It has been said that Barry Goldwater, the conservative icon who lost in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson in 1964, actually won that election; it just took 16 years to count all the ballots and make Ronald Reagan president.
George McGovern’s victory took even longer than Goldwater’s. Few campaigns have been as seemingly disastrous as his overwhelming loss to Richard Nixon in 1972. But McGovern changed the makeup of the Democratic Party. The old New Deal coalition of urban ethnic groups, organized labor and Southern white populists gave way to a new focus on minorities, women, the young and educated activists — the same coalition that Barack Obama would ride to victory in 2008.
Here are four ways in which defeated candidates have ended up winning the larger war.
Losing presidential campaigns
have created and transformed
McGovern and Goldwater are prime examples, as is Henry Clay, who founded the Whig Party in the early 1830s as a tool to bludgeon his nemesis, Andrew Jackson. But the greatest transformation probably occurred in 1896, when William Jennings Bryan, 36, became the youngest man ever nominated for president.
Throughout the 19th century, the Democrats had been the conservative, small-government party. In a single election, in which he campaigned with “an excitement that was almost too intense for life,” as a contemporary reporter wrote, Bryan remade the Democratic Party into the progressive, populist group it remains today.
The 1896 campaign was an extraordinary struggle. Every major newspaper, even traditionally Democratic ones, endorsed Bryan’s opponent, William McKinley. Even Democratic President Grover Cleveland urged supporters to work for McKinley’s election, not Bryan’s. The Republicans significantly outspent Bryan, but he countered with a matchless energy, personally addressing 5 million people over the course of the campaign. Instead of being buried in a landslide, he won 47 percent of the popular vote and carried 22 of the 45 states.
Bryan, who saw religion as a force for progressive reform, is sometimes portrayed as a simpleton, even a reactionary, because of his crusade against the teaching of evolution as fact. Yet in many ways he was far ahead of his time. In 1896 and in his subsequent presidential campaigns in 1900 and 1908, he advocated for women’s suffrage, creation of the Federal Reserve and implementation of a progressive income tax, to name a few reforms. When Franklin Roosevelt implemented the New Deal, Herbert Hoover sniffed that it was just Bryanism by another name.