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Conventions 2012 / GOP CONVENTION GUIDE: 25 YEARS OF HOTLINE

A Quarter-Century of the Best

A venerable political chronicle looks back.

photo of Reid Wilson
August 30, 2012

In 1987, Republican Doug Bailey and Democrat Roger Craver set out to create a new kind of news service, mining hundreds of newspapers from across the country to bring together every scrap of political information. The result, The Hotline, went on to become a must-read for party leaders, industry professionals, and anyone who needs the in-depth coverage of the political campaigns that will shape the next governing class.

From the days of 12-hour shifts beginning at 2 a.m., early-morning runs to a distribution site in Southeast Washington, and reams of fax paper, to the digital era’s more humane 6 a.m. start time, Hotline has driven the political conversation by offering wisdom before it’s conventional. “It is galling to hear someone on Sunday regurgitating Friday’s Hotline,” the late Tim Russert once told the Los Angeles Times.

Today, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reads The Hotline on his iPad. Rep. Chris Van Hollen says The Hotline helped him get out of bed in 2008, when he led his party to major gains as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—and then sent him back under the sheets in 2010, when Democrats lost the majority. When Mary Matalin and Dee Dee Myers hosted CNBC’s Equal Time, they held an on-air fundraising drive to collect pennies to afford their subscription. A generation of Capitol Hill staffers have competed to win the daily Swizzle Challenge in Hotline’s Last Call. And we’ve been the launch pad for a host of political journalists, such as CBS’s Norah O’Donnell, Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes, NPR’s Ken Rudin, and Politico’s Jonathan Martin.

 

To Bailey and Craver, to our past editors Larry Tomayko, William Saletin, Robert Balkin, Craig Crawford, Chuck Todd, and Amy Walter, to the legions of Hotline staffers past and present, and most important, to the readers who make us a part of their daily lives, thank you for helping us mark a milestone at the center of an incredible political scene.

To celebrate our unique position, we’ve culled the best campaigns, the most important campaign innovations, and the most consequential campaign gaffes in our history. Visit us online for our roundups of the biggest upsets, the best advertisements, the biggest scandals, and more moments that have marked our 25 years in politics.

 

The Best Campaigns

By Reid Wilson and Chuck Todd

Working at The Hotline is like being a sportscaster for the most important game in town. For a quarter-century, we’ve had a courtside view of campaigns and elections as they’ve evolved and improved. Every year, at least one race stands head and shoulders above the rest—because of a brilliant strategy, doggedly effective tactics, or a candidate who by sheer force of will wins a race he or she probably should have lost. Here, in our view, are the 10 greatest campaigns of the past 25 years.

ALASKA: GOVERNOR, 2006

Long before Sarah Palin rose to national prominence as a conservative icon battling liberals, the national media, and her own party, her political career seemed to have hit a brick wall. She lost a 2002 bid for lieutenant governor, quit a state oil and gas commission, and drove an ethics complaint against another commission member—who happened to be the chairman of the state Republican Party. Then, in a state ruled by an old-boys club of Republican stalwarts, she decided to take on the sitting governor of her own party.

“Sarah Barracuda” not only beat Gov. Frank Murkowski in the primary, she destroyed him, taking 51 percent of the vote to his 19 percent. In the general election, she faced former Gov. Tony Knowles, who touted himself as the experienced hand needed to guide the state. Palin, the fresh-faced outsider at age 42, dispatched Knowles, 48 percent to 41 percent. In a year in which Democrats claimed a mandate after taking control of the House and Senate, Palin’s outsider-over-insider triumph may have been the real harbinger of the tumult to come in the following two election cycles.

CALIFORNIA: GOVERNOR, 2002

California’s Gray Davis was one of the more unpopular governors in America. By February 2002, just 44 percent of Californians approved of the job the Democrat was doing. Worse for Davis, he faced the prospect of running for reelection against Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a moderate Republican with the money to fund a statewide race and the poll numbers to pose a real threat. (Riordan led Davis by 6 percentage points in that February’s Public Policy Institute of California survey, 46 percent to 40 percent.)

