At the beginning of the day, you stand on the verge of becoming the most powerful person on the planet; by the end of it, you’re unemployed and being forced to make a speech expressing humility and gratitude for losing to a man that you know, with every fiber of your being, you are better than. All of the staffers and followers and flashbulbs fade away into the ether. The Secret Service agents and security that had been amassed to protect you had you won get in their black Suburbans and drive off to look after the other guy—the President of the United States that is not you. Presidents Day weekend has to be a particularly hard time for the men who were within an arm’s length of The White House, but came up short. Without exception, these men were doomed to live out the rest of their days defined in the public imagination by their greatest defeat. The first line of their obituaries has been set and Presidents Day is just a yearly reminder of the what might have been—a celebration of an anniversary that never came.
It is with this in mind that I humbly suggest making the Wednesday after Presidents Day into Almost Presidents Day, a holiday that celebrates the men who might have been King, had they done a few things differently. And, in honor of this new holiday, I have decided to rank all of the presidential also-rans from the past century in order from best to worst. The only rules behind my rankings are that, in order to be qualified, the losing candidate can not have lost as an incumbent (Hoover, Ford, Carter, H.W. Bush) and can not have gone on to become President at a later date (Nixon). Let’s get started:
(1) 1972: George McGovern (D)
As has been mentioned on this site before, Senator McGovern is in many ways my political inspiration. He is proof positive that a man of integrity, compassion and empathy can make it in Washington and that a politician need not sell his soul to win his party’s nomination for president. If you want to learn a little more about why I hold this man in such reverence, you can read an obituary I penned on the occasion of his passing back in 2012 and which I recently republished. He was the last genuinely liberal candidate we’ve had for President in this country—the truest expression of our best selves on so high a stage. Some people point at McGovern’s campaign in 1972 as irrefutable evidence that a progressive candidate can never win The White House. These are the same people who caved in to neoconservative pressure and led us into the war in Iraq. They are the people who take millions in campaign donations from big finance and let oil companies dictate our energy policy. George McGovern was not one of those people, which is what made him so special.
(2) 1968: Hubert Humphrey (D)
When he finally earned the Democratic nomination for president on his third try in 1968, Hubert H. Humphrey was seen as the party’s establishment candidate. Stepping out of the Texas-sized shadow of the then descendent LBJ, the “happy warrior”, as he was known, hung the albatross of the Vietnam around his neck and tried to win the White House with an unpopular war front and center on his platform. While he would beat out fellow Minnesotan Gene McCarthy at the Democratic convention, but would lose the popular vote to Richard Nixon by seven-tenths of a percentage point. However, while he was derided by the anti-war movement and the American Left during his presidential run, there are plenty of liberals and progressives today who would give their right arm to have a man like Humphrey in the presidential field for 2016. Perhaps more than any other political act, his fight to include a federal fair employment coalition on the 1948 party platform helped turn the Democrats from the party of Dixie to the party of civil rights. As he said at that year’s convention, “To those who say this civil rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”
(3) 1952/1956: Adlai Stevenson (D)
Despite having the support of Woody Allen and Ron Howard, Adlai Stevenson couldn’t manage to win The White House. Cursed with an opponent in Dwight D. Eisenhower who had brought Hitler to his knees and who was the very picture of prudence and moderation in a time of unparalleled prosperity, Stevenson never really stood a chance. Professorial in demeanor and a reluctant warrior in both of his runs for presidency, Stevenson gained a reputation as being a man of ideas, rather than of action. In fact, then Vice President Richard Nixon and much of the press accused Stevenson of being an “egghead” and an elitist, labels that stuck and presaged the anti-intellectual bent of the GOP today.
(4) 1944/1948: Thomas Dewey (R)
The photograph of Harry Truman’s bespectacled face beaming beside a copy of The Chicago Tribune’s erroneously titled early edition declaring “Dewey Defeats Truman” might be the most famous, or at the very least infamous, image every captured during a presidential election. However, in contrast to the elation on Truman’s face, the picture begs the question of who was most humiliated, The Chicago Daily Tribune or Thomas Dewey? After getting soundly defeated by FDR in 1944, Dewey looked to be on the verge of victory in his 2nd try when Truman stormed back, taking 10 of the 11 states in the American West and winning the popular vote by 4.5 percent. Dewey, who was part of the GOP’s moderate wing would lend critical support to Eisenhower’s campaign, but his losses would scare many in the party away from nominating candidates from the “eastern establishment.” To this day, Dewey is the last openly northeastern Republican to earn his party’s nomination for president.
