How Not to Run for President

What 2016 hopefuls can learn from former flameouts.

This illustration can only be used with the James Olipahnt piece that originally ran in the 2/7/2015 National Journal magazine.
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James Oliphant
Feb. 6, 2015, 6:44 a.m.

Mark Cor­allo still talks like a be­liev­er. To him — as pre­pos­ter­ous as it may sound now, a clear-eyed eight years re­moved — Fred Thompson was “John Wayne, Johnny Cash, and Ron­ald Re­agan” all rolled in­to one sellable, elect­able pack­age. “Gra­cious, humble, big­ger than life,” re­calls Cor­allo, who was an aide to Thompson early in his short-lived 2008 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign.

You know the rest. Thompson spent much of 2007 dither­ing about get­ting in­to the race, and once he fi­nally de­clared his can­did­acy after Labor Day, he seemed to cam­paign at half-speed. By the end of Janu­ary, it was all over. “He’d be a great pres­id­ent,” Cor­allo says today, “if he didn’t have to cam­paign for it.”

Thompson’s bid for the White House may have dis­in­teg­rated in par­tic­u­larly dra­mat­ic fash­ion, but he’s hardly alone in fail­ing to live up to his ini­tial prom­ise as a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate. Run­ning for the pres­id­ency is, at heart, a loser’s game. In the past 35 years, scores of men and wo­men have tried, and only five have made it.

As the 2016 cam­paign gets un­der­way — as can­did­ates and their strategists be­gin map­ping out po­ten­tial routes to vic­tory — we’ve per­formed autop­sies on some of the least suc­cess­ful pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns of the past two dec­ades, identi­fy­ing a range of mis­takes to be avoided at all costs. Of course, many of the cam­paigns we looked at were ar­gu­ably doomed from the start; Bill Brad­ley, for in­stance, was prob­ably nev­er go­ing to beat Al Gore, no mat­ter how savvy a cam­paign he ran. But even can­did­ates who nev­er had much of a shot are use­ful as cau­tion­ary tales that can be stud­ied and picked apart.

“Every cycle, there’s some­body who crashes and burns,” says Fer­gus Cul­len, a former GOP chair in New Hamp­shire. “You just don’t know which one it’s go­ing to be.” The trick for a smart cam­paign is to some­how see what’s com­ing be­fore it hits you. Per­haps this guide can help.

Run­ning for the pres­id­ency is, at heart, a loser’s game.

1. The Late-Ar­riv­ing Sa­vior Doesn’t Win

In Septem­ber 2003, Wes­ley Clark strolled in­to his make­shift of­fice in Little Rock, Arkan­sas, and said he was run­ning for pres­id­ent. There was little to no pro­fes­sion­al staff yet on board. “He had a lot of Draft Clark people with him who had just walked out of the In­ter­net,” says Matt Ben­nett, who was later re­cruited to be Clark’s com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or. “They had come out of nowhere.”

It was true: Clark had a mo­tiv­ated and pas­sion­ate move­ment be­hind him. As a former gen­er­al, he ful­filled a strong de­sire among many Demo­crats — es­pe­cially mem­bers of the pro­gress­ive blo­go­sphere — to counter the GOP ad­vant­age on na­tion­al se­cur­ity.

But an on­line grass­roots swell was not the same thing as an ac­tu­al plan. Moreover, Clark had nev­er run for of­fice be­fore. “It was like tak­ing a very good ath­lete and say­ing, you are go­ing to start at quar­ter­back in the NFL to­mor­row,” Ben­nett re­calls. By the time the can­did­ate as­sembled a com­pet­ent op­er­a­tion, it was too late. “Geph­ardt, Kerry, and Dean had been run­ning for years,” Ben­nett says. “We were build­ing the ship as it sailed.”

Clark was hardly the only can­did­ate in re­cent years to enter a race late in the cycle as a would-be sa­vior. After him, there was Thompson in 2008 and Rick Perry in 2012. Perry jumped in­to the race in Au­gust 2011. “We felt like there was room for an­oth­er can­did­ate, par­tic­u­larly room for a strong, con­ser­vat­ive, big-state gov­ernor,” says a former top Perry aide, Ray Sul­li­van. “The oth­er can­did­ates knew there was an open­ing. We knew there was an open­ing. We knew he would be in great po­s­i­tion to dis­rupt the race.”

But be­cause Perry had entered late, he had no choice but to try to do everything at once: cam­paign, raise money, bone up on policy is­sues, ap­pear on TV, and run the state of Texas. He was over­whelmed. “What we didn’t real­ize was the in­cred­ible de­mands in the cam­paign on the can­did­ate’s own time and en­ergy,” Sul­li­van says. “We wer­en’t ready.”

