An atypically typical campaign season

Click on the image for source article at PBS dot org.

It looks like the the principal candidates in next year’s election for US president will be Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican John Ellis “Jeb” Bush.  An election between the wife of one former president and the son and brother of two others does make one wonder how the two parties can call themselves “democratic” and “republican” when “restorationist” and “hereditarian” would seem more fitting.

Also, the last time the USA had a Clinton/ Bush presidential contest eccentric billionaire H. Ross Perot ran an independent campaign that attracted many millions of votes.  Maybe this time Mr Perot’s son will throw his hat into the ring.  He has made himself even richer than his father, and seems to be just as peculiar.

Mr Bush faces a large number of challengers for his party’s nomination, while Ms Clinton has so far drawn only token opposition on her side of the ballot.  It occurs to me that it is strange that it isn’t always that way.  Both the Democrats and the Republicans nominate the early favorite virtually every time.  The only two Democrats in recent decades to win the nomination without having been the early favorite were Barack Obama, who was at least a clear second to Ms Clinton in the early stages of the 2008 race, and James “Jimmy” Carter, who in 1976 triumphed over a field that never had a clear front-runner.  And the last Republican to emerge as a true surprise nominee was Wendell Willkie in 1940.

One of the ways to become the early favorite in the Republican contest is to place or show in the previous contest.  Five of the last six Republican nominees- Willard M. Romney, John McCain, Robert Dole, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan- had all finished close behind the eventual nominee in the last open contest before they were themselves bore the party’s standard.  For their part, the Democrats take comparatively little note of losing candidates for their nomination.  The last five Democrats in recent decades to capture their party’s nod after an unsuccessful first try have been Albert Gore, who after his 1988 attempt had served two terms as vice president; George McGovern, whose 1968 bid as a placeholder for the assassinated Robert F. Kennedy really shouldn’t count; Hubert Humphrey, who had been elected vice president in 1964 after his failed bid in 1960; Alfred Smith, who came back from losing the nomination at the 1924 Democratic convention to lead the Democrats into a landslide defeat in 1928; and the only winner in the whole bunch, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, who received a few votes at the 1908 Democratic convention, then won the nomination and the presidency in 1912.

In 2004 and 2008, the Democratic nominee chose one of his rivals as his vice-presidential running mate.  As Messrs Gore and Humphrey showed, election to the vice presidency is a path to front-runner status in the presidential race.  However, the last time before 2004 that a losing candidate for that year’s Democratic nomination was chosen to run for vice president was 1960, when John Kennedy chose Lyndon Johnson, a Texan who led the US Senate.  And the last time before that was 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt chose John “Cactus Jack” Garner, a Texan who led the US House of Representatives.  The dozens of losing candidates for the Democratic nominations before 2004 who controlled neither a chamber of Congress nor Texas’ electoral votes generally emerged from the experience with little to show for it except the disappointment of their supporters and a heavy load of personal debt.

Looking at that record, ambitious Democrats have virtually no incentive to run for president unless they begin at the head of the pack, while ambitious Republicans have a great deal of incentive to run even if they look weak at the beginning of the race.  Granted, beyond a certain age that incentive fades; while there is probably some slim chance that former New York governor George Pataki, for example, might pick up enough momentum to emerge as Mr Bush’s main rival in the closing stages of the nomination race,  the reward for doing that would be a chance of becoming the front-running candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2020 or 2024, when Mr Pataki will be 75 or 79 years old.  It seems unlikely that even a very strong performance in the 2016 primaries would convince the Republicans to rally around such an elderly candidate.  Granted, Messrs Dole and McCain were both in their mid-70s when they were nominated, and as Adlai Stevenson said, “Once a man has been x-rayed for the presidency, he stays radioactive for life.”  So it wouldn’t be surprising if Mr Pataki were to run in earnest.


  1. I keep thinking about this post. Back in 1988 I thought Jesse Jackson would improve on his ’88 results if he ran again in 1992. Jackson did improve on ’84, after all. He didn’t run so the prediction wasn’t tested.

    Hillary is the frontrunner for the Dem nomination in a way that seems similar to the Republican second-try’s-the-charm pattern. Any challenger would get a lot of press and that might prove politically helpful for a Bernie Sanders, say, who is not going to be a serious contender for the win either in 2016 or after, but who can raise issues and challenge Hillary and perhaps move the discussion. The Republicans are already hot in the fray. I wish I were hearing noises about serious challengers to Hillary … but if presidential hopefuls are looking at history the way you do the ambitious are being cautious and patient, things ambitious people aren’t really well known for.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Glenn!

    Yes, it does look like the parties have switched patterns this time out. HRC, last time’s runner-up, seems to have a lock on the Democratic nomination, while the only return engagements on the Republican side are Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum, whose candidacies don’t seem to be getting much respect from the people who have influence over these things. The Ricks came out of the 2012 process as national laughingstocks (of course, Senator Santorum, Mr “Man-On-Dog-Action,” went into it a national laughingstock,) but it surprises me with regard to Governor Huckabee, he’s a pretty talented performer who did quite well in 2008, I’d think he’d be more of a factor. I suppose the bigshots think he peaked in that year, and they may be right.

    I was surprised when Jesse Jackson didn’t run in 1992. There were some interesting candidates that year, all the Democrats except for Bill Clinton grappled seriously with the question of what the fall of the USSR told us about the USA. For that matter, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot also worked hard to come to terms with the reality of a post-Cold War world, albeit in their own not-very-useful ways. Still, the whole process gave me the odd sense of something small-time, not only because the major party nominees were a couple of duds, but also because the absence of Jesse Jackson cut the Democratic Party off from the internal debates that had animated it for the previous ten years. While the nomination contests in 1984 and 1988 were never especially likely to produce the next president, they felt like titanic struggles for the heart and soul of the party and of the country, whereas 1992 just felt like a series of weekends in Nashua.

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