Five Thirty Eight and Presidential Busts

On the heels of Scott Walker’s good week, ESPN’s political blog notes – accurately – that early success in political primaries is sometimes temporary. Likable – and well-liked – candidates (like Walker) don’t always make it to the nomination. One of the summaries stands out. Consider their obituary of Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 bid:

Giuliani, who earned the moniker “America’s mayor” after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, may be the biggest dud on this list. He had a better net favorable rating in early 2007 than every nonincumbent presidential nominee since 1980 except for George W. Bush. Once Republican voters found out how moderate Giuliani was on many issues, the jig was up. Giuliani never came close to winning a single primary.

The conclusion of the jig went beyond just Giuliani’s moderate viewpoints. The campaign’s delegate counting strategy put all the eggs in late primary states. More damning was the grassroots strategy – or rather, the lack of one. The campaign eschewed the retail organizing so necessary for victories in places like New Hampshire and Iowa. After being shut out of early primaries, Team Giuliani desperately needed to win the Florida primary to put some delegates on the scoreboard. America’s mayor finished third.

Notable in its omission is the candidacy of Ted Kennedy in 1980. Kennedy probably didn’t have enough pre-election juice to register in Five Thirty Eight’s rankings, but his failed candidacy offers some equally valuable lessons as the others: having a coherent message is the critical first step. A good, smart, campaign structure is vital as well, but its success flows from that basic message. After all, if you can’t articulate why you’re in the race, you can’t expect your volunteers to have much luck convincing voters to be on your side.

Giuliani and Kennedy how critical both elements are to winning any political race – together, and almost three decades apart.

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