The case for running for president -- and losing

Why would a politician give up two years of his life for a doomed mission? Actually, there are some good reasons


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Steve Kornacki
February 2, 2011 7:15AM (UTC)

(updated)

The potential long-shot presidential candidacy of Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who has been serving as President Obama's ambassador to China for the last two years, has sparked some discussion over what he's actually trying to achieve.

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I speculated on Monday that Huntsman probably sees the GOP's '12 nomination as more valuable than he thought it would be when he joined Obama's team, and that even if he doesn't end up winning it, he'll have the opportunity to wage the kind of "better-than-expected" effort that would segue into a follow-up bid in 2016. Others have made similar suggestions. But over at Plain Blog, Jonathan Bernstein calls this "nuts," on the grounds that modern Republican presidential nominees tend to come from a very select group and that there's scant evidence that running a respectable but losing campaign has much long-term benefit:

Obviously, Huntsman hasn't been on the George W. Bush path. Could running put him on the path that took John McCain to the nomination? Well, it would first of all require him to actually do well in 2012; if not finishing second, at least surviving, say, through New Hampshire. Is that likely? Sure doesn't look like it to me.

More to the point: OK, John McCain certainly counts as a candidate who became a national figure by running for president, and later won a nomination. That's one. Against that, there's Lamar Alexander, and Liddy Dole, and Pete DuPont, and Howard Baker, and Phil Gramm, and John Connally, and Arlen Specter, and Dick Lugar, and...I won't go on, but it's obviously a long list. Given that run-and-lose has only won one of the two truly open contests, it's hard to see any point to that.

Since I've written a lot about the logic of "second chance" presidential campaigns, I might as well respond to this. There is validity to Bernstein's narrow point about the historic futility of parlaying a losing presidential candidacy into a winning one later. But history also shows that running a credible first-time national effort can do wonders for a politician's national standing. 

Take Lamar! and his '96 campaign. He started out as the blip Huntsman now is, but came much closer to breaking through than Bernstein gives him credit for. When the initial New Hampshire primary returns came in, it looked like Alexander would finish second, just behind Pat Buchanan but ahead of Bob Dole -- who had already turned in an underwhelming performance in Iowa a week earlier. Watching those early numbers, Dole told his team that he would quit the race if the results held. We'll never know for sure if he would have followed through (he ultimately caught Alexander to finish second, helping to set up what quickly turned into a lopsided Dole-Buchanan race), but if he had, Alexander likely would have become the GOP's 1996 nominee, with the party's Buchanan-phobic establishment rallying around him after New Hampshire instead of Dole. (Mind you, Alexander began the '96 campaign with roughly the same name national profile that Huntsman now enjoys.)

As it was, he emerged with his national reputation enhanced, enjoyed several years of virtual celebrity status within the national GOP (everyone assumed he'd be a serious contender in 2000), and -- initially -- was a top prospect for the '00 nomination. The earliest New Hampshire poll for the '00 cycle, conducted in October 1998, put Alexander (17 percent) in a virtual three-way tie with George W. Bush (20 percent) and Colin Powell (19 percent). Bush, of course, ended up putting together a massive political/financial machine and squeezing the life out of Alexander and the rest of the field, and Alexander ended up taking a consolation prize Senate seat in 2002. But for a former Tennessee governor and U.S. education secretary, Lamar! enjoyed a fairly exciting political ride in the late 1990s, even if most of the political world has forgotten about it. And under different circumstances, he could easily have been a much bigger player in the 2000 race.

But enough about Lamar! What about the other Republicans who've run for nominations and lost? Bernstein is right that some have come away with absolutely nothing to show for it; but hey, that happens. (In fact, some clearly lost stature by running -- Al Haig, who took his helmet out of the ring after registering 0 percent in Iowa in 1988, comes to mind. So does Bob Dornan, who ended his campaign literally begging a roomful of New Hampshire activists to help him reach 1 percent in the state's primary (he didn’t get there -- and he then lost his House seat in California a few months later to Loretta Sanchez, arguably because he'd embarrassed himself with his presidential campaign.)

But others did reap a clear benefit, like:

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* Pat Buchanan: He was a former Nixon aide and Reagan speechwriter who had been co-hosting a moderately successful cable news show ("Crossfire") when he launched a hopeless challenge to George H.W. Bush in the 1992 GOP primaries. He went on to fare better than anyone expected in the New Hampshire primary (losing 53 to 37 percent to Bush -- although the exit polls and early returns that framed the television network's coverage of the primary showed a much tighter race), and was hailed by the press as a giant killer in its aftermath. (Remember this picture of Buchanan celebrating with his supporters?)

He never won a single primary or caucus in '92 and collected only a scattering of delegates, but Buchanan walked away from the race with actual credibility as a national politician -- credibility he rolled into a '96 race that saw him score early wins in Alaska and Louisiana, followed by a near-miss in Iowa and a shocking victory in New Hampshire. At that point, a panicked GOP turned on him and embraced Dole, crushing Buchanan's nomination hopes. But for a few weeks in '96, Buchanan was the biggest fish in American politics; I doubt he'd say he got nothing out of his '92 bid.

* Steve Forbes: Forbes was a late entry into the '96 race, announcing his bid in the fall of 1995. No one paid much attention at first, but when he blanketed the Boston and New Hampshire airwaves with television ads and pulled into first place in the Granite State, the whole political world took notice. Those numbers receded by primary day, but he managed to score wins after New Hampshire in Delaware and Arizona, giving Dole one final post-Granite State scare. Forbes tried again in 2000, but like Alexander, he was suffocated by Bush's machine. Still, for a geeky magazine publisher who dreamed of being a political somebody (and who had a boatload of cash to burn), Forbes derived undeniable value from his '96 campaign.