(5) 1988: Michael Dukakis (D)
Of all of the candidates on this list, Michael Dukakis might have gotten the rawest deal in his bid for The White House. Dukakis, who had a good record as a three term governor of Massachusetts, had the grave misfortune of meeting face to face with the buzzsaw that was Lee Atwater, the campaign manager for George H.W. Bush and the foremost practitioner of the dark art of negative campaigning. To this day, the Willie Horton ad is the gold standard for attack ads and the totality of Atwater’s tactics were so abhorrent that the man went so far as to apologize to Dukakis on his deathbed for the “naked cruelty” of the campaign. On the plus side, he’s the only presidential candidate to have Neil Diamond’s America as his campaign anthem, so he’s got that going for him.
(6) 1920 James Cox (D)
Unfortunately for Cox, his ill-fated run for the presidency rarely remembered today and, if it is, it is usually for his choice of a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt as his running mate. Saddled with the baggage of the Wilson’s administration unwanted entry into WWI & his support of US entry into League of Nations, Cox’s bid for The White House was doomed from the start. With that being said, it is worth noting that Cox ran what was the first “modern presidential campaign”, criss-crossing 36 states in an era of limited plane/auto travel. Sadly, it was all for naught as he would lose by more than 26 percentage points to Sam The Eagle impersonator and known sexual deviant, Warren Harding.
(7) 2000: Al Gore (D)
When Al Gore ran for president, the Clinton Administration had left the country in relatively good stead: For the first time in 30 years the United States had a federal budget surplus; the country wasn’t embroiled in any major international conflict; unemployment was hovering at 4.0% and exit polling on election day showed that 69% of American voters thought the country was headed in the right direction. The fact that Al Gore lost an election in such conditions would be bad enough, but the fact that he lost it to the presidential equivalent of a legacy admission makes this one of the worst defeats in presidential history. If people want to focus on hanging chads or Supreme Court verdicts or nefarious Naderites, they are entirely entitled to do so. But, if we’re going off of the respective resumes and talent levels of the candidates involved, this election was a bigger upset than the US men’s hockey team beating the U.S.S.R. in the 1980 Winter Olympics. On paper, Gore should have wiped the floor with Bush. In practice, he had his ass handed to him by a man whose own family had written him off as a hopeless clown. This defeat would be the worst in recent memory if it weren’t for…
(8) 2004: John Kerry (D)
When LBJ started a major foreign war under spurious pretenses that quickly spiraled out of control, his chances for re-election diminished so rapidly that he didn’t even bother seeking his party’s nomination a second time. When George W. Bush did the same thing he managed towin re-election by a larger margin than he had 4 years earlier. There is no excuse for the Kerry/Edwards losing this campaign other than incompetence. When Gore lost to Bush in 2000, the vice president could at least lean on the fact that his opponent had the ability to cultivate an optimism in the American people based on promise and rhetoric. John Kerry had a 4 year sample of the hideousness of George W. Bush’s presidential governance and he somehow managed to do worse than his equally drab Democratic colleague.
(9) 2012: Mitt Romney (R)
Mitt clocks in at number 9 in our list of 18 presidential also-rans, which sounds just about right for such a middling, unimpressive shell of a candidate. To be honest, I’m not sure if Mr. Romney did enough to merit this place in the countdown. However, with a little creative accounting, placing him here does mean that around 47% of the men on this list will have ranked higher than him.
(10) 1916. Charles Hughes (R)
The easiest way to categorize Charles Hughes would be as a slightly less impressive version of William Howard Taft. After serving a brief stint as the governor of New York, Hughes was made an associate justice of the Supreme Court by Taft before leaving his post and, unlike his rotund predecessor, falling short in his bid for The White House. However, all was not lost for Hughes as he would go on to be the Secretary of State under Presidents Harding & Coolidge before being appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court after Taft stepped down from the position.
