On Nov. 6, America’s presidential election will produce a winner and a loser. But it may take decades to know who was which.
The Iowa caucuses on Tuesday are the first formal step in winnowing the GOP field for that general-election matchup with President Obama. Certainly, every candidate wants to come out on top. But winning an election is a narrow definition of success. A triumphant candidate may be stuck in the policies of the past and become no more than a footnote to history; a losing candidate can be prophetic and end up transforming our politics.
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.
Another misunderstood man who reshaped his party for decades to come was New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, a onetime criminal prosecutor so tough that Humphrey Bogart played a version of him in the movies. Remembered mainly for his surprising loss to Harry Truman in 1948, Dewey may be the most influential Republican of the 20th century, for he realized that repealing the New Deal was a hopeless goal for conservatives.
Shortly after the 1948 campaign, he warned that if Republicans tried to return the nation to the “miscalled ‘good old days’ of the 19th century” by repealing unemployment insurance, old-age pensions and crop price supports, “you can bury the Republican Party as the deadest pigeon in the country.”
To prevent the GOP from adopting “a platform of back-to-Methuselah,” Dewey recruited like-minded moderate Dwight Eisenhower to run for president in 1952 and then persuaded Eisenhower to choose Richard Nixon as his vice president, ensuring that the Republican Party would follow Dewey’s philosophy for the next 20 years.
As governor of New York, Dewey described himself as a “New Deal Republican” who favored liberal ends through conservative means that emphasized local control and fiscal accountability. When critics scoffed that he was defending the “welfare state,” Dewey countered that “there has never been a responsible government which did not have the welfare of its people at heart.”
Such sentiments do not endear him to today’s conservatives, but the difficulty Republicans now face in identifying how to trim or alter popular entitlement programs shows that Dewey understood practical politics.
Losing candidates have broken
Defeated candidates have broken more barriers involving religion and gender than victorious campaigns. Unsuccessful major-party tickets, after all, have included some trailblazing candidates: the first Catholic (Democratic presidential hopeful Al Smith in 1928), the first women (Democratic vice presidential pick Geraldine Ferraro in 1984; Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2008) and the first Jew (Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman in 2000).
Smith, the governor of New York, lost in a landslide to Hoover, and there is little doubt that his religion played a big role in the margin of defeat. Some opponents masked their prejudice by insisting that they were primarily opposed to his “wet” stand on Prohibition, but others expressed anti-Catholic bigotry openly. The journalist William Allen White charged that Smith’s elevation to the presidency would threaten “the whole Puritan civilization which has built a sturdy, orderly nation.”
Smith regularly attended Mass but was hardly steeped in Catholic theology. When responding to assertions that he would be subservient to the pope, he had to ask his Jewish aide, “What the hell is an encyclical?”
Yet Smith helped pave the way for John F. Kennedy’s election three decades later. The bigotry aimed at Smith dismayed and outraged American Catholics, who began aggressively using the new media of radio and film to familiarize their fellow Americans with the true tenets of their faith. By the 1960s, Catholics were a powerful force in popular culture, and Kennedy’s faith was as much a positive as a negative.
Smith’s experience could prove particularly instructive in 2012, with Mormon candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman vying for the GOP nomination — and polls showing nearly a quarter of voters reluctant to vote for a Mormon.
In defeat, losing candidates
have inspired voters.
As sportswriter Roger Kahn once wrote, “You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat.” Clay, Bryan, Goldwater and many other losing candidates held the hearts of admirers for decades after their defeats, but few inspired so many as the witty and urbane former Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, who twice lost to Eisenhower.
Liberals of a certain age still pine for Stevenson. His style of politics, with its soaring rhetoric, its appeal to reason over emotion and its promise of no easy answers, became the leitmotif of liberal Democratic politics. Historian and presidential adviser Arthur Schlesinger Jr. went so far as to assert that the Kennedy presidency would not have been possible had Stevenson not changed the tone of Democratic politics so that eloquence and intellect were considered important presidential virtues.
Critics charged that Stevenson talked “over the heads” of the people and that his appeal to intellectual “eggheads” indicated that the Democratic Party was abandoning its working-class roots. But for many others, particularly those who had fought in World War II and come home to attend college under the GI Bill, Stevenson’s high-minded ideals were an antidote to the political cynicism of demagogues such as Joe McCarthy. One decorated bomber pilot admitted that “I could not resist Stevenson’s eloquence,” and his experience as a volunteer on Stevenson’s 1952 campaign inspired him to abandon a promising career as a professor for public service. (That man was George McGovern.)
But the age of television had arrived. It was embraced by Eisenhower, whose folksy style worked well in the short commercials designed to highlight his famous grin, but it dispirited Stevenson. When a supporter yelled, “All the thinking people are for you!,” Stevenson replied, “Yes, madam, but I need a majority to win.” And after Eisenhower routed him the first time, Stevenson consoled himself with the thought, “Well, Coca-Cola still outsells champagne.”
Losing candidates are critical
to the functioning of our democracy.
Winners can govern only with the consent of the losers. Being a gracious loser requires a high sense of patriotism — an understanding that national unity is more important than personal ambition.
Sometimes, losers comfort themselves with the belief that their campaigns meant something. McGovern, whose major campaign theme was ending the Vietnam War, said, “If we pushed the day of peace just one day closer, then every minute and every hour and every bone-crushing effort in this campaign was worth the entire effort.”
Others use humor, as did the charmingly self-effacing Goldwater, who announced that the 1964 election still showed that America is “a great country, where anybody can grow up to become president — except me.”
But smiles can mask the high stakes. In 1876, Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote but wound up losing the presidency when a special commission awarded disputed Electoral College votes to Rutherford B. Hayes. Passions ran so high that President Ulysses S. Grant felt compelled to reinforce military garrisons around Washington in the fear that armed Tilden supporters might storm the capital.
The most disputed election since then occurred in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote but George W. Bush won the presidency after five weeks of wrangling over ballots in Florida. Emotions ran high, but Gore cooled tempers with an upbeat concession speech in which he quoted an earlier defeated candidate, Stephen Douglas, who told Abraham Lincoln upon losing the 1860 presidential election, “Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism.”
His supporters might have wished for him to fight on, but Gore understood that our system is fragile and that the United States could not risk what often occurs in other democracies, where the losers refuse to accept the system’s verdict, leading to political chaos, violence and sometimes civil war. Gore, like other losing candidates, found different ways to continue to serve the public interest and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his work combating global climate change.
Even though there can be a fulfilling afterlife for candidates, a concession speech’s similarity to a funeral oration is clear to those who lose but want to remain a vital part of the national debate. Dewey said that defeat reminded him of the drunk who passed out during a wake: “If I am alive,” he said to himself, “what am I doing in this coffin? If I am dead, why do I have to go to the bathroom?”
This is the limbo in which those who lose a presidential election remain until history decides whether they truly lost — or whether their victory was simply delayed.
Scott Farris is the author of “Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation.”