Po­ten­tial 2016 of­fend­er: Eliza­beth War­ren

Fred Thompson announced his candidacy for president on The Tonight Show, after Labor Day in 2007 — too late to build an effective campaign. (Paul Drinkwater/NBC Universal via Getty Images) Getty Images

2. No One Is a Steam­roller

This is the flip side of Rule No. 1. Get­ting in early is ad­vis­able. What’s not ad­vis­able is as­sum­ing that you can build an im­pos­ing lead from the start, then steam­roll your way to the nom­in­a­tion.

The 2008 Clin­ton run is the most ob­vi­ous ex­ample, but it isn’t the only one. Even George W. Bush in 2000, who built a state-of-the-art ma­chine that leveled the GOP field, wasn’t bul­let­proof. He made tac­tic­al blun­ders, such as skip­ping two de­bates, that helped open the door for John Mc­Cain’s up­start win in New Hamp­shire. Rom­ney built a sim­il­ar op­er­a­tion in 2012, made de­bate gaffes, and had to fight off a wall of chal­lengers in­to the spring.

But the text­book case of a failed steam­roll strategy may be Rudy Gi­uliani. By the time he de­clared in Feb­ru­ary 2007, it felt like he had already been run­ning for months. The goal, says Chris Hen­ick, a top ad­viser to Gi­uliani’s 2008 bid, was to fol­low Bush’s 2000 mod­el: cre­ate the im­pres­sion of an un­stop­pable jug­ger­naut and thereby tie up donors. Polls favored the former New York may­or at the time — so why not em­brace the la­bel of front-run­ner? “I was con­vinced to go out and just claim it,” Hen­ick says.

For a while, it worked. Gi­uliani began rais­ing tor­rents of cash, for­cing Rom­ney to self-fund to keep up and es­sen­tially bank­rupt­ing Mc­Cain. But it also gave both rivals time to turn and at­tack. Mean­while, the me­dia had time to tar­get Gi­uliani, and con­ser­vat­ives had time to ob­ject to his mod­er­ate so­cial po­s­i­tions. His poll num­bers ebbed to the point where the cam­paign de­cided it could no longer ef­fect­ively com­pete in the early-primary states. In­stead, he tried to make a stand in Flor­ida. But by that point, his can­did­acy was already doomed.

Po­ten­tial 2016 of­fend­ers: Jeb Bush, Hil­lary Clin­ton

3. Know Why You’re Run­ning

One cam­paign that still has strategists shak­ing their heads is Tim Pawlenty’s — which in 2011 had all the hall­marks of a big-time op­er­a­tion, but which went bust im­me­di­ately after he lost the Iowa straw poll in Au­gust.

Pawlenty had fallen in­to a com­mon pre­dic­a­ment: Once his ex­pec­ted base of sup­port failed to ma­ter­i­al­ize, he seemed to have no ar­tic­ul­able basis for mov­ing for­ward with his can­did­acy. “I like the guy, but he wasn’t of­fer­ing any­thing that any­one else wasn’t of­fer­ing,” says Craig Robin­son, a former polit­ic­al dir­ect­or of the Iowa GOP.

An earli­er ver­sion of Pawlenty might have been Phil Gramm in 1996. He built a for­mid­able op­er­a­tion and war chest that crumbled to dust the minute it be­came clear that neither he nor voters could ex­plain why he should be pres­id­ent.

A re­lated mis­take: run­ning be­cause “it’s time” or be­cause “it’s your turn” (e.g., Hil­lary Clin­ton in 2008). Or simply be­cause you look like you can win. “Elect­ab­il­ity can be fool’s gold,” says Hen­ick, the Gi­uliani ad­viser. (Gi­uliani’s cam­paign was built around that very pitch.) “The whole as­pect of elect­ab­il­ity can be a pretty big false­hood if you rely on that.”

Fi­nally, con­tra­dict­ing the ra­tionale for your can­did­acy can be just as fatal as not hav­ing a good one in the first place: Soon after en­ter­ing the 2004 race, for in­stance, Clark hedged about the Ir­aq War, even though op­pos­i­tion to the war — com­bined with his mil­it­ary cre­den­tials — had been the en­tire basis of his ap­peal to voters. “It was kind of a rocky launch to the cam­paign,” Ben­nett says of that in­cid­ent.

