Frontrunners A Year Before Nomination Rarely Last

So, in the summer of 2015, Scott Walker and Jeb Bush are frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, and Hillary Clinton is the Democrats’ frontrunner.

Remember that in the summer and fall of 1963, John F. Kennedy was the expected Democratic candidate for re-election in 1964. Until the winter of 1968, most thought Lyndon Johnson would win re-nomination. In 1971, Senator Edmund Muskie was perceived as the unbeatable Democratic frontrunner for 1972. Few Democrats had heard of the former governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, in 1975. Then, in the summer and fall of 1979, Carter’s popularity was at such a low ebb that most pundits were predicting that Ted Kennedy would oust him for the nomination. In 1987, there was a crowded field of candidates, with Gary Hart of Colorado deemed the frontrunner. For much of 1991, the political press was hyping the governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, as the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1992,

Incumbent presidents are rarely challenged successfully within their own party, and neither Bill Clinton in 1996 nor Barack Obama in 2012 faced serious opposition. Vice President Al Gore was the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1999 and early 2000, and faced only token opposition from Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey.

Hillary Clinton is running almost like an incumbent vice president, with what appears to be a strong base of support. We’ll see whether opposition to her within the Democratic Party amounts to more than 45 percent of the primary votes. I rather doubt it.

On the Republican side, nominees have been more predictable. After the bloodletting of 1964, in which the hard-right rallied around Barry Goldwater and moderates abandoned him to landslide defeat, Republicans have been reluctant to engage in fierce nomination fights. It’s true that Michigan Governor George Romney was the frontrunner up until the late summer of 1967, when he announced that he had been “brainwashed” to support the Vietnam War, and no longer thought American involvement was necessary. In February 1968, with polls showing him losing six to one to Richard Nixon in New Hampshire, and Romney supporter Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York, saying he would accept a draft for the nomination, Romney withdrew from the presidential contest.

President Richard Nixon encountered only token opposition from anti-war Republican Pete McCloskey in 1972. President Gerald Ford, who took over when Nixon resigned, faced a fierce nomination fight from Ronald Reagan, who almost won. Ford lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter by a razor-thin margin.

Establishment Republicans who had favored Ford in 1976 backed George H.W. Bush, who many considered the frontrunner in 1979. He was beat by Ronald Reagan, who had strong grassroots support for the 1980 nomination. Reagan had no opposition for re-nomination in 1984. In 1988, Vice President H.W. Bush fought Senator Robert Dole for the nomination, but wrapped it up by March. In 1991, with approval ratings at 90 percent after victory in the first Gulf War, Bush seemed unbeatable. But Patrick J. Buchanan mounted a surprisingly strong primary challenge and revealed the hard-core conservatives were not happy with Bush in 1992. He lost re-election to Bill Clinton in a three-way race that included third-party candidate Ross Perot.

In 1995, the political media hyped Colin Powell as a potential Republican nominee who could easily topple the “weak” Bill Clinton in the 1996 election, but Powell never ran. Republicans settled on Dole, who lost to Bill Clinton.

So there you have it — a brief history of presidential nominating contests since 1964. Surprises do occur. It’s rare that frontrunners in both parties a year before nomination actually win the nomination.

A nomination contest may start with a burst of emotion from zealots and a faction within the party base. But emotion alone will not win a nomination. A successful presidential campaign is a combination of emotion, logic, thoughtful strategy, listening to voters, articulating a vision, using cutting-edge tools and outlining plans for change that the majority of voters resonate to or find less threatening than what the other candidates propose. No candidate and no campaign has demonstrated these qualities yet, nor should we expect that they would.

Surprises are sure to happen, and there will be coherent reasons things happen, not just “emotion.”

A political scientist will demonstrate to you that people vote with many different motivations, and senses, some logical, some not. They don’t vote until next year. This is the silly season.

Read Teddy White’s books on “The Making of the President” or “What It Takes” by Richard Ben Cramer, classics on presidential campaigns. There is a coherent narrative to be written about this campaign, but nothing much has happened yet.
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