Looking at the Prospects of Current US Presidential Contenders Through the Historical Performance of Previous Candidates

The primary season of the 2016 US presidential election has turned out to be quite a spectacle so far. The democratic primary has not quite been the coronation of Hillary Clinton that was expected at the beginning of the summer. While she still remains an overwhelming favourite, the surprisingly strong showing of Barney Sanders among white liberals and the steady drip of negative media coverage of the Clinton email scandal has led to increased clamouring for a candidacy of Joe Biden. The Republican primary, on the other hand, has been a more chaotic free for all than anybody would have imagined. Even with a record seventeen serious candidates in the fray, Donald Trump, a narcissistic, foul mouthed realty television star and businessman is leading the polls, followed by Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, both of whom have never run for a political race in their lives, while the establishment candidates have struggled to even stay relevant.

While experts still predict that Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination (she most probably will) and Trump will not win the Republican nomination (he probably will not), stranger things have happened in life and in primaries. Although the modern system of primaries really came into practice from 1972 (before that, party bosses, as opposed to party members, had a disproportionate say in the nomination process), we have enough of historical precedents to make a case both for and against the credible candidates at this stage. Here is a look at how the candidacies of the major contenders, following in the footsteps of previous candidates, could either gather pace or fizzle out.

 Hillary Clinton:

Best Case Scenario – Al Gore (2000):

In the modern presidential primary system, Al Gore is the only candidate, other than sitting presidents, who has managed to wrap up a nomination without losing a single state. He did come close to losing, in New Hampshire to Bill Bradley, but once he survived that state, it was pretty much a one-way show. Hillary Clinton’s weakest state at this moment is New Hampshire, as well, where she is trailing Bernie Sanders who hails from the neighbouring state of Vermont. In case Hillary manages to win New Hampshire after Iowa (where she is leading at the moment), with both of the states having much larger share of white liberals (the base of Sanders) than the nation as a whole, it is almost impossible to conceive a scenario where she will go on to lose the nomination. A case can perhaps be made that Hillary still can outperform Al Gore; however, given the negative news coverage in the recent past, she will probably be more than happy to replicate his performance.

 Worst Case Scenario – Hillary Clinton (2008)

All political junkies know about this comparison. Hillary Clinton of 2008 is the ghost that haunts the Hillary Clinton of 2016. In the early summer of 2008, Hillary was the overwhelming favourite, leading in every possible poll and endorsement counts. But then Barack Obama ran a once in a generation campaign, mobilized the young and the minorities and Hillary’s campaign became increasingly defensive and dysfunctional and tactically unsound. She went on to lose the nomination in a close race. Clinton in 2016 has much better poll numbers, her endorsement count is much higher and she does not have a credible challenger with support across broad spectrum of the party base. Thus, if nothing really scandalous comes out in the next few months, it is unlikely Hillary of 2016 will repeat the path of Hillary of 2008.

Bernie Sanders:

Best Case Scenario – George McGovern (1972):

In 1972, George McGovern utilized his intimate knowledge of the newly designed nomination process, a process he had helped designing, and a weak and divided field, to run an insurgent campaign and win the Democratic Party nomination. Since then, no candidate with ideology so far to the left of the mainstream American political opinion has been able to win the Democratic Party nomination. But since McGovern, no candidate with such progressive bent has even captured the imagination of the Democratic Party the way Bernie has. Like McGovern, Bernie finds a lot of support among young, educated, white liberals. While McGovern was able to peddle his liberal ideas to a young electorate disillusioned with the Vietnam War started under a Democratic President, Sanders has found the message of income inequality under another Democratic president as his core rallying point. But, unlike McGovern, Sanders has to contend with a formidable front runner. It is true that Ed Muskie was the establishment favourite in 1972; but Muskie was a weak candidate and the establishment had not really coalesced behind Muskie the way they have behind Clinton this year. Considering this, Sanders will have to really go beyond McGovern’s effort to even come close to winning the nomination.

