Early primary wins key to winning nomination


The great myth surrounding U.S. presidential elections is that the "best and the brightest" invariably prevail. That’s nonsense. The candidate with the most stamina, most persistence and least personal flaws emerges as the winner.

Happenstance — being the candidate of the right party, in the right year, with the right image — will dictate Barack Obama’s successor.

The 2016 election is still 15 months away, and there are 17 Republicans and five Democrats in the race, with Vice President Joe Biden likely to join soon. Two of them will be nominated, and one will be elected, but none of them have generated any great groundswell of voter support or enthusiasm, not even Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner.

In fact, the field is a rather motley and uninspiring bunch, but from a historical perspective, they usually are. People of stature, intelligence and education are disinclined to spend their adult life campaigning and begging for votes and money, especially if they’re not born to wealth. To be sure, presidential candidates need to have some stature. They have to have been elected governor or senator, have a national donor base, and have either a record of accomplishment or champion an important issue. Of course, being mega-rich like Donald Trump or part of a political dynasty like the Kennedys, the Bushes and the Clintons, with a built-in political and fund-raising network, is helpful. However, then there is the embarrassment factor. If a scion of a political dynasty runs and loses, it tarnishes the legacy.

The current Republican field contains nine current or former governors, five current or former senators, one billionaire, one black physician and one businesswoman. The Republican race is a scrum, from which some tattered candidate will emerge. The Democratic field contains a former U.S. secretary of state who also was also a senator and the first lady, two former governors (one of whom is a former Republican senator), a senator whose political affiliation is listed as "socialist," and a former senator who was once a Reagan Republican. The Democratic race is a coronation, from which Clinton will emerge as the not-so-inevitable next president. Hardly a bunch of potential world savers or attention getters.

For more than a century, from the 1860s to the 1970s, most of the parties’ presidential nominees came from New York or Ohio. That’s because the Democrats’ base was the Solid South and the urban political machines and the Republicans’ was New England, the agrarian Midwest and Pennsylvania. Political patronage flourished, and governors controlled tens of thousands of jobs. Whichever party carried three of four states, New York, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, won the presidency. Nominees Hayes, Garfield, McKinley, Harding and Cox came from Ohio, while nominees Tilden, Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Dewey came from New York. Stature was eclipsed by geography, qualifications were unimportant, and a couple dozen political bosses dictated the nominees.

By the 1970s the political machines were defunct, patronage was obsolete, television and the media replaced precinct captains, primaries surfaced everywhere, and money made it possible for anybody to get known. The McGovern Commission changed Democratic convention rules, imposing gender and racial quotas. The 1972 convention was the Democrats’ first "unbossed" convention.

1972 Democratic: Richard Nixon was not especially popular, the Paris peace talks had bogged down, Vietnam continued, the Cambodian invasion rankled the peaceniks, and 18 Democrats were running for president. The field included senators Ed Muskie, George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, Henry Jackson, Vance Hartke, Fred Harris and Harold Hughes, former senator Gene McCarthy, congressmen Wilbur Mills and Shirley Chisholm (the first black candidate to seek the nomination from one of the two major parties) and Governor George Wallace. After Chappaquiddick, Ted Kennedy was no longer viable. After Wallace was shot in Maryland, his campaign collapsed. The Democrats had no credible big-state governors. Muskie, the 1968 vice presidential candidate and the 1972 frontrunner, showed minimal appeal, and he withdrew in April. McGovern’s anti-war stance enabled him to sweep the primaries, but he was buried by Nixon.

The 1972 election clearly demonstrated that, in the words of Howard Dean, the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" — meaning the ideological liberals — had seized control. Conformity, not electability, was paramount.

1976 Democratic: In the backlash of Watergate, the Democratic ideologues presumed that the nomination was theirs, but Jimmy Carter of Georgia proved otherwise. His genius and audacity were breathtaking. The 11-candidate field included liberals such as senators Harris, Frank Church, Walter Mondale, Birch Bayh, congressman Mo Udall, and Kennedy kin Sargent Shriver, the centrists included senators Jackson and Lloyd Bentsen, and Wallace was back again. So how does an obscure candidate like Carter compete? He employs retail politics.