* Pat Robertson: When he launched his 1988 campaign, he was a loony televangelist most famous for claiming to have saved New York City from Hurricane Gloria with prayer. When he ended his campaign, he was a loony televangelist most famous for outpolling the vice president of the United States in the Iowa caucuses, finishing second only to Bob Dole. The campaign allowed Robertson to supplant Jerry Falwell, who a decade earlier had created the Moral Majority, as the face of religious conservatism in America. And in defeat, he channeled his surprising grass-roots support into the Christian Coalition, which for a time in the 1990s was one of the most important components of the Republican coalition. Robertson was a very big man in Republican politics in the late '80s and early '90s -- and his presidential campaign had a lot to do with it.

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* Ronald Reagan: OK, technically 1976 was his second stab at the GOP nomination (he tried to grab the 1968 nod at the convention), but his campaign against Gerald Ford in the Republican primaries was Reagan's first full-fledged effort. It started horribly; a loss to Ford in New Hampshire triggered a string of early defeats, and Reagan quickly found himself far behind in the delegates and running out of cash. Against the odds -- and with the tireless help of Jesse Helms and his political operation -- Reagan prevailed in what amounted to a do-or-die test in North Carolina, kicking off a late series of primary victories that brought him to the Kansas City convention nearly even in the delegate count. Ford ultimately staved him off, but by finishing so strongly and coming so close, Reagan entered the '80 campaign as the overwhelming front-runner. (Bernstein writes that Reagan was the obvious '80 candidate because he had been "the clear leader of the dominant faction of the party for over a decade." This is true enough, but what if Reagan had lost North Carolina and dropped out of the '76 race early? His campaign, which had opened with enormous expectations, would have been widely judged a failure and I'm not sure he would have been able to hold his coalition together between '76 and '80 nearly so easily.)

* Mike Huckabee: If you think Huckabee has a serious shot at winning the '12 nomination -- and I do -- then he ought to be the poster child for the value of running and losing. And even if he doesn't run in '12, or if he runs and loses, Huckabee got a national television show out of his '08 campaign. Not too bad for a guy almost no outside Arkansas had heard of before '08.

* Mitt Romney: Like Huckabee, he's got a decent chance of emerging as the party's '12 nominee, something that probably wouldn't be true if he hadn't run credibly in '08.

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I doubt Jon Huntsman will ever be the Republican nominee for president. And I doubt that if he does run in '12, he'll end up making much of an impact. But there's also a chance that, just like Lamar, he could catch on in one of the key early states, become a brief sensation, and walk away with a genuine national profile -- and a chance, if a few things break his way, to enter the next race for the GOP nod as a heavyweight. If he's a politician with a healthy ego, a thirst for the spotlight and an enjoyment of campaigning, it's not a bad chance to take.

UPDATE: Bernstein responds to this post here. He notes that Reagan was already a major force in the GOP by the time he ran in '76; thus, his situation isn't really analogous to Hunstman's.  I don't really disagree with this, but... I do think Reagan's example still demonstrates the value of running and losing, since his near-miss challenge to Ford (it literally came down to Mississippi at the Republican convention) probably enhanced his status heading into '80. Had Reagan not run in '76 -- or had he lost North Carolina, dropped out early, and been declared a failure -- my guess is there would have been more room for ambitious conservatives to maneuver heading into '80.

As for Lamar!, Bernstein takes issue with my claim that, under different circumstances (i.e. if W didn't gobble up all of that money and those endorsements in 1999), he might have been a 2000 heavyweight thanks to his '96 run:

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Bush seemed so strong because the other candidates were weak; he defeated them. The whole point is that running a good race in 1996 didn't make Alexander a strong candidate against Bush.

That's true, but my point is that Bush didn't have to run -- and if he hadn't, Lamar could very easily have emerged as the most broadly acceptable choice from a weak field. As we saw in 2008, the GOP field doesn't always have to feature some imposing 800-pound gorilla. Remember that in late 1998, just before Bush built his bandwagon, the 2000 GOP nod looked unusually wide open (sort of like 2012 looks now). And Lamar, thanks to his '96 run, was near the the top of the pack. If Bush hadn't run, the GOP nomination would have been there for someone to take.

One more point, on Romney. Bernstein writes: "I'm not sure that Romney seems any stronger now than he did in January 2007 -- does he?" I know what he's saying, but I look at it this way: Mitt Romney pretty much had to run for president in 2008. He decided sometime in 2005 that winning reelection in Massachusetts the next year was unlikely, then took actions that made it impossible (moving far to the right and basically abandoning his job to travel nationally). Running in '08 and doing fairly well has kept him relevant -- within the party and to the media -- since that campaign. It puts him in a much better position heading into '12 than he would be as an ex-one-term governor who's been out of office for six years. Sure, Mitt could have stuck around Massachusetts and tried to run in '06; if he'd won, he could have then sat out '08, and then made his move to the right in preparation for '12. Maybe that would have worked, but there's also a decent chance that in the ferociously anti-Republican tide of '06, he would have been swept out of office in the Bay State. And to run again in '06, he would have had to hold off embracing his inner right-winger. In defeat and out of office, no one would have then been interested in his conversion to Reagan conservatism.


Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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