Worst Case Scenario – Howard Dean (2004), Bill Bradley (2000):       

Both Howard Dean in 2004 and Bill Bradley in 2000 were credible progressive voices who ran to the left of the establishment frontrunners in the respective races and managed to give them some fight. Howard Dean, in particular, led the polls for a number of weeks heading into the Iowa primary. But, Bill Bradley did not manage win a single state whereas Dean came first only in his home state of Vermont. Both of them showed promise in the campaign stage but could not translate the promise into votes. Similar fate may await Bernie Sanders unless he manages to broaden his appeal among moderates, women and racial minorities.

Jeb Bush

Best Case Scenario – John McCain (2008):  

Like Jeb Bush in 2016, John McCain entered the Republican Party race for nomination as the nominal front runner. However, like in case of Bush, the campaign quickly ran into trouble as he found his views on immigration reform were too moderate for the Republican base. He had to downsize and restructure his campaign team.  He had to focus on retail campaigning in New Hampshire even as candidates like Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney surged ahead of him in polling. The resurgence of McCain began in late 2007 and the loss of Romney in Iowa and the strategic blunders of Giuliani allowed him to post a come from behind victory in New Hampshire and walk away with the nomination. McCain’s progress has important lessons for the currently embattled Bush. Like McCain, he will hope that a fringe candidate wins in Iowa (Bush is currently in the sixth position there) and he manages a come from behind victory in New Hampshire. He will also hope that his views and ideas, like those of McCain, gradually become palatable to the base.

Worst Case Scenario – Ed Muskie (1972):  

For much of 1971, Ed Muskie was the establishment front runner, on course to easily win the Democratic Party primary of 1972. He was after all a former Governor and a Senator and the vice-presidential nominee in the 1968 Democratic Party ticket. However, he also ran a plainly boring campaign, unable to excite anyone, even as the country was growing through a traumatic Vietnam War and an economic slowdown. Thus when McGovern challenged him from the left, his candidacy unravelled rather fast. Muskie has since then served as dreadful warning of the fate that awaits establishment favourites who are out of touch with the base. Jeb Bush may have raised a lot of money which shall allow him to stay in the race for some time, but unless he finds a way to excite voters about his candidacy, he risks becoming the Muskie of 2016.

Marco Rubio    

Best Case Scenario – Barack Obama (2008):

There is an old saying that says Republicans vote with their heads, Democrats vote with their hearts. The origin of the saying lies in the fact that Democrats have in the past nominated seriously underdog candidates like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, while Republicans have mostly elected the guy who came second in the last nominating contest. For Rubio to have any chance at winning the nomination, he will desperately need to hope that the Republicans start voting like Democrats for a change. He is easily the candidate with the most potential, the youngest and the most articulate one, a minority candidate with a compelling life story, a candidate who can rally the base and is also acceptable to the party elders. In other words, he is the Barack Obama of 2016. Ironically though, given the hatred Obama evokes among most conservative voters, it is these comparisons with Obama that Rubio will have to fully put to rest if he were to have any chance of emulating him.

Worst Case Scenario – Gary Hart (1984):      

In 1983, Gary Hart, a 47 year old senator from Colorado with little national recognition challenged Walter Mondale, a former Vice President, for the Democratic Party nomination. Initially, he did not get any traction; however, with other candidates dropping out and on the basis of his own energetic campaign, he was able to come from behind to post a victory in New Hampshire. He ran a fresh faced campaign touting his image as a new kind of Democrat. However, he was unable to counter charges that his ideas were too vague. (Mondale famously asked him in a debate – “Where is the beef?”) He ended up falling short, even though the fight went all the way to the nomination. Hart’s campaign offers lessons for Rubio that being young and articulate are not good enough to win the campaign. And while Rubio can do much worse than Hart this year, Hart’s subsequent career does not offer much of comfort to the promising Florida senator.

Scott Walker:   

Best Case Scenario – Ronald Reagan (1980):

While a number of Republicans in every election cycle claim to be the heir of Ronald Reagan’s legacy, Scott Walker is the one candidate in the current race, who bears the most similarity to the Gipper. Like Reagan, he is the two term governor of a swing state (California was a swing state back then) with strong conservative governance record. Like Reagan, he has stood up to unions, a fact Walker has alluded to in several interviews. Like Reagan, Walker touts his devout Christian beliefs. Like Reagan in 1980, he is also up against a Bush as his challenger. However, Walker does not have the gift of the gab that the Gipper demonstrated in the 1980 election. Reagan was also the de-facto nominee of the party in 1980, having come a close second to Gerald Ford in 1976, a luxury that Scott Walker can only dream of.

