History Lesson

Attack in the Other Direction!

How to recover from a big loss in the early primaries.

Jeff Greenfield chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan

Addendum: OK, Hillary won tonight. Oh, waiter, two orders of crow, please. This is what happens when you ignore your own advice to let the people vote first.

In late November 1950, U.S. Marines at Chosin Reservoir in North Korea fell under withering assault by a massive force of 18 divisions of the Chinese army, which had crossed the Yalu River into North Korea despite Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s absolute assertion that American forces could conquer the North without fear of a Chinese response. Faced with the disastrous results of MacArthur’s overconfidence, Maj. Gen. O.P. Smith ordered his 5th and 7th Marine Regiments to fall back. When asked by a reporter about the retreat, Smith said (or at least the reporter had him say), “Retreat, hell! We’re just attacking in another direction!”  

Now is the time for Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani to heed those words. For each of these candidates—at one time or another front-runners in either the national or Iowa and New Hampshire polls—the prospect of early defeats (or, in Giuliani’s case, severely anemic showings) raises the political version of the North Korea question: Can a one-time favorite who suffers early setbacks revive a campaign by attacking in the other direction?

It has happened in the past. And so a look back suggests various approaches that today’s upended front-runners could take.

1976—Reagan vs. Ford

In 1976, former Gov. Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. The unelected president was at a low point, with a job approval rating of 39 percent in December 1975, and an image as a stumblebum (which Saturday Night Live’s Chevy Chase helped shape). In New Hampshire that year, Reagan battled Ford to a virtual tie. (Ford won by only 1,500 votes.) But because Reagan’s state chairman had all but promised a landslide victory by a 2-to-1 margin, Reagan looked down. Ford then reeled off a string of victories, including Florida and Illinois, and a Reagan withdrawal seemed certain.

But in North Carolina, two weeks after the Florida loss seemingly doomed him, Reagan found his mark: the impending return of the Panama Canal to Panama as an embodiment of weak foreign policy. With a televised speech attacking the deal and the “détente” Cold War policies of “Dr. Kissinger and Mr. Ford” (a possibly accidental evocation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), along with the backing of Sen. Jesse Helms’ political machine, Reagan won the North Carolina primary and began to pull himself back in contention. By the time the primary season ended, Reagan had won 10 primaries and earned almost as many votes as Ford. Only a series of deals with prominent conservatives and the dumping of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller saved the president, who won renomination by a narrow margin of delegates (1,187 to 1,070). From political near-death, Reagan had come closer than any challenger before or since to denying a president the renomination of his party.

Lesson: Sound the tone that sets your party’s base vibrating and you will get your second chance.

1984—Mondale vs. Hart

Former Vice President Walter Mondale went into the New Hampshire primary with the biggest lead in the polls of any nonincumbent ever; he left New Hampshire with a 10-point loss at the hands of Sen. Gary Hart’s “New Ideas” campaign. The scent of the loser hung all over Mondale, and further losses in other New England states pointed to an imminent collapse.  

But the very newness of Hart, and his scornful dismissal of Democrats’ New Deal-Great Society heritage (“We’re not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys” he once said), gave Mondale the chance to rally traditional party constituencies. Black politicians in Alabama and Georgia gave him desperately needed victories. Big city machines and labor unions in Illinois and New York helped win him primaries that put him back on top. Mondale struck gold during a March primary debate when, echoing a tagline from a popular ad of the day, he said to Hart, “When I hear your new ideas, I’m reminded of that commercial: ‘Where’s the beef?’ ” And press scrutiny of the new guy revealed that Hart had fibbed about his age, and changed his name and even his handwriting. In the end, the combination of Mondale’s appeal to the base and Hart’s transformation from new to suspect proved the difference. (The next time he campaigned for the presidency, in 1988, Hart needed no help to self-destruct—reports of his affair with Donna Rice did the job.)

Lesson: Turn the insurgent into the interloper who scorns the salt of your party’s earth. Then step back and let the press train its guns on the new target of opportunity.

2000—Bush vs. McCain 

It looked like no contest between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his Republican rivals. Bush had all the money, virtually all the endorsements, and an apparent glide path to the nomination. But in New Hampshire, Arizona Sen. John McCain and his “Straight Talk” Express turned a guerilla campaign into an astounding 18-point win in the New Hampshire primary. Now it was Bush who was “on the ropes,” “staggering,” and whatever other sports metaphors headline writers could summon. McCain’s reformist message had struck a chord.

