As comments to my previous blog on Hillary Clinton probably having the Democratic nomination wrapped up show, many feel strongly otherwise. (One would assume that their numbers include the other seven candidates running against her.) As is oft being stated by the anti-Hillaristas, front runner standing at the start of a campaign does not guarantee the nomination. Indeed, it is one of the more frequent claims being made by observers (both partisan and independent) and candidates (mostly those behind in the polls) this time around. . Such was the case with Kerrey in 2004, Bush in 2000, Dole in 1996, Clinton in 1992 and Dukasis in 1988. So could be the case this time around as proponents of Obama or Edwards (or Biden or Grassey….) point out. One good stumble and Hillary’s history.
But what this analysis overlooks is the role and effect of legacy, establishment and insurgency candidacies. A legacy candidacy is one based on some past association of the candidate – be it political, social or familial – as the natural heir to a previously dominant tradition and movement within their party. For example, Hillary Clinton is–and George W. Bush was–a clear legacy candidate. Establishment candidates are those who lack a clear connection to a previously dominant movement or persona but are strongly identified with core party values and can count on the support of the major individual and institutional players within the party. In other words, they’re center of the road non-boat rockers. Think Kerrey, 2004. Insurgents are candidates attempting to establish a new party movement that runs contrary to the ideas and strategies of the current establishment. Think Dean Scream.
While it is true the candidates with the most money and public support early in the election season often do not win their party nominations, it is also true that whenever there is a clear legacy candidate, that candidate does win their party nomination. It is only when there is no legacy candidate that an insurgency candidate can have a chance at taking the nomination, particularly if the party lost the last presidential election.
Elections since WWII have borne this out. In 2004 GW was the clear Republican legacy candidate (there is no greater legacy than the current incumbent). Thus, like Bill Clinton in 1996, Bush had no challenge to his nomination. With neither a Gore nor a Clinton running, however, the Democrats had no legacy candidate to fall back on. This gave Howard Dean his opportunity to run as the insurgent, seeking to pull the party farther to the left than had centrist Bill Clinton and his famous strategy of triangulation. But the party establishment rallied around the familiar (if horsey) face of a long term Senator whose candidacy promised to be as bland as white bread. (Or flaky as a croissant, take your pick…). Yes, Dean was the odds on early favorite in a weak field of second tier candidates to the press and pundits and Kerry did come back to defeat him. But the 2000 race was not seen by most Democrats as a repudiation of the Clinton/Gore legacy–it was seen as an election stolen. Thus party leaders and interest groups were not as open to the Dean revisionist platform as they had been with the Carter insurgency of 1976 and the Clinton one in 1992. Hence Dean flames out fast and furious.
In 2000 both parties chose legacy candidates. Gore was the VP inheritor of the Clinton mantle (or, like George H.W. Bush, what may be called a 22nd amendment legacy – Democrats would have much rather voted for Bill one more time but for the pesky two-term limit). And George W. was the inheritor of the Bush dynastic mantle, with 2000 being the Republican chance to undue the political miscarriage of 1992. John McCain, running radically to the middle against the harder-line Reagan rhetoric that dominated the party establishment was quickly—and viscerally—crushed by the Bush legacy.
Republicans, likewise, went in 1996 for the Dole legacy candidacy. Groomed for the Presidency since the Nixon years, denied his turn at bat by Bush I’s own Reagan legacy run in 1988 (and 1992), faithfully leading Republicans in the Senate to majority status in 1994, 1996 was Dole’s year – his entitlement for thirty years in the party trenches. Like Bush in 2000, however, Dole’s candidacy was almost (and there’s the key: almost) derailed by the Buchanan insurgency from the far right. But after Buchanan’s momentum coming out of New Hampshire was blunted by Stevo Forbes in Arizona, the party establishment rallied behind the Dole legacy as the safest route.
That it was a route to near certain defeat was true but a Dole defeat still left the party viable to run against the inevitable Clinton legacy in 2000. A Buchanan nomination and resulting landslide defeat might have banished the party to the presidential wilderness for another two or more terms. Dole had also faced the rival establishment candidacy of Texas Senator Phil Graham who had raised the largest war chest running up to the primaries of any candidate in history. Graham’s money couldn’t buy him one primary win while Dole’s legacy bought him the nomination.
In 1992 insurgent candidate Bill Clinton (who, like McCain, would try and radically pull his party back to the center and, unlike McCain, would succeed in doing so and win the nomination) faced only weak competition from the party’s liberal Ted Kennedy/Mike Dukasis establishment candidate, Paul Tsongas. (Note to Democrats – when are you going to give up running politicians from Massachusetts? Hasn’t worked since the Adams.) Winning the party nomination and Presidency established the Clinton legacy that last to today. But Clinton faced such soft opposition because the candidate most preferred by the surviving of post-War Democratic hegemony establishment—New York Governor Mario Cuomo, chose to sit things out.
And the list goes on. 1988 Republican: legacy Bush I beats establishment Bob Dole. 1988 Democrat: Liberal establishment Dukasis beats out left wing insurgent Jesse Jackson. 1984: Legacy Reagan takes on Carter legacy Walter Mondale. 1980: Legacy Reagan (the choice of the party faithful in 1976) takes on legacy Carter. 1976: Insurgent Carter running in a fractured post-Watergate Democratic field takes on legacy Ford. 1972: Democrat George McGovern wins as an insurgent in a Party still reeling from the 1968 defeat of Johnson legacy Hubert Humphrey and the self-destruction of Ted Kennedy’s legacy candidacy. And in 1968 legacy Dick Nixon beats Johnson legacy Hubert Humphrey, who wins the Democratic nomination only after the assassination of uber-legacy RFK.
The pattern is clear. Where there is a clear: established legacy candidate in the nomination process, that candidate wins. This is regardless of whether they are at the front of the pack out of the starting gate (Nixon, Ford, Carter in 1980, Bush in 1988,or have to struggle up through the candidate ranks (Ford in 1976, Reagan in 1980, Dole in 1996, Bush II in 2000.) Insurgent candidates have only won their party nomination in the election following a crushing party defeat in the previous election: Clinton post Dukakis, Carter post McGovern and McGovern post Humphrey.
What does this mean for 2008? The Democrats have a clear legacy candidate, Hillary Clinton. Though John Edwards can also lay claim to the legacy mantle from 2000, his is a weaker dynastic claim. Obama is the Democrats’ insurgent candidate. As the history above indicates, he should lose the nomination to Clinton. The star power, establishment support and built-in power base of legacy candidates like her own have simply overpowered all insurgencies for the last two generations. That this might change in 2008 is, of course, possible. But it would appear to also be unlikely.
The Republican race is more convoluted. All the candidates to date are running as heirs of the Reagan legacy (there ain’t a self-admitted Bushie in the lot.) But none of them have a direct – or even much of an indirect – claim to that legacy. Former insurgent McCain is running on his own 2000 legacy platform. Giuliani, meanwhile, is the current establishment candidate de jour. Should Fred Thompson formally enter the race, this might well change. The social conservatives – Brownback, Huckabee and Tancredo, while running on the Reagan legacy, are actually more to the Goldwater/Buchanan right than was Reagan or even George W. Bush. As such they are better classified as insurgents. Given that no insurgent has won against a legacy candidate and no legacy candidate has lost to an establishment candidate, the logic of this would seem to indicate that Senator John McCain will, after a bruising primary process, emerge as the GOP nominee.