(11) 1940: Wendell Willkie (R)
Willkie, a former Democrat and Wall Street lawyer with no political experience, was a surprise choice for the GOP in 1940. Much of Willkie’s success came from his ability to marshall the forces of the mass media to his cause and his more nuanced, internationalist approach to World War II, promising to keep the country out of combat, but—unlike his more conservative Republican opponents like Robert Taft—pledging to provide material support to Britain. Unfortunately for Wendall, the America as a whole did not want Willkie and he became yet another casualty of FDR’s political prowess.
(12) 1984: Walter Mondale (D)
When your legacy ends up being nothing more than a fast food slogan, I think it’s pretty safe to say that your presidential campaign did not go well. Going toe-to-toe with a not quite past his prime Ronald Reagan in the middle of an economic recovery from a recession of his own making, Mondale never really had a chance. Ironically enough, the most historically notable aspect of the former Vice President to Jimmy Carter’s campaign was his choice of Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, making her the first American woman to be featured on a major party presidential ticket.
(13) 1928: Alfred Smith (D)
The first Catholic to be nominated by a major party as their candidate for the Presidency, Smith an anti-prohibition Efficiency Movement leader (a great-grandfather of modern day rants against “pork-barrel spending”) paved the way for JFK’s electoral success 32 years later. Once he was defeated by Hoover in the general election in 1928 and by FDR in the 1932 Democratic primary, the lifelong New Yorker retired from politics and spent the rest of his life opposing the New Deal and voting for GOP presidential candidates.
(14—tie) 1996: Bob Dole (R) & 2008: John McCain (R)
Looking back on it, it’s really quite remarkable that the GOP brass didn’t see John McCain’s defeat in 2008 coming considering that they had tried the exact same thing with Bob Dole 12 years earlier and failed. In fact, the candidates are basically carbon copies of one another. They were both decorated war heroes who have awkward and debilitating injuries to their arms as a result of their time served. They were both stiff, geriatric white-hairs who had difficulties communicating with younger voters and came off as the crotchety old neighbor yelling at kids to get off their lawns when compared to their youthful, virile Democratic opponents. And they were both unenthusiastically nominated by party bases who saw them as compromise candidates without much grassroots support.
(16) 1936: Alfred Landon (R)
Alfred “Alf” Landon’s campaign for President in 1936 was as unimpressive as his name was ridiculous. The then Governor of Kansas wasn’t opposed to all of FDR’s New Deal reforms, but having made millions in the burgeoning oil industry, was against measures that protected unions and—most damningly—Social Security. Landon wouldn’t “promise the moon” to the American people and the American People responded with handing FDR every state in the union besides Maine and Vermont. Good old Alf would have the last laugh though, as he was to live until 1987, when he passed away at the ripe old age of 100.
(17) 1964: Barry Goldwater (R)
There isn’t enough space in this article to address the cataclysmic impact of “Mr. Conservative” on contemporary American politics, so I’m not going to try. You can read about the nomination of Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican National Convention in an earlier piece of mine, but for now, I’m just going to offer up this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., as a tribute to the Arizona senator’s corrosive influence on political trajectory of this nation:
“On social and economic issues, Mr. Goldwater represented an unrealistic conservatism that was totally out of touch with the realities of the twentieth century. The issue of poverty compelled the attention of all citizens of our country. Senator Goldwater had neither the concern nor the comprehension necessary to grapple with this problem of poverty in the fashion that the historical moment dictated. On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represented a philosophy that was morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulated a philosophy which gave aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand.”
(18) 1924: John Davis (D)
Arguably the least desired major party presidential candidate in US History, John Davis was the last truly conservative Democrat to run for the White House. A compromise candidate and a political accident, Davis was nominated on the 103rd ballot at the 1924 Democratic National Convention after 16 days of infighting between the supporters of the Urbane, east-coaster Al Smith and the Rural, Klan-backed William McAdoo had left the delegates exhausted and more desirous of getting back home than electing their candidate. In the words of H.L. Mencken, Davis’s nomination was like, “France and Germany fighting for centuries over Alsace—Lorraine and then deciding to give it to England.” Davis would go on to win a little under 29% of the popular vote, the lowest percentage of any Democrat in history.
Categories: US Politics