While reading The Party Decides by Marty Cohen and David Karol, it struck me that over the last thirty years we have seen a new kind of presidential candidacy that has no hope of actually winning the presidency. We have gone from favorite son candidates to identity politics candidacy.

Favorite sons were presidential candidates that might have had little or no hope of winning the party’s presidential nomination, but who controlled their home state’s delegates at the national convention. Depending on the state’s rules, the delegates might have been chosen by the state’s party leadership or by a state primary in which the favorite son was the only candidate. The norms of the pre-1972 system tended to discourage serious presidential candidates from running in primaries where a favorite son was on the ballot (though it could not be guaranteed that other candidates would stay out.) The favorite sons could then use those delegates as bargaining chips with the other party leaders.

Favorite son candidates are no longer a thing. Primaries and caucuses are prevalent. The system has evolved in such a way that at least one national candidate will contest any given state. The idea of a state politician putting himself on only their own state’s presidential primary ballot would risk (would virtually guarantee) humiliation at the hands of one of the national candidates and even if they won control of the state’s delegation, control of the state’s delegation would likely do the favorite son (or daughter) little good. It has been a long time since a convention has gone more than one ballot, so the favorite son would have no leverage.

Favorite sons have been replaced by a new kind of “not really running for president” candidates. They are the identity politics candidates. These candidates are able to get first-choice support from a minority of the party while being entirely unacceptable as presidential candidates to the majority. These identity politics candidates ought to be distinguished from factional candidates like Barry Goldwater and George McGovern. Goldwater and McGovern got nominated but were each unacceptable to elements of their party and the result was that some elements of their party either defected or sat on their hands during the general election. The identity politics candidates have no real shot at the nomination but the party needs the voters who backed the identity politics candidate. Like with the favorite sons, identity politics candidacies are not about getting the nomination. They are about bargaining.*

The model for the identity politics candidacy is Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988. In a 1984 speech, Jackson talked about how his campaign had gone farther than that of senators Alan Cranston of California, Fritz Hollings of South Carolina and John Glenn of Ohio as well as former governor Reuben Askew of Alaska Florida. But as Richard Brookhiser pointed out, there was something misleading about Jackson’s speech. Jackson only finished ahead of those other candidates because the anti-Jackson vote was divided. If it had come down to a binary choice between Jackson and any one of the candidates he mentioned, Jackson would have lost overwhelmingly—as he did when the pool of candidates narrowed in the later stages of both 1984 and 1988. The last non-Jesse Jackson candidate was always going to beat Jackson.

That didn’t mean Jackson lacked for leverage. He had gotten millions of votes and there was a sense that how Jackson was treated would determine how those voters acted in the general election. An identity politics candidate can use the perception of a strong bond with their voters to gain media attention and extract concessions for himself (or herself) from the party. Jackson got a prime time convention speaking slots in 1984 and 1988. Jackson got Democratic nominee Mike Dukakis to pretend to consider Jackson for the vice presidential nomination.

Pat Buchanan ran for president in 1992 as a protest candidate after George H. W. Bush reversed his no new tax pledge and disappointed conservatives on affirmative action. As a lifelong polemical journalist and publicity man, Buchanan wasn’t much more credible as a president than Jesse Jackson. Buchanan didn’t win any primaries, but he won over one-third of the vote in a few states. It was clear that Buchanan was the vehicle for a substantial number of very unhappy conservatives. Buchanan was able to parlay this sense that he was the spokesman for conservatives into a famous (or infamous) prime time speech.

Like with favorite-son candidacies, the Jesse Jackson identity politics strategy doesn’t always work out. Favorite sons might be rejected by their fellow state party leaders or a nationally viable candidate might enter their state primary and win. Either result would leave the favorite son weaker than when he started. Aspiring identity politics candidates might fail to rally the identity group they are hoping to represent. Al Sharpton completely and sometimes hilariously failed to rally a substantial fraction of the African-American vote in his 2004 run—though he managed to continue his long demagogic career on MSNBC. Michele Bachmann tried to rally social conservatives but she finished last in Iowa, dropped out of the presidential race, and was so weakened that she only barely retained her House seat in the general election.

This brings us to the strange case of Mike Huckabee. Huckabee was, on paper, a much more plausible presidential candidate than Jackson, Buchanan, Sharpton or Bachmann. Based on his work history, he was at least as plausible as George W. Bush and Barack Obama. While a Huckabee nomination might have produced grumbling, he would very likely have proven acceptable to the vast majority of Republicans at the end of the day. Huckabee was not able to break out of his social conservatism-first base in 2008, but what is notable was the extent to which he tries to resemble an identity politics candidate instead of a more broadly appealing candidate. This showed up in the 2008 cycle when he complained that Republican leaders did not want evangelical Christians in leadership positions.

Huckabee has profited from his 2008 campaign. Before the 2008 cycle, Huckabee was just another former Republican governor who was not obviously deserving of more public attention than Tommy Thompson, John Engler, or even Bill Weld. Huckabee has since built a lucrative career as a conservative entertainer and retains the affection of a significant minority of Republicans. And yet Mike Huckabee’s CPAC speech was not the oration of a man who wanted to win the plurality of the vote when the nomination came down to only a few candidates. It was speech of someone who knew that the people who were going to vote for him didn’t care about the details of his tax program—which is why he can stick with his FairTax plan. Instead of trying to be the evangelical Ronald Reagan (a candidate who hails from one faction of the party but who makes himself acceptable to both the vast majority of the country and the median American voter), Huckabee seems content to be the white evangelical Jesse Jackson. 

*Herman Cain and Ron Paul are somewhat special cases. Cain seems to have treated his campaign as nothing more than an extended publicity stunt. I remember a Fox News report that Cain was in Tennessee doing book signings even as he was leading the polls in Iowa. He knew it wouldn’t last and he was cashing in as fast as possible. Cain gave the game away in the speech where he withdrew from the race. Cain said, “I didn’t have high name ID, but right now my name ID is probably 99.9.” Ron Paul was similar to other identity politics candidates in that he was the enthusiastic first-choice of a minority, but wholly unacceptable to a large majority of the party. The difference was that Ron Paul’s campaign was less about personal, short-term bargaining. He was about policy, and the party was not going to change its policy to please him. Paul didn’t endorse the Republican candidate in 2008 and wouldn’t “fully” endorse Romney in 2012. Ron Paul’s campaign is better understood as one in which he is trying to expand his faction within the party through publicity and building activist networks so that some other candidate could shift the party’s direction in a way that Ron Paul would like. 

More on: Public Life

Articles by Pete Spiliakos

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