Five of the Worst US Presidential Candidates in History
It’s rare that we forget a failed presidential candidate. They did, after all, spend millions upon millions of dollars etching themselves into our brains for months on end. But some folks stick out much more than others, usually because they failed in such a spectacular fashion.
Strom Thurmond’s candidacy came about in 1948. The Democratic National Convention took a pro-civil rights stance, angering southern delegates enough that they left the convention and formed their own party, the States’ Rights Democrats. Strom Thurmond, then governor of South Carolina and operating under the motto “Segregation Forever,” was chosen as their candidate for the presidency against Harry Truman. To say this was an awkward period for American politics would be a tremendous understatement.
The crux of Thurmond’s platform was a state’s right to enforce Jim Crow laws without the government coming in and telling them they couldn’t because hey, racism. While this made him popular in southern states, it was an illogical stance to take because it alienated everyone else in the country. Indeed, Thurmond only won the electoral votes of a whopping four states and his presence most likely helped to seal another Democratic victory.
Despite his failure to win the White House, Thurmond became South Carolina’s most notable senator from 1954 to 2003. He famously compared the abolishing of segregation to the implementing of Communism. Naturally, he also said many, many, many bewilderingly racist statements that he never apologized for or redacted in anyway, saying they had to be framed in the context of Southern society at the time. Remember kids, hatred is okay in context!
The Republican Party found itself heavily divided when it sought win the presidency from Lyndon B. Johnson. Barry Goldwater was among six candidates but was arguably the most traditionally conservative of the bunch. He won the nomination hands-down and began his campaign against Johnson by attacking literally anything and everything that moved.
Goldwater had been planning to run since before Kennedy was assassinated and was looking forward to a spirited competition with his friend. But with Kennedy gone (or maybe because he simply didn’t know when to stop talking) he managed to work himself into holes whenever possible. For example, at a press conference he casually mentioned that he wished we could saw off the eastern seaboard. Guess how that played into his favor.
One of his most famous remarks was saying we should lob an atomic weapon into a Kremlin restroom. The end result was little campaigning from within his own party as people feared the association with him and less and less support from the public as they feared he would either maroon them or thrust them into a nuclear war. A poll published in Fact Magazine revealed over one-thousand psychiatrists thought he was emotionally unstable. Guess how that played into his favor.
While he was busy painting himself as crazy, the Johnson campaign did the same thing by taking quotes out of context. They framed his opposition to the Civil Rights Act as a sign of racism when he actually supported the movement but felt it was a state issue. In the end he won only six states.
There’s an unwritten rule that anyone who wins a party’s nomination and fails to win the presidency won’t win the nomination a second time because the first defeat can be too easily exploited by the opposition. Dewey managed to win two nominations, however. His first loss in 1944 was assumed to be because of his age (late thirties) and general inexperience. His second and more memorable loss was because he tried to be as non-confrontational as possible.
Dewey’s original platform was based on non-interventionism, which came back to bite him when Germany began conquering Europe in World War II. He remained popular despite this and adjusted his platform somewhat to support international groups like the UN. However, to avoid having any of his stances and quotations being misconstrued or turned against him, he began filling his speeches with remarks that the media felt were obvious and pointless. Saying things like “You know your future lies ahead of you” became the norm, so much so that it may have been more beneficial if he said absolutely nothing at all. He best sums it up with another of his quotes: “When you lead, don’t talk.” Turns out that was a terrible idea: despite being poised for victory, Dewey lost to Truman. Though a narrow loss to be sure, many attributed it to his refusal to take strong stances on major issues.
This 1988 Democratic presidential candidate was pretty much in a nosedive once he received the nomination. A hardline liberal, George H.W. Bush’s campaign had to do very little to turn the “Massachusetts’s Miracle” into “The Amazing Upright Pile of Human Regret,” though we’re pretty sure that no one turned that last bit into a slogan. A shame, really.
As governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis supported the prisoner furlough program (though notably he didn’t sign it into law – a Republican did). The program allowed prisoners a limited release on weekends with the understanding that they’d return and presumably not commit any more crimes. Dukakis believed the program would have an overall positive impact on rehabilitation. Unfortunately for him, a man named Willie Horton abused the system. Serving a life sentence for murder, he was released as part of the program but never returned, and used the time to rape and murder a young couple. He received two more life sentences and was reassigned to an out of state prison.
Bush’s campaign, while not the first to bring up Horton, made the tragedy a crucial part of their campaign, bringing it up at speeches, rallies and debates. They also ran a now infamous television ad:
With the pressure on, Dukakis never backed down, and that’s what hurt him the most. In one debate the question was raised point blank: if his own wife were raped and murdered, would he want the person responsible to face the death penalty? His response was seen as cold and lacking emotion, saying he has opposed the death penalty all his life and would still do so in that situation. Overnight his popularity plummeted and at the end of the election he won only eight states.
If there’s a poster child for a blowout loss, it’s McGovern. In 1972 the Democrat ran against none other than Richard Nixon. However, he only barely got the nomination; Edmund Muskie, the frontrunner and assumed nominee, hadn’t fared so well in New Hampshire, giving McGovern the chance to slip ahead. However, he only got the nod thanks to changes made to the process – changes he helped make. This alienated from much of his own party, leaving him without major support or funding. McGovern was limping out of the gate.
Things only got worse when it was revealed that his running mate had undergone electroshock therapy to treat clinical depression. Though McGovern said he was behind him one-hundred percent, he dropped him in favor of JFK’s brother-in-law. It didn’t leave him with a particularly great public image.
McGovern’s famous flub came in ‘72. While hosting a rally he was heckled by a young Nixon supporter. McGovern called him to the stage and whispered into his ear “Listen you son-of-a-bitch, why don’t you kiss my ass?” The story broke the next day and divided his own staff between people who thought it was a show of strength and would win him more votes and those who felt he should have issued an apology shortly afterward. He didn’t, however, and KMA buttons became a sign of Nixon support soon after.