Then Davis wrote a playbook that other unpopular incumbents would follow for years afterward: He picked his rival. Davis ran so many ads slamming Riordan during the Republican primary that GOP voters opted for conservative businessman Bill Simon by a huge 18-point margin, 49 percent to 31 percent. Davis ended up facing the far weaker Simon in the general election, and he won in November, 47 percent to 42 percent. Tampering in the other party’s primary was Davis’s only hope of surviving, and he did it to perfection.

VIRGINIA: GOVERNOR, 1989

It took the state where the Confederacy established its capital to elect the nation’s first African-American governor, and it took the grandson of former slaves to shoulder that role. Doug Wilder didn’t want to talk about race as he ran for governor, but national media coverage inevitably focused on just that angle. Voters told exit pollsters that they backed Wilder by a wider margin than they actually did, which University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says revealed the racial headwind into which Wilder ran.

Wilder contrasted his support for abortion rights with his opponent’s antiabortion position in advertisements in Northern Virginia, running up his score there to make up for his deficits in southwestern areas—the strategy that Democrats follow to win the Old Dominion today. “It was a glimpse of Virginia’s future. That was going to be the eventual Democratic playbook,” Sabato says. Wilder won by a scant 6,000 votes, making history in the process.

NEVADA: SENATE, 2010

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faced a trio of daunting prospects in his reelection bid two years ago: Republicans would ride a wave to take control of the House of Representatives in that cycle; Nevada’s economy was the worst in the nation; and his state’s voters just didn’t like him very much. But the Democrat’s team built perhaps the best infrastructure of any senator in the country, leveraging the state’s emerging Hispanic population to get every vote he could possibly win.

It helped, too, that Reid picked the easiest opponent he could find. His team worked hard behind the scenes to discredit former state Sen. Sue Lowden, who hailed from moderate Clark County. Lowden eventually lost the Republican primary to Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, perhaps the most far-right major-party candidate in the country in 2010. Angle did all she could to help Reid—mistaking Hispanic schoolchildren for Asian-Americans and standing by her claim that a senator’s job isn’t to create jobs. But Reid still needed the perfect campaign to win.

NEW YORK: GOVERNOR, 1994

Had Gov. Mario Cuomo pulled the trigger in 1992, when he had a plane on the tarmac waiting to ferry him to New Hampshire to file papers, the Democrat might have been president of the United States. Instead, two years later, he wound up in the fight of his life with a little-known, first-term state senator named George Pataki—a fight Cuomo lost, 49 percent to 45 percent.

Pataki didn’t need name recognition; he only needed to make the race all about the incumbent. Although Cuomo was popular, he took on water for raising taxes and increasing spending, and for opposing the death penalty. Pataki’s campaign focused almost exclusively on those two issues. In a wave year, that’s all it took to help a political David slay Goliath.

NEW YORK: SENATE, 1998

Pataki slew a giant, but Chuck Schumer slew two of them. Although the Brooklyn Democrat has served in public office his entire adult life, he has never grown complacent. By 1998, Schumer decided that nine terms in the House was enough and took what looked like an ill-advised shot at Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, one of the few Republicans elected in the 1980 Reagan landslide who hadn’t lost a reelection bid. Just to get to take on D’Amato, Schumer first had to get through Rep. Geraldine Ferraro—an icon of the Democratic Left.

But if Schumer is known for anything, it’s fundraising. He pulled in enough cash to kick off his paid media campaign in November 1997, a full 10 months before the primary and ended up winning more than half the vote. Then Schumer took advantage of a key gaffe when D’Amato referred to him as a “putzhead” in a meeting with a Jewish organization. Schumer won 55 percent of the vote in November.

