Late-Entering Presidential Candidates Rarely Win
History shows us that candidates who enter the race for President late rarely do well, and rarely manage to win.
With both Michael Bloomberg and Deval Parick apparently considering late entries into the Presidential race, Jeff Greenfield notes in a piece at Politico that late-entry candidates such as these potential candidates rarely succeed in Presidential races:
If Michael Bloomberg is looking for evidence that a late entrant can win a presidential nomination, all he has to do is look back. About seven decades.
It happened in 1952, when Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson—after repeatedly refusing President Harry Truman’s requests to jump into the race as Truman’s Democratic successor—waited until the convention began to declare himself a candidate. Stevenson gave an acclaimed welcoming speech to delegates in Chicago, changed his mind, and won the nomination on the third ballot.
Bloomberg’s surprise late entry into the 2020 race is a familiar story: The candidate who casts himself in the role of The Savior Who Is Waiting in the Wings is a quadrennial feature of presidential campaigns. For decades, Democrats and Republicans alike have persisted in looking beyond the field of those desperate few who have spent months, if not years, racking up frequent flier miles; eating indigestible food; begging for money; and crowding into coffee shops, union halls and living rooms trying to build a constituency. Right around this time of the cycle, these voters and pundits and party operatives reliably hit the panic button, certain that somewhere above the fray stands a candidate free of the now-obvious flaws that burden the rest of the field. It’s a yearning that invites comparison to the Groucho Marx quip about refusing to join any club that would have him as a member: “I refuse to support any candidate who overtly is seeking my vote.”
There’s one pesky fact about these late-entry candidacies: They never succeed. Only once have they even materially affected the outcome of a fight for the nomination.
Stevenson’s success—and he didn’t even win the presidency—came at a radically different time in American politics. In 1952, virtually no delegates were chosen in primaries; the party’s power brokers and bosses came to conventions with the ability to actually decide who the candidate would be—in a smoke-filled room, if necessary. We are in a different political universe today, and have been for the better part of 50 years.
Once primaries became the path to the nomination, a Stevenson-like delay stopped being a plausible strategy for victory. No late entrant has won a nomination since 1952. The most any latecomer has accomplished is to deliver victory to another contender. Campaign after campaign, these Mighty Mouse-like champions proclaim, “Here I come to save the day!” only to discover that their party doesn’t seem to want their rescue skills after all. The bracing tonic they seem to offer turns out to be a sugar rush.
Greenfield, who is primarily a political historian, cites two more examples from the era before primaries became the predominant method by which the two major parties pick their nominees, and neither one of them was successful in the sense that Stevenson was in winning the support of his party in a year when Democrats seemed to realize that winning against a Republican candidate like Dwight Eisenhower was going to be next to impossible no matter who the nominee might have been. The first such example is Lyndon Johnson, who spent much of 1960 dithering about entering the race for the Democratic nomination and ultimately did not do so until the convention itself. Being the only prominent candidate from the South made Johnson a strong candidate, and ultimately Vice-President, but it didn’t put him close to a nomination that John F. Kennedy had largely sewn up. Similarly, eight years later, Ronald Reagan, who at the time was just a year into his service as California’s Governor, entered the race for the Republican nomination on the opening day of the 1968 convention in Miami Beach. Ultimately, Reagan came in third behind Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller
During the modern era that began roughly in 1972 with the race for the Democratic nomination, the record of late-entry candidates is even more dismal:
- In 1972, former Vice-President and Senator Hubert Humphrey entered the race for the Democratic nomination in the wake of signs that the campaign of Senator Ed Muskie was falling apart. Humphrey’s entry came too late to participate in the race in either New Hampshire or Iowa. However, when Muskie’s campaign ultimately did collapse he ended up being the principal alternative to George McGovern, who was the favored candidate of the anti-war movement and other left-leaning segments of the party. During the campaign, Humphrey was able to inflict significant damage on McGovern that would follow him to the General Election and also led to particularly chaotic Democratic National Convention that ended with a weakened McGovern facing an uphill race against a popular incumbent;
- In 1976, California Governor Jerry Brown entered the race for the Democratic nomination in March 1976, in part at the urging of party power brokers who had serious doubts about apparent front-runner Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. Brown did well in a handful of primaries but in the end, came up far too short in the delegate count to seriously challenge Carter at the convention;
- In 1988, former Colorado Senator Gary Hart, who had dropped out of the race early after a sex scandal, reentered the race by “unsuspending” his campaign in December 1987. While early polling suggested that Hart was a strong contender for the nomination, he ended up finishing in the single digits in both Iowa and New Hampshire and in the Super Tuesday states. After that Hart, who had been an upstart rival to former Vice-President and 1984 Democratic nominee Walter Mondale;
- In 2004, retired General Wesley Clark entered the race in September 2003 but his campaign ultimately fizzled in no small part due to answer to questions about the ongoing Iraq War that placed Clark at odds with most of the Democratic base;
- Finally, in 2008 former Senator Fred Thompson left his job as one of the stars of Law & Order to enter the race for the Republican nomination in September 2007. While he enjoyed the support of many conservatives looking for a strong challenger to John McCain, Thompson’s lackadaisical campaign-style meant that his campaign never really took off. As Greenfeld notes, though, he did impact the outcome of the race by sufficiently splitting the vote in South Carolina to give McCain a narrow win that effectively was the beginning of the end of the race for the GOP nomination. Three days after finishing third in South Carolina, Thompson dropped out of the race.
In the modern era at least, it’s easy to understand why late-entrants are unlikely to do well. The candidates who are in the race now have spent the better part of a year introducing themselves to the public, fundraising, hiring campaign staff and assembling a volunteer network, talking to voters in the early primary states, and participating in nationally televised debates. The idea of a “savior” candidate stepping into the race now without having done any of that seems to be a far-fetched idea that has little chance of succeeding. This is especially true of candidates such as Bloomberg, who is not exactly getting a welcome reception in the initial polling after last week’s news, and Patrick, who clearly doesn’t have the national name recognition that Bloomberg does, in this cycle. Absent some development in the race that causes more than one of the top candidates to utterly collapse in a short period of time, it’s unlikely that history would be any different this time around.