Precedent for President: The Historic and Historical 2016 Campaign


As unique as this campaign season has been, it bears more similarities to past presidential races than meets the eye.

The 2016 campaign is undoubtedly bizarre, but “unprecedented” is a bit too far. Sure, Hilary Snapchats and Cruz is Canadian-born. Indeed, there have only been six first-time elections in the post-war years.[1] But I imagine presidential history as an old tree, and these “novelties” are as trivial as a couple’s initials carved into its trunk. This tree’s deeper “roots” are too often overlooked, but well worth some attention.

The first of those six elections was in 1953. Dwight. D. Eisenhower had been Supreme Allied Commander of Europe before seeking the Republican nomination. “Ike” was a Kansas native, and his VP pick, Richard Nixon of California, became a liability when he used $18,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses. Despite this, Eisenhower conveyed his “frankness, honesty, and integrity” in over 200 speeches, 40 of which were televised. He beat Adlai Stevenson by a landslide (83% of the electoral vote) behind a platform of “prosperity without war”.

Then came Camelot in 1960. Massachusetts’s senator, John F. Kennedy, had pursued the candidacy years ahead of the Democratic Convention. Imagine: this was unheard of at the time. He used TV masterfully to drive home his youth and his vision of “a time for greatness”. Kennedy’s Catholic faith and privileged upbringing were political barriers. The brilliant VP pick of Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texas senator and Majority Leader, delivered both the South and the black vote.

As the war in Vietnam escalated, Nixon reentered the scene. At the start of the campaign, Robert Kennedy was wildly popular, winning three key primaries before he was assassinated. Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey got the nomination. A third candidate, George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor, entered the race as an independent, winning 13.5% of the popular vote. Nixon chose Maryland governor Spiro Agnew as his VP to help deliver the Deep South, and the red and blue divide this campaign made have endured ever since.

George H.W. Bush was the former CIA Director and Reagan’s VP. In 1988, he promoted a “kinder, gentler nation.” Ironically, this campaign initiated the major use of not-so-kind attack ads. Opponent Governor Dukakis of Massachusetts ran ads with “Quayle: just a hearbeat away”, targeting Bush’s age (65) and the Indiana senator as his running mate. Bush’s campaign ran ads of the polluted Boston Harbor and called Dukakis a “card carrying member of the ACLU”. Bush won with 426 electoral votes.

Thirteen years later, his son, and previous Governor of Texas, ran for on the tenet of “compassionate conservatism”. George W’s opponent, Al Gore, had been Clinton’s VP and senator of Tennessee. Jeb Bush was the governor of Florida, the decisive swing state in the campaign. As the race came to an end, the Republican Leadership Council ran pro-Ralph Nader ads to split the liberal votes in battleground states. Bush won with 50.4% of the electoral vote.

And then a senator from Illinois came along, four years after making a name for himself as a speaker at the DNC. Young people mobilized behind Obama’s messages of “hope” and “yes we can”, as social media debuted as a major political force. The harmonious campaign staff (dubbed “no Drama Obama”), and a mid-campaign diplomatic tour of the Middle East, strengthened his credentials. His running mate, former Senator Joe Biden, won crucial votes from blue-collar whites. The campaign came to a finish with Obama addressing crowds of more than 100,000.

These races give insight into powerful political strategy. Of course, the old standards no longer apply; military service and a Protestant faith are cases in point. But there are some parallels. It was Reagan who coined “make America great again”, and he was Hilary’s age (69) upon entering office. Trump would not be the White House’s first billionaire; JFK’s net worth today would be over $1 billion. And as Bloomberg considers an independent bid, we should remember the popularity (not the values) of George Wallace.

Broadly speaking, any candidate would be wise to consider history. It has shown that an advantageous VP, a diplomatic tour, camera presence, a cooperative staff, or an attack ad can take a dark horse to the White House.


[1] This number excludes circumstances such as a VP as the incumbent, as in the case of Truman, Lyndon B. Jonson, and Gerald Ford.

This piece is the first in the Duke Political Union’s new series of columns. It was written by Madeleine Roberts.

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