OREGON: SENATE, 1996

When Republican Sen. Bob Packwood resigned under an ethics cloud, Rep. Ron Wyden charted a path to victory that fellow Democrats are still using to win elections. He won the January special election, the first in which Oregon mailed ballots to every voter, by aggressively identifying supporters and making sure they cast their ballots.

That strategy proved the forerunner to a decade of Democratic initiatives to broaden access to absentee ballots and early voting. To this day, Democrats have an advantage over Republicans in banking votes before Election Day, giving them a leg up in races they might not ordinarily win. (Republican voters, by contrast, are more likely to turn out on Election Day, making Democratic absentee efforts all the more crucial.) Wyden’s win was the first contest in which Democrats figured that out.

FLORIDA, TEXAS: GOVERNOR, 1994

Understanding one’s opponent can prove critical to winning a race you’re not supposed to win. Democratic Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, who was running for reelection in a terrible political environment, exploited every possible negative against his Republican rival, Jeb Bush, while Bush ran a politically tone-deaf ad hitting Chiles on the death penalty. Chiles put together a winning coalition to just barely survive 1994’s GOP tsunami.

Just a few states away, Texas Gov. Ann Richards underestimated Jeb’s brother, George. She called him “Shrub,” while he took pains to address her as “Governor Richards.” Bush played up his local roots; Richards missed the chance to tout her accomplishments. Despite her popularity, Bush won by  7 percentage points. Most observers had expected Jeb to win and George to lose. History would have been dramatically different if they had been right.

SOUTH DAKOTA: SENATE, 2004

Want a challenge bigger than defeating the Senate majority leader? Try beating a popular Senate majority leader. That’s what Republican John Thune did when he edged then-Sen. Tom Daschle by just 4,500 votes. It was the most expensive race in the country: Combined, the two sides dished out $35 million fighting over a tiny state—and, by the end, the Democrat’s approval rating was still impressively north of 50 percent.

Even though everyone knew, and most liked, Daschle, Thune set the table perfectly: He reframed the vote as one for President George W. Bush’s agenda and against Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Edward Kennedy. And Thune’s closing ad used Daschle’s own words—including, “I’m a D.C. resident”—against him. The race was so well-run that the architects of Thune’s win are still trading on the victory to this day.

MINNESOTA: SENATE, 1990; WISCONSIN: SENATE, 1992

Money talks, especially in an era of constant television ads. But, sometimes, a clever ad can cut through the noise to help an underdog beat a front-runner. That’s what happened in Minnesota in 1990, when a little-known Carleton College professor named Paul Wellstone upset Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, 50 percent to 48 percent. “Unlike my opponent, I don’t have $6 million, so I’m going to have to talk fast,” the Democrat said in his most famous campaign spot.

A state senator in Wisconsin named Russell Feingold used the same strategy two years later. While two wealthier Democratic primary opponents split the Milwaukee vote, Madison-based Feingold showed voters his closet (“no skeletons”) and touted a fake endorsement from Elvis Presley. He won with 70 percent of the vote, then defeated GOP Sen. Bob Kasten by 7 points in the general election. Wellstone and Feingold became liberal icons; their campaigns became road maps for underdogs who use humor to overcome steep financial obstacles.

 

The Most Important Campaign Innovations

By Reid Wilson

America campaigns like no other country in the world. We do things bigger, better, and with much more money. And we’re constantly evolving: The way candidates campaigned when The Hotline was born looks downright primitive next to today’s micro-targeting, electorate-dividing tactics. Here are the 10
innovations over the last 25 years that have done the most to shape the way campaigns are run now.

INDEPENDENT EXPENDITURE (1988)

Quick: Who paid for the ad linking Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis to Willie Horton, the convicted felon who assaulted a woman while on furlough from a Bay State prison? It wasn’t George H.W. Bush’s campaign—it was an outside group called Americans for Bush. The rules for independent expenditures today are largely the same as they were then, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision: Outside groups can run as many ads as they can afford, as long as they don’t coordinate with the campaigns. In the post-Watergate era of limited individual contributions, large expenditures separate from the campaigns are now usually necessary to win.

