Candidates matter. We learned that lesson for the umpteenth time over the past two years as races — from the presidential on down — turned on the quality of the candidates. As a consultant put it to me a long time ago: If the dog doesn't like the dog food, it doesn't matter how good the marketing campaign for it is.
Today we tackle the candidate who voters sniffed at and decided to pass on. Tomorrow, the flip side — the best of the best candidates of 2016.
WINNER: Hillary Clinton
It's impossible to overstate how big a favorite the former secretary of state was in both her primary fight against Bernie Sanders and the general election matchup against Donald Trump. She was the biggest non-incumbent front-runner for the White House in modern political history.
And yet, from the start, it was clear that Clinton's appeal on paper didn't match her appeal in the real world of political campaigning. She badly underestimated Sanders's appeal from the start and then, because of ongoing doubts about her commitment to liberal causes, found it difficult to attack the senator from Vermont. As a result, a primary that was expected to be a coronation turned into a long-lasting problem — exposing the lack of enthusiasm for Clinton, particularly among young voters.
A general-election matchup against Trump was expected to be a fix for what ailed Clinton's primary effort. After all, faced with a choice between Clinton's deep résumé and Trump's bluster and showmanship, voters really had only one serious option, right? Clinton might not be exciting or represent the change voters wanted but no way, no how would people pick Trump, right?
Those assumptions led Clinton to run a campaign that can be summed up thusly: “I'm the one not named Donald Trump in the race.” Turns out that wasn't enough for voters. Trump, for all his talk and inexperience, represented radical change. Clinton represented more of the same politics people hated.
It's easy — too easy — to blame the election result on Trump's appeal to our more coarse emotions and views. Clinton, so the argument goes, ran a serious campaign for serious times, while Trump ran a reality TV show that the lap-dog media ate up. Sure, Trump took advantage of the media's obsession with and need for clicks and ratings. But that's not why Clinton lost. She lost because she was overly cautious. Because she was slow to adjust to a changed race — in the primary and the general election. Because she never really connected with voters. Because she offered no positive message that resonated with those voters. Because she never grasped the import to her candidacy of the email story. Because she simply wasn't a good candidate.
Given the stakes of the presidential race, there can be no winner for the worst candidate of the year other than Clinton.
Although Clinton ran away with first place, there were lots of other truly bad candidates who ran for office over the past two years. Here are a few of the best of the worst:
* Evan Bayh: When the former senator from Indiana decided at the last minute to join the race for the Hoosier State's open Senate seat, it was taken as definitive proof that Democrats were on their way to winning back the Senate majority. Initial polling showed him with a 30-point lead over little-known Rep. Todd C. Young (R). But Bayh's candidacy turned disastrous. It turns out that he didn't spend much time in the state he wanted to represent — a remarkable error given that Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R) had lost on residency issues in 2012 — and had lots of sketchy ties to the lobbying world. Young and Republicans brilliantly executed a campaign that turned Bayh from beloved native son to bored rich guy looking for a cushy job. Bayh wound up losing by 10 points, a stunning 40-point swing from the original polling.
* Jeb Bush: Remember when Jeb was the de facto Republican nominee? It feels like 100 years ago. The former Florida governor ran the perfect campaign — raise huge sums of money, stockpile endorsements — f0r 2000. Unfortunately, the Republican electorate changed dramatically since his older brother first won the White House 16 years ago. Jeb(!) never really knew what hit him. Watching him campaign was painful; he seemed deeply uncomfortable and ill at ease, like he didn't want to be there.
Even if Bush had been a better candidate, I'm not sure he would have gone very far in the presidential race. He was status quo at a time when people wanted change. But that he was so awkward as a candidate made it all the more miserable for him. Nice man. Bad candidate.
* Ted Strickland: Like Bayh, Strickland, the former Ohio governor, was seen as a prized recruit in a key Senate swing state. And like Bayh, early polling showed Strickland with a comfortable lead over Sen. Rob Portman (R). Strickland seemed to be only loosely committed to the race — unwilling to do the work necessary to beat a very good candidate in Portman. The Democrat's fundraising was consistently atrocious and the race was over by Labor Day. Portman's 21-point margin is what happens when a great candidate and a terrible candidate clash. It was an absolute walkover.