It took only a day for the Bush campaign to redefine their candidate. Now he was “A Reformer With Results.” His record as governor of Texas, the campaign argued, proved he had accomplished what McCain could only talk about.

Three other forces were central to Bush’s recovery: First, the infamous sliming of McCain in South Carolina, where anonymous mailings, robo-calls, and talk-radio callers warned that McCain had been brainwashed in North Vietnam and fathered a black child out of wedlock; they also called his wife a drug addict. Second, McCain’s unwillingness to sign on to core Republican principles like tax cuts under any and all circumstances, and his support for campaign finance reform, left him vulnerable to the charge that he was not a real Republican candidate. Third—making the second point matter more—only Republicans could vote in the primaries in the Super Tuesday states of New York and California. The independents, key to McCain’s New Hampshire and then Michigan wins, were shut out. Bush swept the Republican-only primaries, and McCain’s campaign ended.

Lesson: Find the soft underbelly. The same acts that endear your opponent to independents and the media may make him anathema to your party faithful, which matters when they are the only ones who get to vote.

2008—the Possibilities 

So, what should the current crop of early losers do, based on their predecessors’ comebacks? 

1) Retreat to higher ground.

Voluntarily or not, Reagan took advantage of the extended calendar to find a state, an ally, and an issue that could bring him a victory and revive the spirits of his allies. For Mitt Romney, the sweet spot could be Michigan. For Hillary Clinton, it could be the Democrats-only primaries in the Northeast.

2) Find their “Where’s the beef?”

In the final run-up to the New Hampshire primary, Clinton and Romney have at times sounded exactly like each other. “A doer, not a talker,” Clinton says. “The choice is between someone who says he’ll fight for change, and someone who’s done it,” Romney echoes. Whether or not this works in New Hampshire, this theme could resonate in later contests, particularly (for Clinton) if Barack Obama gets the 1984 Hart treatment—that is, if the press puts the new kid on the block in the blocks and starts asking questions about his Illinois record or his accommodation of old-style politics, like his support for an industry-friendly energy bill. (It is doubtful that they’ll discover that Barack Hussein Obama changed his name for political reasons, unless his real name is Adolf Hitler Obama.) 

3) Paint the ascendant opponent as a heretic.

John McCain seems especially vulnerable to this attack; many Republicans in New Hampshire, including some who voted for him in 2000, have never forgiven him for voting against the Bush tax cuts. (“One of only two Republicans to do so!” Romney’s campaign trumpets.) McCain’s stance on immigration is similarly out of step with his party’s base. Mike Huckabee has similar vulnerabilities that Romney and Rudy can exploit. He has cheerfully bashed excessive CEO pay and corporate greed, expressed sympathy for illegal aliens, and was actually willing to support a tax boost for better roads and schools in Arkansas.

For Clinton, the strategy might be to hammer home instances in which Obama has separated himself from key Democratic power centers—just as Bill “Different Kind of Democrat” Clinton sliced up Paul Tsongas in Florida in 1992 for daring to suggest reforms to federal entitlement programs. Obama’s toe-in-the-water support for merit pay likely does not sit well with teachers’ unions, who historically send more than one in 10 delegates to the nominating convention. His call for higher fuel standards rings alarm bells with the United Auto Workers. And while Michigan may not have a real Democratic primary this year, California does, and the union guys don’t like the hiked-up mileage requirements even if the governor does. Also, primaries in both parties are closed to Independents in most of the key Super Tuesday states. * So, the heretic argument could play for this year’s to-date also-rans the same way it did for Bush in 2000.

On the other hand, it will be far tougher for Clinton to paint Obama as a heretic, and thus rally the base of the party, than it was for Mondale to do so to Hart. We need not spend much time on the unlikely prospect of African-American Democrats flocking to Clinton to stop Obama; he also has significant support from labor unions. And the emblematic big-city mayor—Daley the younger of Chicago—is firmly in the hometown guy’s corner. Finally, beating back the emotionally cool Hart is different than asking the Democratic base, white, black, and everything else, to wage an all-out battle against the first African-American with a real shot at the White House.

What history teaches—over and over again, even to the class of pundits that believes it is genetically endowed with the ability to foretell the future—is that presidential campaigns are too few (and idiosyncratic) to generate general rules. Is it tough for front-runners to recover from early shocks? Yes. Can it be done? Yes. If that’s too tentative for you, take up a more scientifically precise form of work—like gaming the stock market.

Correction, Jan. 9, 2008: The original sentence stated that primaries in both parties are closed to Independents in all the key Super Tuesday states. In fact, the Democratic primary in California is open to Independents. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)