This year, outside groups backing Mitt Romney’s campaign may spend as much as President Obama does. A decade of campaign finance legislation followed by Supreme Court rulings rolling back that legislation has left a hodgepodge of spending rules. Some FEC regulations don’t conform to court orders, and a partisan deadlock at the commission ensures that little will be sorted out until another round of reform takes place. And it all started with former Bush allies looking into Dukakis’s prison furlough program.

HOW-TO TAPES (1990)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Newt Gingrich was ascending to the height of his power, he took time to teach fellow Republicans how to come along for the ride. As part of his drive to build a GOP House majority, Gingrich used GOPAC, which he controlled, to send instructional tapes to party candidates up and down the ballot, teaching them the art of using language to build contrast with their opponents. “I would open them up right away, and I would put them in a cassette player within 24 hours,” former Rep. Gil Gutknecht of Minnesota told PBS in 1996. “It was almost like a chalk talk with a great coach.”

After 40 years in the minority, Republicans were accustomed to thinking like the loyal opposition. The tapes preached something else—positive thinking and a clear contrast. “You favor a political revolution. You want to replace the welfare state with an opportunity society. You favor workfare over welfare. You want to lock prisoners up, and you’re actually prepared to give up some political pork barrel to build as many prisons as you need,” Gingrich says on one of the tapes. A scientific approach to language changed the way politicians spoke, and ushered in the “Republican revolution” along the way.

SMALL DONORS (1992)

How can small-dollar donors compete with major contributors who write four-, five-, even six-figure checks? The same way small fish avoid predators—by swimming in packs. That’s what EMILY’s List proved in the late 1980s, when it solicited contributions from average Americans, bundled them, and handed them over to female Democratic candidates who supported abortion rights. “We took what people have been doing with special interests at law firms ... and we figured out how to do it through the mail,” says Ellen Malcolm, the group’s founder. “For the candidates, it was like their built-in donor base.” In 1992, the group bundled $6 million for candidates, giving momentum to the Year of the Woman.

By 2004, small contributors were bundling on their own. Most of the Democratic presidential candidates vying for the right to face George W. Bush in 2004 didn’t want to run afoul of the still-popular war in Iraq, even though their liberal base wanted a candidate who would. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean fit the bill. His campaign earned traction as small, localized groups of supporters used the Internet to form Meetup.com groups. They gave money in small amounts, vaulting Dean into contention. Other candidates have desperately tried to repeat this model. Four years after Dean, GOP Rep. Ron Paul improved on it, thanks to a supporter’s novel idea to organize contributions on the same day. On Nov. 5, 2007, Paul’s backers held the first “money bomb” fundraiser, and 21,000 donors chipped in an incredible $4.2 million in one 24-hour period. Dean and Paul demonstrated that an underdog still has ways to compete with a party’s anointed favorites.

SOFT MONEY (1996)

Campaign finance reforms enacted after the Watergate scandal set hard limits on the amount of money any political candidate could accept from an individual donor. But the parties themselves operated under different rules: They could take unlimited nonfederal dollars—“soft” money—to pay for anything other than direct advertising on behalf of a federal candidate. Those so-called mixed-use activities included voter-registration drives or ads advocating the party’s positions. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton and Gingrich perfected their soft-money pitches, raising hundreds of millions of dollars beyond what campaign finance law otherwise allowed. During Clinton’s 1996 reelection bid, the Democratic National Committee added $122 million in soft money to its coffers, while national Republicans pulled in $141 million.

But the soft-money bonanza was short-lived: The McCain-Feingold law prohibited the parties from raising the unlimited cash. This cycle, super PACs and nonprofit groups are the dominant source of unrestricted cash; back in 1996, soft money was a sign that cash will always find a way into politics.

