Echoes of past primary campaigns

Parallels to prior campaigns can predict candidates’ prospective futures

While it is an inexact science, commentators and observers seek to analogize  presidential hopefuls’ campaigns to those of prior years, trying to draw parallels between present candidates and those from history.

This year, some of the analogies and echoes of history go like this: 

Donald Trump, noisy, in-your-face, controversial and strident candidate, leading in some polls in July in a crowded sixteen-person field, most often is analogized to Herman Cain of 2012’s campaign, who led in some polls for a time, was a businessman without prior political office, and faded fast. While this analogy may be wishful thinking by some, a more interesting analogy might be Ross Perot in 1992, who, as a major high-tech businessman, challenged incumbent George H. W. Bush in the primary, dropped out, then ran as a third party candidate, and, in the opinion of many, cost Bush reelection. Perot, more than Cain or Trump, raised substantive issues, although in a spirted way. The Perot analogy is much more dangerous for the political process than is the Cain one, and Trump already has made noises about a third-party candidacy, should he fail to get the Republican nomination.  

Jeb Bush is most appropriately, and problematically for some, analogized to George W. Bush, his brother, who, as a siting governor, ran for the Republican nomination, received it and was elected president in 2000 after the recount adventure in Florida. Bush would be happier to be analogized to almost anybody else, I am sure, but W. seems to be the most appropriate analogy for his campaign at present. 

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, television commentator and Baptist minister, certainly is most analogized to Mike Huckabee, most notably, 2008. Huckabee still has the same pluses and minuses he had before, and as one of many repeat candidates, has the problem of most aptly being analogized to himself. 

Governor John Kasich of Ohio is hard to analogize. The most recent entry into the race, Kasich, a former congressman, has a résumé that should propel him to the top of thinking voters’ lists, since he was chairman of the Budget Committee of the House of Representatives when it passed the last balanced budget, served eighteen years on the Defense Committee and has been an effective governor. Picking a similar governor to analogize is dangerous for Kasich, since people with great résumés and all of the qualifications on paper often have failed to get the nomination. One thinks of former Utah Governor and Ambassador Jon Huntsman from 2012 as but one example of high quality but low performing candidates. Perhaps Kasich will be able to break out from the crowd and from that historic analogy. 

All of the first term senators who are running (Cruz, Rubio, Paul) are interestingly analogized to the sitting president who was elected as a first term senator, himself. This analogy is troublesome, given the lack of experience first term Senators have, although none of the present candidates are analogous to Obama on philosophy.   

On the Democratic side, United States Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont is most often analogized to Eugene McCarthy, the Minnesota Democratic senator who challenged Lyndon Johnson in 1968. McCarthy was charming, a poet, a philosopher, and brave to make the challenge against a presumed shoe-in. After he tagged Johnson in the New Hampshire Primary, he failed to continue his crusade when Robert F. Kennedy entered the race, challenging McCarthy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Kennedy’s assassination soured the race and also made Humphrey’s nomination inevitable, but the Sanders and McCarthy crusade analogy does not bode well for Sanders. 

Hillary Clinton, the front-runner in the Democratic Primary, obviously is best analogized to Hillary Clinton, the 2008 candidate for president. While she has served as secretary of state since 2008, many of the criticisms of her 2008 campaign have been voiced this year, as well, and she seems to have the same spontaneity and likeability issues she faced then. Whether the analogy holds as to the result has yet to be seen.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, barely showing in the poles, is a long-shot governor who is not well known nationally. Luckily for O’Malley, the analogies and echoes from the past are those of a couple of relatively unknown governors of recent past named Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Little more has to be said about that analogy other than lightening can strike, little known candidates can become popular when running good campaigns, and unknowns can become president. 

Whether history lessons are apt when analyzing presidential campaigns is unknown, but it certainly is a fun game to play when watching a field as large and varied as that of 2016’s hopefuls, and to hear echoes of campaigns’ past. 

Brad Cook, a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green, heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

Categories: Cook on Concord