The GOP field was as fractured as it’s been in at least a generation and unusual — for lack of a better word — candidates rose and fell rapidly. Donald Trump first seized headlines for his unabashed embrace of birtherism. Michele Bachmann catapulted from the backbench of the House into the evening news with her fiery rhetoric and surprising win in the Ames, Iowa Straw Poll. Herman Cain, perhaps an even more unlikely candidate than Trump, commanded massive audiences and a lengthy surge in the polls before a sex scandal ended his Presidential run. Rick Santorum rose in the polls remarkably (quadrupling his support in just over a week) to almost triumph in Iowa, while Newt Gingrich’s campaign twice rose from the dead to win South Carolina and Georgia. And Ron Paul, whose views on foreign policy and a variety of domestic issues are well outside mainstream Republican thought, nonetheless commanded the race’s most devoted followings.
Yet no campaign rose — and fell — as spectacularly as that of Texas Governor Rick Perry. Perry, who once reigned over the polls and raised money at a breathtaking clip, nonetheless fizzled out before the primaries actually began. Several well-publicized gaffes relegated his campaign to laughing-stock status and though he spent roughly $1,142 per vote, he never claimed a single delegate. (Even Jon Huntsman, whose poll numbers never managed to get out of single digits, managed to win at least one.)
But Perry is not the only candidate once heralded as a Party’s savior whose campaign never got out of the gate. This post will examine five former candidates whose once promising campaigns were stopped dead in their tracks.
2008 — Rudolph Giuliani
Almost no candidate was as much of a Presidential flop as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Early polls of the 2008 Republican field showed Giuliani as the leader both in name recognition and favorability. He quickly raised vast sums of money and wracked up several important endorsements.
In a very odd move, however, Giuliani chose to practically ignore the traditional early voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and focus only on later, big states (namely, Florida). His support quickly dried up as momentum shifted to favor Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and eventual nominee John McCain (all of whom had vigorously competed in the early states). Giuliani finished third in the Florida primaries and dropped out of the race after a similarly weak performance on Super Tuesday.
Despite raising a daunting $66 million for his Presidential run, Giuliani did not win a single primary or caucus (he even lost his home state of New York). According to the AP, “[his loss in Florida] was a remarkable collapse for Giuliani. [In 2007] he occupied the top of national polls and seemed destined to turn conventional wisdom on end by running as a moderate Republican who supported abortion rights, gay rights and gun control.” In what could be viewed as a harbinger of 2010’s Tea Party movement, however, Giuliani was thrown from his perch atop the GOP field and soundly defeated.
2004 — Howard Dean
Barely two years into George Bush’s first term as President, Vermont Governor Howard Dean formed an exploratory committee for the Democratic nomination. Dean was not well known outside of New England and hoped the early start would boost his name recognition nationwide.
Although he initially started well behind in the polls, Dean released the first television commercial of the year and quickly gained a following of young, liberal voters. His strong populist message catapulted Dean to the front of the field; polls showed he was the frontrunner for most of late 2003 and early 2004.
Dean poured almost $40 million into New Hampshire and Iowa, hoping wins there would secure him the nomination. But because of his frontrunner status, he was attacked by virtually the entire Democratic field — weakening his campaign. Many experts believe he could still have ultimately triumphed, however, if not the “Dean Scream.”
The night after Dean’s disappointing third place finish in Iowa, he concluded remarks to the press by saying, “We’re going to Washington, D.C. to take back the White House! Yeah!” On the final word of the speech, Dean’s voice cracked in what can best be described as a scream that was played again and again on the Internet and cable news. One week before the New Hampshire primaries, Dean led Sen. John Kerry — his closest competitor — by roughly thirty points in the polls. By the night of the primaries, he was in a distant second place. Dean never regained his early momentum and dropped out of the race after winning only in his home state of Vermont and Washington, D.C.
Unlike most of the other Presidential flops, however, Dean has since remained a very visible national figure. Many political observers credit this to Dean’s use of the Internet as a campaign tool — a pioneering move at the time. He went on to serve as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee and is still considered a hero of the progressive movement.
1988 — Gary Hart
Following his respectable showing in the 1984 race for President, Senator Gary Hart (D-Colorado) entered the 1988 race as the clear frontrunner. Almost immediately after he declared, however, speculation began to swirl about an affair. Boldly, Hart urged the media to “follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll be very bored.”
Much to Hart’s chagrin, the Miami Herald took him up on his dare; two reporters camped out his house observed a woman leaving his home the very next day. Hart, his wife and his political allies quickly claimed that the relationship between the Senator and the woman, a model named Donna Rice, was innocent. A photo soon surfaced, however, showing Rice sitting in Hart’s lap on a yacht called “Monkey Business.” Hart’s support was cut in half by the next Gallup poll.
Although Gallup also found that nearly two-thirds of respondents believed Hart was treated unfairly by the media and more than half of people felt that an affair had no effect on one’s ability to govern, Hart quickly quit the race. (Hart reentered the Presidential contest shortly before the New Hampshire primaries that year, but finished with only 4 percent of the vote.)
1972 — Edmund Muskie
Popular Maine Senator Edmund Muskie was widely considered to be the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. An August 1971 Harris poll showed Muskie edging out incumbent President Nixon. Indeed, the ongoing Vietnam War and troubled economy made the moderate and well-known Muskie a prohibitive Presidential favorite. Nonetheless, the Senator ultimately failed to capture the Democratic Party’s nomination.
Although Muskie won the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, momentum was seen as in the favor South Dakota Senator George McGovern, the eventual nominee. This is because of a barrage of attacks Muskie faced, many of which, it has later been proven, were spread by the administration of President Nixon (one of his many “dirty tricks”).
Muskie faced criticism for his “Canuck letter” (a Nixon fabrication), which attacked French-Canadians, as well as rumors about his wife’s disposition and supposed alcoholism. After he delivered an emotional response to charges against his wife, many newspapers reported that he cried in the speech — he claimed any liquid on his face was due to falling snowflakes. Regardless, such reports shattered his appearance of calm and steadiness, and led to his eventual decline.
1968 — George Romney
In stark contrast to the eventual success of his son, Willard Mitt Romney, Michigan Governor George Romney’s short-lived campaign for the Presidency was a complete and utter failure.
Romney’s moderate profile, good looks, business success (sound familiar?) and resounding 1966 gubernatorial victory made him an early frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 1968. A Gallup Poll in late 1966 showed Romney well ahead of former Vice President Richard Nixon for the Republican Presidential nomination (39 percent to 31 percent) while a Harris Poll predicted Romney would defeat incumbent President Lyndon Johnson by a healthy 54 percent to 46 percent.
Shortly after forming a Presidential exploratory committee in 1967, Romney played up a delegation to Vietnam he was part of to help shore up his foreign policy credentials, a move that would ultimately prove to be his downfall. Previously opposed to the war in Vietnam, Romney had reversed himself after he began campaigning (still sound familiar?). Moreover, in a taped 1967 interview, Romney remarked, “When I came back from Vietnam, I’d just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get.” This peculiar statement (as well as a number of other gaffes) led to a sharp decline in the polls and the end of Romney’s Presidential aspirations before his campaign ever officially began.
Interestingly, neither Romney’s citizenship (he was born in Mexico, although to American parents) nor his Mormon faith was ever seriously questioned during his Presidential run. But his once promising campaign quickly folded nonetheless. As Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes said, “Watching George Romney run for the presidency was like watching a duck try to make love to a football.”
Other fallen frontrunners include Fred Thompson in 2008, Wesley Clark in 2004, Jerry Brown in 1992, Dick Gephardt in 1988 and George H. W. Bush 1980.