How to Lose an Election

I watched the Oliver Stone movie, W., the other day. I enjoyed the movie and agree with the director that George W. Bush does make for a somewhat tragic figure, both based upon what we knew about him as well as well as what was presented in the movie, even granting some artistic leeway.

But this posting is not about our 43rd president, his legacy, or my opinion of him, either as a politician or as a person.

Instead, it’s about a particular scene in the movie. This scene took place on the night of November 3, 1992: the day Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton won the general election over the title character’s father, played quite well by James Cromwell.

George H. W. Bush was devastated by his election loss, believing that the swift victory in the 1991 Persian Gulf War should be more than sufficient to propel him to re-election. That much is neither news, nor should it be shocking.

In full fairness, I would think that the losing candidate in any presidential campaign would be somewhat depressed over the results. This is true without regard to political stances, issues, and any other factors that go into the campaign process.

But the more I think about it, I think it’s safe to say that every losing presidential candidate since 1976, lost because they could not maintain control over the message and/or their opponent(s) were able to control the message that much better.

I want to underscore two points here: first, I’m only going back as far as 1976 because that’s the first election I have any real memory of. I was four years old back then and those vague memories I have of that election still demonstrated that Carter had better control over the election process, than Ford did. I remember a pop song on the radio that had someone speaking to Ford and Carter, asking them questions and the answers being snippets from then popular songs. When the interviewer approached Ford, the snippet was “Leave me alone,” while Carter, when asked what was the biggest problem facing America, sang “Looking for love in all the wrong places.” Even a four-year-old could tell that Carter had greater control over the message of that campaign.

The second point I want to underscore here is that the control over the message question supersedes the message itself. Labels of “liberal” and “conservative”, “democratic” or “republican” don’t matter as much as the question of control. Some aspects of the control might tie in with media favoritism and some might be related to events the candidates had little or no real control over, but in all cases, the candidate who simply looked more presidential emerged victorious.

I’ve already mentioned the 1976 election. While that much is true, Ford also had the burden of two unpopular moves he made as president, that effectively made it so that he wouldn’t win re-election regardless. They are the pardoning of Richard Nixon and the pardoning of Vietnam draft dodgers. I, personally, believe that both of these moves were arguably the right thing to do, but we have to recognize that both of these moves were quite unpopular at the time (some might even still fault Ford for that), and it cost him the election. All Carter needed to do was not make any significant mistakes and the presidency would be his…

1980. Reagan had one of the most polished campaigns imaginable. Humor at the right places. He was comfortable in front of a camera. And he did everything practically by the book. Carter, on the other hand, had a bad economy and the Iranian hostage crisis. Reagan wins hands down.

1984. Reagan continued his success from 1980 in this campaign. Once again, he was able to control the message with humor and poise. Mondale never really stood a chance. One group even wrote a parody of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” calling it “The Wreck of the Walter Fritz Mondale”

1988. Where to begin with this campaign? Bush’s attack ads on Dukakis — most notably the Willie Horton ad and the picture of Dukakis in the tank — cemented his control over the message of the campaign. Dukakis did nothing to defend himself.

1992. What a difference four years make. Bush Sr.’s message generally focussed on foreign policy successes, and that was truly his strength. Unfortunately, with a faltering economy back home, he came off as clueless and out of touch. Being amazed by the scanners at a grocery store didn’t help. Clinton was focussed and disciplined. “It’s the economy, stupid” became the proof of the control. While Ross Perot probably siphoned some votes off of Bush, Perot had no control over the message either, since he actually dropped out of the campaign at one point claiming that people were trying to sabotage his daughter’s wedding. Not exactly presidential.

1996. Clinton did in 1996 what Reagan did in 1984. Bob Dole’s campaign style came off as somewhat anemic at best. He never did have any real control over the campaign. All Clinton had to do was not screw up and he was a shoo-in for re-election.

2000. Now here’s an interesting campaign. I don’t think either candidate really had that much control over the message of this campaign. Bush’s pledge to restore dignity to the Oval Office after the impeachment of Clinton really didn’t resonate that well with Clinton’s supporters from the start, and Gore, like Bob Dole four years earlier, was wooden and unempathetic. Gore also had two major stumbles: sighing during the debates and his taking credit for making the Internet what it would become. The irony about the latter claim is that it was more accurate than many other claims that a candidate might make about either himself or his opponent. He just said it wrong. Bush barely wins the “control of the message” award. Ditto for the presidency.

2004. Bush was vulnerable in this election and everyone knew it, for many of the same reasons his father was vulnerable in 1992. And I don’t believe Bush won this campaign as much as Kerry lost it. If there is a single piece of advice that I can offer to any single candidate running for office, it is that you ignore attack ads at your own risk. Kerry did just that with the ads from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and it almost certainly was his downfall. The image of him out on the water in his schooner didn’t help his attempt to be an everyman.

2008. Obama found a lot of new and creative ways of using the internet to forward his campaign, and it gave him a degree of control. You can’t really buy the kind of publicity he got through his grassroots internet campaign, buoyed by his presence on social networking sites and YouTube. Although there was a risk that his missteps might become magnified (really, Senator? 57 states?), it was also just as easy to drown out the missteps underneath the sheer volume of information being provided. McCain never truly had control over the campaign at all. When there was speculation as to who he would pick as his running mate, I remember reading one essay that listed a large number of possible VP nominees, and Sarah Palin was listed among them. One of the predictions that essay made was that if he chose her, then the media would likely focus more on her than on McCain himself. And that probably at least contributed to his downfall. Suspending his campaign during the financial crisis didn’t help.

So is this a lesson for the campaign of 2012? We can likely expect more of the same from Obama that we saw in 2008. Have the republicans learned their lesson? That at least partially depends on whom they choose to challenge Obama, but I think it’s safe to say that if their candidate is anyone other than Romney or Gingrich, they might as well hand the White House back to Obama for another four years…. I don’t see any of the other possibles as being able to maintain as much control as Obama can…