THE MICRO AD (1998)

When he was running to unseat a Republican senator in 1998, then-Rep. Chuck Schumer needed a way to spend his money more efficiently. The Democrat used 15-second clips to accuse Sen. Alfonse D’Amato of “too many lies for too long,” building a series around a tagline that undermined the incumbent’s reputation. In 2002, then-Rep. Saxby Chambliss used a series of 10-second ads to cast the votes of his Democratic opponent, Sen. Max Cleland, on social issues as out of step with conservative Georgia. “Why would he do that?” the Chambliss spots asked.

The short, concise arguments helped Schumer and Chambliss win Senate seats. But the McCain-Feingold reform law, which required a candidate to stand by his or her ads, effectively killed the technique. Now attack ads come in 30-second increments—long enough to deliver a more detailed message but also to risk diminishing the attacker’s standing.

THE VIRAL VIDEO (2002)

Before YouTube, before Web ads, and before cable news channels began playing campaign ads on a loop, there was King Roy, once an affectionate nickname for Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes. Republican ad producer Fred Davis turned the moniker into a negative, portraying the Democrat as a rat with a gold crown. Davis screened the video for journalists, then mailed it to thousands of voters. The spot flashed across the front page of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Barnes lost to Republican Sonny Perdue by 5 points. “We had no money to run [the ad] on TV,” Davis said. “So the plan was to produce 25,000 VHS videotapes and mail them to highly targeted opinion leaders.”

Davis’s ad presaged a decade in which clever, or clumsy, political videos caught fire as a powerful tool. Viral videos have taken down Rep. Bobby Etheridge, the North Carolina Democrat who swatted away a Republican volunteer’s camera, and GOP Sen. George Allen of Virginia, who called a Democratic volunteer of Indian descent “macaca.” They create buzz for candidates such as Carly Fiorina, who used another Davis creation to introduce us to “demon sheep.” Viral videos don’t even have to come from an official arm of the campaign; in 2008, an attractive woman singing about her crush on Barack Obama turned into a star as “Obama Girl.” “The very few [videos] that are completely unique, that stand out, provide watercooler talk,” Davis says. “They offer an entertaining and minimal way to get a powerful message out for minimal to zero expensive media dollars.”

MICRO-TARGETING (2004)

The brand of beer you buy and the kind of car you drive say something about the way
you’re likely to vote. (A Jaguar owner sipping Michelob Ultra is highly likely to cast a Republican ballot, for example.) Corporations have used consumer data to model behavior for years; now both sales campaigns and political campaigns are micro-targeting. George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection bid was the first to truly incorporate consumer data as a way to identify likely supporters and get them to the polls.

It worked. Instead of canvassing door-to-door, relying only on voter-history data to guess at likely supporters, Bush’s campaign focused on specific people to drive up turnout in key precincts. In Ohio, the state that ultimately handed Bush his victory, turnout in Bush counties soared, while Democrats canvassing the suburbs made much more modest gains. That made all the difference in a narrow contest, and it served as a foundation for subsequent presidential campaigns.

COMPUTERIZED CAMPAIGN (2004)

When canvassers backing President Obama and Mitt Romney knock on doors this year, they may be armed with iPads capable of registering each voter’s concerns and interests in real time. If a voter cares about immigration, he or she will get information about a candidate’s stand the next day. Abortion? Expect literature to arrive in the mailbox explaining why the other guy is wrong.

The reliance on high-tech door-knocking began with a 2004 initiative by America Coming Together, the consortium of liberal organizations aiding John Kerry’s presidential campaign. The group gave volunteers Palm Pilots to record voters’ preferences, interests, and concerns—an effort that helped create the most comprehensive voter database ever. That program, dubbed Catalist, formed the basis of Democratic field programs in the years since, with Republicans racing to adapt.

