Election History: You’ve Got to Win Early to Win Big

Election History: You’ve Got to Win Early to Win Big

By Sean Braswell


Because sometimes you can lose in order to win – and sometimes you just have to lose.

By Sean Braswell

The road to a major party nomination can be long and winding — and for U.S. presidential candidates who don’t pull off a victory in Iowa or New Hampshire, history shows it is a largely fruitless one. In many ways, as Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Ben Carson take their game to Super Tuesday, after losses in South Carolina and Nevada, they will be attempting not only to outscore the opponents they trail, but to mount a season-long comeback that would be virtually unprecedented in modern presidential campaigns.

The party establishments may play a large role in the nomination process today, but for much of presidential election history, they were the process. National nominating conventions came into vogue around 1840, but for decades such a “convention” amounted to party bosses sitting around a proverbial smoke-filled room casting ballots for a nominee. And even as more states began holding primary elections after World War II to wrest control from the party powerful, it was still a boss-driven decision. 

In 1952, a hard-nosed Tennessee senator named Estes Kefauver won 12 of 14 primary contests, including a stunning upset in New Hampshire over sitting Democratic president Harry S. Truman, who would withdraw his re-election bid. So, naturally, the party chose Illinois intellectual Adlai Stevenson as its nominee, and he was beaten like a rented drum by Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The likely GOP nominee will be one of the two victors thus far: Ted Cruz or, more likely, Donald Trump.

In the early days of the primary system, you could lose an entire slate of contests and still win your party’s nomination, provided you were the establishment choice. That began to change around 1972 with the advent of the modern primary system, whose first beneficiary was the man largely responsible for architecting it, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern. After the fractious Democratic convention of 1968, McGovern was asked to chair a commission to reform the party’s delegate-selection process to curtail the role of party leaders and increase the role of primaries. During the next election cycle, in 1972, the anti-war McGovern was able to take advantage of the expanded process, launching a crack campaign that would outlast more than a dozen other candidates.


In fact, the upstart McGovern did not win a single primary until Wisconsin, the seventh contest — something this year’s long shots might take solace in. But McGovern’s nomination was the product of a brand-new process, an unprecedented campaign organization fueled by young volunteers and opposition to the Vietnam War, and a few lucky breaks. One of his top rivals, segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace, had trounced McGovern in Florida in March, but saw his campaign cut short after he was shot and paralyzed at an appearance in May.

Another example of a candidate who lost both Iowa and New Hampshire and went on to win his party’s nomination was one of McGovern’s own volunteers, a Yale Law student named Bill Clinton. But the circumstances surrounding Clinton’s late flourish in 1992 were rather unusual and should not serve as a blueprint for today’s candidates.

It’s true that Clinton won only three of the first 15 contests before victories in the Southern-state dominated Super Tuesday put him over the top. But Clinton was really a latent front-runner in those early races, a candidate who led in most national polls but whose ascendance was held back by circumstance — and scandal. For one thing, the Iowa caucuses were a non-factor: Home state Sen. Tom Harkin won 77 percent of the vote in a contest that Clinton and the other candidates conceded from the start. Sen. Paul Tsongas, from nearby Massachusetts, won New Hampshire, aided by the Gennifer Flowers and draft-dodging scandals that nearly sank Clinton’s candidacy in early 1992. So when Clinton survived those scandals and finished second in New Hampshire, he could get away with calling himself the “comeback kid” because he was in effect re-establishing his status as a front-runner.

None of the remaining so-called establishment candidates, like Rubio or Kasich, has a trajectory or candidacy that resembles Clinton’s resurgence. And if history is any indication, there is little hope that any will mount a primary comeback in 2016. The likely GOP nominee will be one of the two victors thus far: Ted Cruz or, more likely, Donald Trump.

There is, of course, a chance that no single candidate will have enough delegates to win, prompting a brokered convention. In that case, we could witness a turn-back-the-clock election moment: the party bosses gathering to anoint a candidate who failed to secure the most votes. And such a throwback-style victory may be the only shot a Rubio or Kasich has of winning the nomination — if you can even call it winning.