There are many ways to lose the presidency whether you’re fighting a primary or battling for the ultimate prize itself in the November general election. These are just some of them…
Cry (Ed Muskie, 1972)
Public crying has played well for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama more recently but when Muskie appeared to weep over allegations about his wife’s drinking, he soon lost his status as the Democratic frontrunner. Ultimately, the victim of a dirty tricks campaign by the Nixon camp, Muskie denied crying, saying reporters had mistaken snow melting on his face for tears.
Lose your temper (Bob Dole, 1988)
Dole snarled that his opponent George HW Bush should “quit lying about my record” after losing a Republican primary. Dole looked like a sore loser and his campaign never recovered. He later won the nomination in 1996, losing comfortably to President Bill Clinton.
Scream (Howard Dean, 2004)
Although he was probably on his way out anyway, Dean’s hysterical “I had a scream” speech which ended with a Kermit the frog-style note of hysteria ended his prospects of getting the Democratic nomination. John Kerry got it instead and subsequently lost to George W. Bush in November.
Fail to answer a simple question (Gary Hart, 1984)
Democrat Hart (of later sex scandal fame) proved unable to explain why he had changed his surname from Gary Hartpence. Worse, he floundered desperately when asked the most basic question: why do you want to be president?
Be inadvertently racist (H Ross Perot, 1992)
The Texan billionaire independent offended a largely black audience by referring to them repeatedly as “you people” throughout a campaign speech.
Terrify everyone (Barry Goldwater, 1964)
The Republican nominee’s open extremism and apparent enthusiasm for nuclear weapons led him to lose by a record margin. “In your heart, you know he’s right” his campaign claimed. “In your guts, you know he’s nuts” countered his opponents.
Have an affair (Gary Hart, 1988)
Recovering from his 1984 failure, Hart was the clear favourite to succeed Reagan until allegations of infidelity with model Donna Hart emerged. Hart initially denied meeting her until photos emerged of her sitting on his lap. Hart then withdrew from the campaign, then re-entered it later, totally sabotaging his own career in the process.
Skeletons in the closet (George HW Bush 1992, George W Bush 2000)
A last minute recovery for President Bush against Bill Clinton stalled after allegations over his role in the Iran-Contra affair re-emerged. Later, his son was harmed by a last minute revelation over a 1979 drink driving incident during the closing stages of the very close 2000 campaign.
“Steal” a speech (Joe Biden, 1988)
Obama’s future vice president withdrew after striking similarities were spotted between a campaign speech he delivered and one which had been made by British Labour leader Neil Kinnock (an unknown figure in the US).
Ignore attacks (Michael Dukakis, 1988)
When the Bush campaign cast doubt on the Democratic nominee’s mental health, Dukakis refused to sink to their level. Unfortunately, by the time he did release his records (which revealed a clean bill of health), the damage to his campaign had already been done.
Insult your rivals (Bush, 1992)
“My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos,” President Bush said of Clinton and Gore late in 1992. The “bozos” bit went down very badly with voters. Clinton’s lead grew by around five percent just before election day.
Be too honest (Walter Mondale, 1984, Michael Dukakis, 1988)
Both these Democratic nominees admitted taxes would have to increase substantially to tackle Reagan’s huge escalating deficit. Bush in 1988 was much less frank “read my lips – no new taxes” but won. Taxes went up dramatically soon afterwards.
Insult women (Mitt Romney, 2012)
The Republican nominee referred to “binders full of women” he could choose from for his cabinet. This played badly.
Rely too heavily on your war record (John Kerry, 2004)
This backfired when several campaign groups began casting doubt over the Democratic nominee’s Vietnam War heroism which had been contrasted with Bush’s decision to join the state National Guard (a classic draft dodging tactic) and Vice President Cheney’s decision to duck out of the war altogether.
Run against your own party’s incumbent (Eugene McCarthy, 1968, Ronald Reagan, 1976, Ted Kennedy, 1980, Pat Buchanan, 1992)
This has never worked, although McCarthy undoubtedly made history by prompting President Johnson’s withdraw from the 1968 contest. Reagan also undoubtedly enhanced his credentials for a future run by challenging President Ford. Four years later, Reagan ran again and won.
Pick the wrong running-mate (George McGovern, 1972, John McCain, 2008)
The McGovern campaign was thrown into chaos when running-mate Thomas Eagleton had to be replaced. John McCain’s campaign was similarly undermined when Sarah Palin’s intellectual shortcomings became too obvious to ignore. Oddly, however, Bush’s disastrous choice of Dan Quayle in 1988 seemed to do him little real harm.
Screw up the TV debate
Notably Richard Nixon in 1960.
Insult 47% of the electorate (Mitt Romney, 2012)
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims. … These are people who pay no income tax. … and so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Mitt Romney, remarks at private fundraiser. Ironically, he ended up losing having received 47% of the vote.
Get paranoid (H. Ross Perot, 1992)
The independent candidate accused the Bush camp of trying to sabotage his daughter’s wedding by labelling her a lesbian.
Make huge factual errors in public (Gerald Ford, 1976)
“There is no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration.” President Ford made this absurd claim in the 1976 TV debate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he went on to lose narrowly to Jimmy Carter.
“Win” (Al Gore, 2000)
Few election results look more dubious than the 2000 one. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, the Supreme Court declared George W. Bush not Al Gore the winner.