E-MAIL ENTICEMENTS (2008)

Want to have dinner with President Obama? It could cost you as little as $3, but you’ll have to give up some information to have the chance to rub elbows with celebrities, industry titans, and others who can afford to write five-figure checks. The Obama campaign, more than any in history, has built a database of supporters by asking for information—a resource it can use to mobilize volunteers in the critical final stretch of the race.

No technology has changed the way campaigns are run like the Internet, and the capability to solicit online donations has become a critical arrow in any campaign’s quiver. E-mail fundraising has largely replaced direct-mail and telephone solicitations as the most lucrative source of cash. It can yield a more engaged donor and volunteer base at a fraction of the cost. “It allows you to bypass the filter and talk directly to supporters,” says Michael Turk, a former Republican National Committee
aide who heads Opinion Mover Strategies, an online communications firm. “If you believe that person-to-person communication is the main driver of voting decisions, e-mail is king.”

PROJECT DREAMCATCHER (2012)

Consider the micro-targeting that kept George W. Bush in the White House a foundation for what will come this year. The consumer data that help both sides identify potential supporters has so far come from outside sources. But social media allows users to share so much of their personal data that average Americans are becoming the best source of information about their own habits.

This year, Obama’s team has deployed a data-mining project that’s looks like something from a corporate marketing firm. Project Dreamcatcher, as Obama’s team calls it, will use complicated text-analysis algorithms to determine who might be a supporter and what issues might move someone off the fence. The program is aimed at learning not just what voters believe but why they believe it—a strategy the campaign calls “micro-listening.” As a campaign official told Slate earlier this year, “When a million people are talking to you at once, it’s hard to listen to everything, and we need text analytics and other tools to make sense of what everyone is saying in a structured way.”

In 2004, Bush’s team won because it drove up turnout in precincts already friendly to the president; by 2012, Obama’s campaign hopes to boost his margin everywhere, a major technological advance that would change the way campaigns operate.

 

“Oops!” The 10 Biggest Gaffes in Hotline History

By Sarah Mimms

DOLE DOWN!

Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., will be remembered for his legislative prowess, his statesmanship, and his personal heroism in World War II. But he might want to forget the day in September 1996 when he tumbled off a stage during a rally in Chico, Calif. The fall proved an apt metaphor for Dole’s presidential campaign, which struggled to get off the ground against Bill Clinton. “I just went over the top,” Dole joked. Unfortunately for him, his campaign didn’t follow suit.

SAY IT AIN’T JOE

There’s no better friend to a Hotline joke writer than Vice President Joe Biden. He insists that President Obama’s focus is on that three-letter word, “J-O-B-S.” He calls the administration’s health care legislation a big, um, something deal. He’s a gaffe machine! In 1987, then-Sen. Biden borrowed part of an emotional speech he gave to close a Democratic presidential primary debate in Iowa from a British politician’s campaign ad. Biden had apparently loved Labor leader Neil Kinnock’s speech on his own blue-collar upbringing and had begun incorporating phrases into his stump speech, crediting Kinnock. But he didn’t cite Kinnock in the debate, and even told The New York Times, “I could tell when I was doing my close that whole audience was absolute dead, hushed silence. You can tell when you have it all.” We’re sure Kinnock felt the same.

THE FRANCOPHONE FLUB

When you try to rationalize a mistake, pick one explanation and stick with it. If you make a horrific, racially tinged blunder in front of a ton of people, including a man with a video camera, twice, that’s tough to do. Then-Sen. George Allen found this out the hard way during his 2006 reelection campaign in Virginia when he pointed to an Indian-American video tracker employed by his Democratic opponent and referred to him as “macaca.” He also welcomed the volunteer to America and “the real world of Virginia.” Allen at first insisted that he didn’t know what “macaca” meant, though it sure sounded like French slang for a derogatory term. Then he told The Washington Post that the word sounded like “mohawk,” a reference to the volunteer’s haircut. A week later, Allen was telling reporters that he’d made up the term himself. Allen eventually called the volunteer to apologize, but the damage was done. The edge shifted to Jim Webb, who won the race and gave Democrats control of the Senate.

