The Contenders: Why Latecomers Don’t Win the Presidency

The Contenders: Why Latecomers Don’t Win the Presidency

Why you should care

Because whoever said “better late than never” clearly hasn’t run a late presidential campaign before.

Learn more about Ross Perot’s, Barry Goldwater’s and Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns by watching The Contenders: 16 for ’16, a new TV series from OZY about the men and women who have run the ultimate political gauntlet in pursuit of the most powerful job on earth. It airs every Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST this fall on PBS.

Earlier this year, the possibility of serving up a third-party conservative candidate as an alternative to GOP nominee Donald Trump in November was frequently bandied about in the media and behind closed establishment doors.

For his part, Trump was skeptical of the possibility, labeling such a gambit “stupid,” arguing on ABC’s This Week that “Republicans wouldn’t even have 1 percent of a chance of winning.” And, as history shows with Ross Perot and 2016 validated again, Trump was right: A late-entry presidential candidate is virtually assured of defeat.

A Bull Moose Effect

In 1912, the indomitable former president Teddy Roosevelt managed to mount a credible independent campaign as late as June after persuading progressive Republicans to bolt from the GOP convention in order to challenge the sitting president and GOP nominee, William Howard Taft. Roosevelt told reporters he felt like a bull moose, giving rise to the short-lived Progressive (Bull Moose) Party, although the primary effect of Roosevelt’s late bid was ensuring that Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected president.

It’s hard to imagine a former party heavyweight today having the gumption to go Bull Moose on his party’s nominee; besides, the extended primary election season pretty much precludes such a phenomenon. Still, even in the past half-century, such challenges didn’t prevent several stop-the-front-runner candidates from throwing their hats into a ring that, for all intents and purposes, had already closed.

The Last-Minute Men

In 1964, for many establishment Republicans it was all about stopping Barry Goldwater, the conservative Arizona senator and party pariah who was well on his way to his party’s nomination. And so, just four weeks before the GOP’s June convention, moderate Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton entered the race hoping to be a viable alternative to the divisive Goldwater. Remarkably, Scranton managed to surge past Goldwater in national polls leading up to the convention, but the front-runner still handily defeated the latecomer on the convention’s first ballot.

It fell once again to the Republicans to launch a bid to unseat the front-runner.

Then, in 1976, it was the Democrats who were wringing their hands over a political upstart and a one-term Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter. And so two last-minute candidates, Idaho Sen. Frank Church and California Gov. Jerry Brown, seized the opportunity to capitalize on the burgeoning Anyone But Carter movement and declared their candidacies in mid-March. “There are those who say it is too late to run for president,” Church told a crowd of supporters. “I reply that it’s never too late, nor are the odds ever too great, to try.”

It was a gallant, if haphazard, effort. Church’s victory in the Nebraska primary on May 11, followed by Brown’s triumph in Maryland a week later, gave momentary hope to party insiders and liberals hoping to derail Carter. Brown, a 38-year-old Zen devotee who dubbed himself the “uncandidate,” operated without press releases, pollsters and sometimes schedules. Neither candidate had any discernible strategy, and even though they won additional primaries that year, the combined effect was to bolster the impression that no single candidate could catch Carter, who locked down the nomination in June.

Too Little, Too Late?

In 1980, it fell once again to the Republicans to launch a bid to unseat the front-runner. As in 1964, party moderates were worried that former California Gov. Ronald Reagan was too conservative to defeat the incumbent Carter in a general election, and so they turned to the man who had defeated Reagan in the 1976 primaries, Gerald Ford. The former president explored the possibility but decided in mid-March that he could not sufficiently overcome Reagan’s delegate start to have a feasible chance of thwarting him at the July convention and that such an exercise risked dividing the party further. Like Carter, Reagan went on to win in November, despite his party’s early misgivings.

The most recent instance of a late-in-the-game, ill-fated candidacy, as OZY showcases in The Contenders: 16 for ’16, Tuesday night at 8 p.m. EST on PBS, was the third-party bid of billionaire Texas businessman Perot in 1992. Perot’s late entry on October 1 was actually a reentry, after he had mysteriously exited the race in July, a disappearance he later attributed to fears that GOP operatives would disrupt his daughter’s wedding. While he managed to steal the show during the debates with President George H.W. Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, Perot’s eleventh-hour bid fell well short once voters headed to the polls.

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