The first test is the Iowa caucuses in January. Iowa had about 2 million registered voters, equally divided between the parties. The caucuses are simply mechanisms to elect delegates to county conventions which elect delegates to the state convention, which selects some national convention delegates, the majority of which are elected in the primary, so the caucuses are symbolic, attended by about 25,000 people in various living rooms and town halls. However, Carter understood, first, that caucuses were winnable, and second, that he didn’t have to win a majority of the caucus vote, but only finish first in a field of 11. That’s 10 to 20 percent of the voters, or about 4,000 people, so Carter, a wealthy peanut farmer, spent most of 1975 in Iowa, personally calling on hard-core Democratic activists, and they were suitably awed and impressed.

That’s heady stuff. Most Iowans expect some volunteer to call them or knock on their door, not a candidate for president. Carter did, and after he finished second, he suddenly was somebody. His mantra was "change" — whatever that meant. Carter then led the field in New Hampshire in February, where 82,381 Democrats voted, with Carter finishing first with 23,373 votes (28 percent of the total), and Udall was second with 23 percent. Carter became the Democrats’ frontrunner, beat Wallace in North Carolina, beat Jackson in Pennsylvania (proving that a southerner could win in the North), and beat Udall in liberal Wisconsin. Thus are presidents made — thanks to Iowa and New Hampshire.

The 1976 election introduced "front loading," the concept that winning the early primaries can clear out the field. Winners soar in the polls and generate a larger donor base, thereby being able to fund subsequent primaries, while losers sag in the polls and their funding evaporates. Of the 1976 field of 11 candidates, only three were still running by the convention.

1980 Republican: Carter’s incompetence, as highlighted by the Iran hostage situation, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and runaway inflation and gas prices, made a Republican victory all but inevitable, but it didn’t appear that way early in the campaign.

Republican voters don’t expect face time from presidential candidates, they expect decorum and stature. In 1980 the 10-candidate field included former governors Ronald Reagan and John Connally, senators Bob Dole and Howard Baker, and congressmen John Anderson and Phil Crane. Reagan was thought to be too old, and Connally was thought to be too close to Nixon. Bush topped Reagan in Iowa 32-30 percent, but Reagan won New Hampshire with 50 percent of the vote and the race was over. The Reagan-Bush ticket swamped Carter-Mondale in the election.

Again, New Hampshire was the bellwether. Reagan got 72,983 votes, and thus a president was made.

1992 Democratic: With President George Bush’s approval ratings in the stratosphere following the Gulf War, the Democratic presidential field was desultory, with Bill Clinton, Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown, Bob Kerrey and Tom Harkin, but Clinton caught a huge break because all the credible Democrats (Mario Cuomo, Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, Sam Nunn, Chuck Robb, Bill Bradley Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Moynihan) took a pass. And Harkin, Iowa’s senator, made the caucuses meaningless, as did Tsongas of Massachusetts in New Hampshire.

Clinton surged in later primaries, winning Illinois with 52 percent of the vote, and with the help of Ross Perot, he was elected president.

2012 Republican: The only surprise was that "None of the Above" wasn’t on the ballot, as it would have won. Mitt Romney lost the Iowa caucuses to Rick Santorum, but he won New Hampshire and most succeeding primaries. The field also included Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich. Romney was the "least unelectable" Republican, but he didn’t excite the party base, which is why he lost to Obama.

This year the Republican base is excited, perceiving a 2016 win. Hillary Clinton will be nominated, but her task is to survive Iowa and New Hampshire. Her opponents — Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee — are marginal. They could, cumulatively, get close to 50 percent of the vote, but attrition will prevail and their funding base will wither. Clinton must get a higher vote — 60 to 70 percent — in later primaries.

The Republicans who are polling highest are Donald Trump, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul. Mired in the singe-digits are Chris Christie, Carly Fiorino, John Kasich and Rick Perry. Somebody will top the field in Iowa and in New Hampshire. The Republican race has become Anybody But Trump.

However, history makes it clear: The presidential fields will atrophy and winnow themselves very quickly. The nominees will be apparent by March.

Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.