Worst Case Scenario – Tim Pawlenty (2012):    

The Tim Pawlenty comparison has dogged the Scott Walker campaign for a long time. Like Walker, Pawlenty in 2011 was a successful mid-western governor with a perfect resume for the job at White House. But when he started campaigning, he was found to be too bland and cautious to actually be able to run an inspiring campaign. He dropped out in August, 2011, long before the Iowa caucus. When Walker gave an inspiring speech in the Iowa freedom summit in February, 2015, he was catapulted to the pole position in Iowa. However, since then, his flat performance in the first debate and increasing number of gaffes on the campaign trail has seen his poll number sliding and has brought back the Pawlenty comparisons. It is up to Walker now to run a more disciplined campaign and at the same time, display some more emotions and passion on the campaign trail.

Ted Cruz:

Best Case Scenario – Barry Goldwater (1964):

Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination in 1964, a good eight years before 1972, when the modern primary system came into being. But there is no other successful candidate in the modern era, who can come close to matching the uncompromising and extreme conservatism of Ted Cruz. Like Goldwater was back in 1964, Cruz is currently as popular in the right wing of the party as he is an anathema to much of its moderate and establishment factions. Like Goldwater, Cruz is known for not comprising with his conservative beliefs, diluting his stands or mending relationship with the party leaders for the sake of party unity. Like Goldwater, Cruz’s effort is as much a crusade to decide the future direction of the Republican Party as it is an effort to win the presidential election. While a lot of pundits consider Cruz to be too conservative to win the nomination, the success of Goldwater back in 1964 shows that it is possible for a contender this far to the right to succeed in the Republican primaries.

Worst Case Scenario – Michelle Bachmann (2012) and Fred Thompson (2008):

Social conservative candidates with no hope of winning the general election come dime a dozen in Republican primary contests these days. Some of them, like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, win the Iowa caucus and a few other Southern primaries, but generally fade away as Republican voters become more concerned with the electability question. Others like Bachmann and Thompson fare even worse and drop out after failing poorly in the Iowa caucus which is must win for them. To the credit of Cruz, he has already raised more money this cycle than any other candidate apart from Jeb Bush. He may also benefit from the unusually large numbers of disaffected voters in this primary cycle. But the recent history shows that Republican primary voters are not very kind to candidates whose extreme positions are perceived to be liabilities in the general election.

Donald Trump:

Best Case Scenario – Ross Perot (1992):

This is the most difficult one as no other candidate with zero political experience and no history of any electoral run has come close to winning any of the major party nominations, since the election of General Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Ross Perot is the only such presidential candidate in modern history to have even come close to winning the presidency. Both Trump and Perot are successful businessmen with similar aversion to trade deals, a penchant for populist ideas and political beliefs which are difficult to place in the sharp left—right divide of American politics. Like Perot did in 1992, Trump has pledged to fight the election out of his own money, making the fight against lobbyists one of the central tenants of his campaign. And while Perot was a third party candidate in 1992, Trump has given indications of pursuing a third party run in 2016 if the Republican Party does not treat him “fairly”. Given his past affiliations with the Democratic Party, his flip-flops on several issues and his zero loyalty to the establishment of the Republican Party, a third party run by Trump remains very much conceivable. And the Ross Perot candidacy of 1992 still remains the gold standard for all third party contenders.

Worst Case Scenario – Herman Cain (2012):

In 2012, Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather Pizza, briefly took over as the front-runner of the Republican primary contest. His charming, folksy style and his catchy slogan of ‘9-9-9’ (which stood for the 9% flat rate of income, sales and business transaction tax rate he wanted to implemented) made him a leader in a weak field. The good times did not last though as allegations of sexual harassment came up and Cain was forced to withdraw from the race. While Trump has already generated more headlines and shown more staying power than Cain did in his brief campaign, the volatile and abrasive nature of his campaign and personality suggests that a crash and burn can never be ruled out.

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