economy was not in recession. If WMDs are found in Iraq, the election isn’t that close.
Still, the war was getting ugly with seemingly no end in sight. A very good campaign could have put Kerry in the White House. Ultimately he failed by combining the Dukakis mistake of letting your opponent define you (Swift Boating in this case) and not clearly articulating how a Kerry presidency would make America better (the Romney flaw).
As bad as he sounded down the stretch (I remember thinking there was no way someone with Kerry’s tone could win), the election was close. Though Bush won a popular vote majority, and upped his vote total significantly from 2000, with another 1% in Ohio, Kerry would have won enough electoral votes and become the second straight president to lose the popular vote.
Given the outcome compared to historical precedents, it’s difficult to say Kerry was any worse than the normal presidential loser, and likely he was slightly above average.
John McCain (2008) 25.5
McCain’s score is closer to Richard Nixon (1960) who was low score in the group of best losers than anyone in this section, so why is he bunched with Dewey, Dukakis, et al?
First, McCain wasn’t as good a candidate as he was in 2000. As you’re starting to see, this is not unusual. It is very counter-intuitive. Running for president is very hard. It’s quite different from running for any other office. Theoretically, if you did pretty well the first time, with some extra time to think and prepare, the second time should run more smoothly.
On the GOP side, the runner-up from the previous open nomination contest often wins the prize on the next round. This contributes to the false idea that candidates normally improve.
Reagan did improve from 1976 to 1980 and again in 1984. That was the exception. Bush 41 was good in 1980, ok in 1988, miserable in 1992. Dole was meh in 1988 and more meh in 1996. Same for Romney in 2008 and 2012. As mentioned above, Dewey declined from 1944 to 1948.
Failure to improve consistently is not a Republican-only affliction. As we saw above, Stevenson’s 1956 suffers in comparison to 1952. Humphrey improved from 1960 to 1968, before running worse in 1972. Gary Hart imploded between 1984 and 1988.
Why does this happen? The very best do improve. Reagan, Eisenhower and Clinton all improved. Nixon made a huge leap between 1960 and 1968. These are people who got elected president twice, the best of the best at playing presidential politician.
Earlier and often we covered problem #1, The Freeze. Issue #2 is an insurgent or underdog is only that way once.
Reagan was an insurgent in 1976, front-runner in 1980, incumbent in 1984. He’s the only candidate who managed to play all three roles successfully (only a few others have had the chance to audition for all three).
In 2000, McCain was the insurgent running on campaign finance reform. In the Summer of 2007, McCain was a broke former-front-runner who fired his genius guru from 2000 (John Weaver) and went back to living off the land.
In this sense, he caught a break, as he got to play underdog a second time. Other candidates should not try this at home. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are currently noticing Iowa only loves you once.
Part of the reason is the thrill of discovery for Iowa and New Hampshire voters who kind of consider themselves talent scouts. In 1980, Iowa discovered George HW Bush. In 1988, they buried him behind Dole and Pat Robertson.
McCain was on that path in New Hampshire until he rebooted, aided by the Surge and General David Petraeus. When Bush 43 pushed forward with this plan, few wanted to loudly and publicly support it. McCain was one of the few who would.
As the campaign progressed, results started showing up. A big risk in early 2007, a distinguishing point in fall 2007 was an accepted fact on the ground by the time voters went to the polls in January 2008.
Though he was not the pure insurgent of 2000, nor the normal semi-annoited front-runner, McCain won the nomination anyway. However, a good chunk of his success was the failure of others.
Rudy Giuliani was a chimera. Fred Thompson was unprepared. Mitt Romney was his awkward self. Mike Huckabee didn’t have the infrastructure to compete outside the South and Border States, where he regularly beat McCain.
Had any of the others run an even somewhat above average campaign, McCain would not have managed to recover from a badly mismanaged early/mid 2007.
The general election run was uneven. Absent an incompetent Obama campaign (and it was anything but), W’s approval ratings almost guaranteed a Democratic win. McCain was about as capable of creating space with the administration as anyone, having spent years building up his maverick image.
Sarah Palin went from a huge asset to liability to probably not making much difference either way in less than 60 days. When the economy collapsed in the fall and Candidate Obama handled it well, the die was cast.
Until doing some additional recent research, I’d always figured there wasn’t much McCain could have done to change the results. That’s partly true. He probably couldn’t have won. It didn’t have to be as lopsided. Lost in his “only” 8 point loss was that McCain won zero states that Republicans aren’t guaranteed to win with at least a somewhat below-average candidate.
The map is different now. For decades, lasting into the 1990s, there were between 25 and 35 states legitimately up for grabs, meaning if the election was somewhat lopsided (not a landslide), either party could win. That’s how Bush 41 beat Dukakis by no more than Obama beat McCain, but won a huge electoral vote margin.
While McCain held on to a lot of red states, this places are now so red that almost nobody would have lost them. With the exception of Missouri, he didn’t win a single state that was close to competitive.
All-in all, McCain did better than conditions would have indicated and was an above-average losing candidate. However, he handled the financial crisis badly and did not do as much to make a bad situation really close as the best of the losers.
This is the end of our look at candidates who lost in the finals. In the sixth and final part of this series, we look at the worst of those who lost in the primaries, the front-runners and big names who had a real chance at the nomination and then located a banana peel.