FROZEN IN TIME

It’s been called the “oops” heard ’round the world: Texas Gov. Rick Perry really wanted to cut government agencies—he just couldn’t remember which ones. His 44-second struggle to recall the list during a 2011 Republican presidential debate killed his already-reeling campaign. The moment is painful to watch, and it only gets worse as Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, and even debate moderator John Harwood try to come to Perry’s aid.

A SWISS MISS

Every presidential candidate struggles with local customs during the campaign. For Democrat John Kerry, the Boston Brahman who spent his whole presidential campaign trying to be a normal guy, one embarrassing moment came in Philadelphia in August 2003, when he ordered a cheesesteak—with Swiss. (The options, for any other blue bloods out there, are typically cheese whiz, provolone, and American.) Add the windsurfing, and the result was an out-of-touch image that Kerry just couldn’t wipe away. Of course, he could have just gone with his old stand-by solution: changing his mind. The senator from Massachusetts ran into more trouble over the Iraq war, when he explained a vote for a supplemental war funding bill this way: “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”

MIXING MESSAGES

In the out-of-touch category, John McCain committed a doozy in 2008. Just hours before Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, at the height of the credit crisis, the GOP presidential nominee declared at a rally in Jacksonville, Fla., “The fundamentals of the economy are strong.” Democrats pounced. The worst part: That morning, the McCain’s campaign had released a new ad that began: “Our economy is in crisis.” Message discipline!

PAINFUL MEMORIES

Perry certainly isn’t the only politician to let his nerves get to him during a debate, but at least he kept talking. In one of her debates, former New Mexico Lt. Gov. Patricia Madrid, a Democratic candidate for Congress in 2006, couldn’t give any assurance that she would prevent a tax increase. Making matters worse, she froze: At first Madrid looked down at her notes, pausing a few seconds. “Your president and you have—,” she said, seeming to find her way. Then silence. Visible shaking. Her opponent used the moment in a campaign ad ending in the tagline, “Patricia Madrid: Don’t Take the Risk.” Voters didn’t.

TOO MUCH INFORMATION

George H.W. Bush spent his (ultimately successful) 1988 campaign tying himself to the popular parts of President Reagan’s legacy, but he got tongue-tied at least once. “We’ve had triumphs, we’ve made some mistakes, we’ve had some sex—setbacks,” he said. The room erupted with laughter. During his reelection bid in 1992, Bush seemed aloof from ordinary Americans’ concerns, so staffers planned a trip to New Hampshire to recognize the country’s recessionary pain. Bush took the teleprompter’s instructions literally: He ended a speech there by saying, “Message: I care.”

NEWSPAPERS ARE DEAD

Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s interview with Katie Couric will go down in history. Couric asked, “What newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this [job]?” Palin said she read “most of them … all of them, any of them that have been in front of me,” declining to be more specific. She wouldn’t—or couldn’t—name even one, prompting the first series of questions about her fitness for office and immortalizing Tiny Fey as an impersonator. The incident caused an internal blowup between Palin and McCain’s presidential campaign staff.

NEVER MAKE A LIST

Any political operator will tell you that the cameras don’t always pick up the excitement of a room, and staffers for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign would surely agree. After finishing third in the Iowa Democratic caucuses that year, the former Vermont governor addressed a roaring crowd of supporters whose cheers weren’t picked up by the microphones. “We’re going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan, and then we’re going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House! Yeeeeaaah!!!” The “I Have a Scream” speech has since seeped into every aspect of popular culture, prompting a number of remixes with popular AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne songs, as well as spoofs on TV series ranging from Chappelle’s Show to the Gilmore Girls. It was even featured on Arthur, an animated children’s show about an aardvark. 

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