Po­ten­tial 2016 of­fend­ers: Jeb Bush, Hil­lary Clin­ton, Scott Walk­er

Bill Bradley's 2000 campaign wasn't critical enough of Al Gore. (David McNew/Newsmakers) Getty Images

4. Ideas Can­did­ates Face An Up­hill Battle

A cam­paign is called a race for a reas­on; it’s not a sym­posi­um. But that hasn’t stopped plenty of can­did­ates — such as Jack Kemp in 1988, Steve For­bes in 1996, Bill Brad­ley in 2000, John Ed­wards in 2008, and Newt Gin­grich and Jon Hunts­man in 2012 — from billing them­selves as ideas mavens.

This is what the polit­ic­al ana­lyst Wil­li­am Schneider wrote about the late Kemp, in 1988: “What Kemp has to fig­ure out is how to be tire­less without be­ing tire­some. To that end, his hand­lers have tried to put him on a verbal diet. ‘He’s got to de­cide the three or four things he wants to talk about,’ one of his ad­visers said, ‘not the 15 or 20.’ “

Kemp lost; and in the years since, it’s hard to think of an “ideas” can­did­ate who has had much suc­cess. Per­haps the chief ex­ample of the lim­its of idea-based can­did­a­cies was Newt Gin­grich, who dur­ing a Janu­ary 2012 de­bate in Flor­ida no­tori­ously prom­ised he would col­on­ize the moon by his second term, earn­ing him mock­ery from his rivals. (For his part, in 2003, Wes­ley Clark said he be­lieved that man­kind would someday travel faster than light, prompt­ing head­lines such as “Beam Us Up, Gen­er­al Clark.” Per­haps the les­son here is really: Don’t talk about space travel.)

When Gin­grich fi­nally threw in the tow­el in May, he com­plained that “we are sur­roun­ded by a news me­dia that is cyn­ic­al and by con­sult­ants who are cyn­ic­al, by lob­by­ists who are cyn­ic­al. “¦ They think hav­ing big ideas is silly.”

But he epi­tom­ized the prob­lem. Iron­ic­ally, self-styled ideas can­did­ates of­ten fail to see the lar­ger them­at­ic pic­ture; they put for­ward a smor­gas­bord of policies rather than the simple, co­her­ent, broad themes voters are look­ing for. “They of­fer a mess, not a mes­sage,” Schneider says today. “Bill Clin­ton sold em­pathy. George W. Bush sold char­ac­ter. So did Bob Dole. Barack Obama sold unity.”

Po­ten­tial 2016 of­fend­ers: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Ru­bio, Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb

5. Don’t Be Scared to Go Neg­at­ive

“The Brad­ley cam­paign was more ‘Why me’ than ‘Why not him.’ That proved to not be a win­ning strategy,” says Gina Glantz, Brad­ley’s cam­paign man­ager in 2000. “He did not go after Gore ag­gress­ively in the pub­lic ap­pear­ances. That’s true. It was not his nature.”

Gi­uliani, des­pite his repu­ta­tion as a pug­na­cious politi­cian, had a sim­il­ar prob­lem. He wanted to be the Gi­uliani of Sein­feld and Sat­urday Night Live. He wanted to be liked. That meant a hes­it­a­tion to at­tack his fel­low rivals. Chris Hen­ick says the cam­paign was sit­ting on at­tack ads against Mc­Cain and Rom­ney in New Hamp­shire, but Gi­uliani re­fused to green-light them. His rivals showed no such re­straint in go­ing after him. Voters, Hen­ick says, “wanted to see someone who could fight. He just wasn’t tak­ing the fight to oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans.”

Pawlenty, too, failed to go suf­fi­ciently neg­at­ive. His cam­paign sought to change the can­did­ate’s ex­cess­ively nice-guy im­age by go­ing hard at Rom­ney over health care. But when he fam­ously de­clined to fol­low through on this line of at­tack at a June 2011 de­bate, Pawlenty was mor­tally wounded. “The de­bate in New Hamp­shire was a set­back,” says one top ad­viser to the cam­paign. “We were try­ing to tackle the rap on Pawlenty that he was dull or bor­ing — and in set­ting up a fight, he failed to punch.”

It’s not just a mat­ter of go­ing neg­at­ive on your primary op­pon­ents. You also have to be will­ing to go neg­at­ive on the likely nom­in­ee from the oth­er party. That was a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem for Hunts­man. “In ‘12, they wanted someone who was really go­ing to take it to Obama, and that wasn’t the can­did­ate we had,” says Matt Dav­id, Hunts­man’s former com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or.

