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
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
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.