Po­ten­tial 2016 of­fend­ers: Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, Marco Ru­bio

6. Don’t Buy Your Own Hype

The pres­id­en­tial bat­tle­field is littered with cas­u­al­ties who won over Belt­way colum­nists but fell flat in the rest of the coun­try. Clark made the cov­er of New­s­week, and Pawlenty earned a huge amount of hype from polit­ic­al journ­al­ists in early 2011. Hunts­man, too, did well with the elite me­dia — New York magazine put him on the cov­er with Mitt Rom­ney — be­fore founder­ing in the ac­tu­al cam­paign. “Hunts­man had a lot of good press cov­er­age,” says Matt Dav­id. “But we needed press cov­er­age to trans­late in­to fun­drais­ing. Our fun­drais­ing nev­er changed.”

Po­ten­tial 2016 of­fend­ers: Joe Biden, Lind­sey Gra­ham, Rand Paul

7. Cam­paign­ing Hard Is the Only Path to Vic­tory

This seem­ingly ob­vi­ous prin­ciple has some­times been lost on can­did­ates over the years. Take Thompson: His avun­cu­lar per­sona, honed in films and on TV, was part of what made him a com­pel­ling can­did­ate. But when it came to the rig­ors of daily cam­paign­ing, he was deeply flawed. “He marches to the beat of a dif­fer­ent drum­mer,” says Bill Lacy, who served as his cam­paign man­ager. “He’s not your typ­ic­al pres­id­en­tial-level politi­cian who has that ex­traordin­ary fire in his belly or that mo­tor that is run­ning con­tinu­ously.”

Gi­uliani, an­oth­er celebrity con­tender, had that prob­lem in a slightly dif­fer­ent form. His Amer­ica’s May­or pro­file didn’t mesh with the re­tail polit­ics needed in places like New Hamp­shire. Stor­ies were le­gion about his en­tour­age and his se­cur­ity; about how he’d show up in a parade of SUVs as if he were already pres­id­ent; about how he’d keep voters wait­ing so he could chat with the na­tion­al me­dia; about how New Hamp­shire seemed to be, in the words of Fer­gus Cul­len, “something to be en­dured, not something to be em­braced.”

“I must have met Gi­uliani five or six times, but it was al­ways the first time,” Cul­len says. “There was no re­cog­ni­tion to who I was — just an­oth­er ex­tra in the room.”

Po­ten­tial 2016 of­fend­ers: Hil­lary Clin­ton, Chris Christie

8. Stick It Out

The pres­id­en­tial con­ver­sa­tion today seems more pro­trac­ted than ever; mean­while, be­cause of so­cial me­dia, the news cycle spins at an in­creas­ingly com­pressed rate, al­low­ing voters more room to be fickle. Su­per PACs and non­profit ad­vocacy groups have ex­ten­ded the life of un­der­fun­ded can­did­ates. All of which means that there are more op­por­tun­it­ies for whole nar­rat­ives to be torn apart and reknit­ted, some­times with­in the space of weeks.

And that, in turn, makes it un­wise to give up hope pre­ma­turely. Ex­hib­it A is Pawlenty. On the GOP side, the 2012 cam­paign was a near-con­stant whir­li­gig, with the me­dia and con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ists con­stantly cre­at­ing new chal­lengers to Rom­ney. Michele Bach­mann, Her­man Cain, Rick San­tor­um, Perry, and Gin­grich all had their mo­ment in the spot­light along­side the even­tu­al Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee. (The me­dia, points out Demo­crat­ic strategist Joe Trippi, can only fo­cus on two can­did­ates at the same time.) Had Pawlenty stayed in the race, he al­most cer­tainly would have got­ten his mo­ment as well. And while he might not have won the nom­in­a­tion, he would have had an ex­cel­lent shot at rais­ing his pro­file enough to earn the vice-pres­id­en­tial nod. “I know Pawlenty would have got­ten a look,” the Pawlenty cam­paign ad­viser la­ments.

Pros in both parties now see his exit after the 2011 Iowa straw poll as ill-ad­vised. “If it’s not go­ing well, people bail,” says Trippi. “A lot of them bail way too early.”

Mc­Cain’s 2008 ef­fort was in many ways the op­pos­ite of Pawlenty’s. His can­did­acy was largely dis­missed in late 2007 — but by stick­ing around, he gave him­self one more chance to catch voters’ at­ten­tion. Vet­er­an GOP ad­viser Charlie Black be­lieves that’s a trib­ute to Mc­Cain’s forti­tude; most can­did­ates would have cut their losses. “Nobody else in Amer­ica could have crashed and burned like John burned and still come back and win the nom­in­a­tion,” Black says. “Any­body else would have dropped out.” In­stead, Mc­Cain staged a spec­tac­u­lar re­sur­rec­tion, one that should give pause to any can­did­ate think­ing about an early exit in 2016. As they say in poker, you can’t win if you’re not in.

Po­ten­tial 2016 of­fend­ers: Any­one who ap­pears to be trail­ing early.

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