Heartbreak and Triumph in New Hampshire

Three stories of campaign-changing moments in the New Hampshire primary

By Kaleena Fraga

New Hampshire, the second state on the primary circuit, is a dangerous place for presidential campaigns. After clearing the threshold of Iowa, it’s here that many campaigns seem to falter or break down—and create room for challengers to surge ahead.

We look at three stories of heartbreak (and triumph) in New Hampshire, from Ed Muskie’s tears in 1972 to Bill Clinton’s comeback in 1992.

The Tears of Ed Muskie (1972)

Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME) arrived in New Hampshire with something to prove. He had won the Iowa Caucus—but the media had found George McGovern’s surprising show of strength a more compelling narrative. To cement his place as the front-runner, Muskie needed New Hampshire to go well. It didn’t.

Two weeks before the New Hampshire Primary, the Manchester Union Leader published a letter to the editor, which alleged that Muskie had laughed when someone referred to Americans of French-Canadian descent as “Canucks.” In New Hampshire, Americans of French-Canadian descent made up 40%-50% of Democratic voters.

Muskie stood before a crowd in a snowstorm to defend himself, calling the conservative publisher of the Manchester Union Leader “a gutless coward,” and claiming that the letter “was a lie.” Muskie, relating to the crowd his own pain at being called a “Polack” as a boy, and protesting a separate article published by the Manchester Union Leader which had targeted his wife, seemed to begin to cry. The New York Times wrote: “The Senator broke into tears minutes later, his speech halting…” The Washington Post described Muskie as having “tears streaming down his face.”

Muskie, to the end of his life, denied crying. He said that snow, falling on his face and melting, only gave the impression of tears.

But in presidential politics, sometimes an impression is all that matters. Muskie’s status as the front-runner began to crumble. Although he won the New Hampshire primary, his campaign faltered. Muskie performed poorly in the contests that followed, and dropped out of the race.

As for the infamous “Canuck Letter”? Ken W. Clawson, deputy direction of communications in the Nixon White House, told a reporter: “I wrote that letter.”

Bush, Reagan, and the Microphone (1980)

Like Muskie, George H.W. Bush arrived in New Hampshire with an Iowa victory and hoped to cement his front-runner status. But Bush—like Muskie—would find that a single moment in New Hampshire could crater a candidacy.

The Nashua Telegraph wanted to sponsor a debate between Bush and Ronald Reagan. Reagan had narrowly lost to Bush in Iowa (31.6% to 29.5%). But the Federal Election Committee said that in order to sponsor the debate, the newspaper would have to invite all candidates. Reagan stepped in to finance a one-on-one debate—but secretly invited the others.

Bush didn’t want to muddy the field with other candidates. He wanted to take on Reagan himself, and the moderators of the debate (still from the Nashua Telegraph) agreed. Unsurprisingly, chaos erupted when Reagan, Bush, and four other candidates showed up on stage.

Reagan made his case for an inclusive debate. The newspaper editor and debate moderator, Jon Breen, didn’t want to hear it. He snapped: “Would the sound man please turn Mr. Reagan’s mic off for the moment?”

As the Reagan supporters in the crowd began to boo and jeer, Reagan leaned forward towards his (still functioning) microphone, and uttered a line which quickly became a star of presidential campaign history: “”I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!”

(Yes, Reagan got the name wrong!)

Ronald Reagan won the New Hampshire primary, which propelled him into front runner status—and to the nomination, and to the White House. Bush, who would lose 29 out of 33 contests to Reagan, went on to serve as his vice president.

Bill Clinton, The Comeback Kid (1992)

Bill Clinton arrived in New Hampshire in 1992 as a man in trouble. The governor of Arkansas had stumbled to fourth place in the Iowa caucus, earning only 2.8% of the vote. Rumors of Clinton’s draft-dodging and extramarital affairs also dogged the candidate, threatening to sink an already faltering campaign.

So New Hampshire mattered. Top Clinton advisors arrived in the state on February 10th, acknowledging that the campaign was “in meltdown” and that their polls “had really tanked.” They knew that they needed to “fight like hell” and have a “perfect eight days” in order to turn things around.

The campaign decided they’d work to control the narrative, by limiting press conferences and putting the candidate in front of crowds, where he could connect with New Hampshire voters on a personal level. “The strategy really was, be everywhere,” said Clinton advisor James Carville. “Shake every hand.” Clinton hit the trail, hard, meeting voters in person and participating in televised town halls.

It worked—Clinton outperformed expectations and zoomed to second place on February 18th. This led to Clinton’s famous moniker: “The Comeback Kid.”

Clinton went on to beat the incumbent president, George H.W. Bush, in the November election.

Does Winning in New Hampshire Matter?

The Answer is (surprise!) Complicated

In our last post, we asked if an Iowa victory had any significance in terms of winning the presidency. The answer is complicated—and certainly, this year, grows even more complicated when you throw in a messy and confused caucus, and two candidates in a virtual dead heat.

In New Hampshire, Iowa’s narrative can be reinforced—see Jimmy Carter in 1972. (Carter won Iowa and New Hampshire.) It can be thrown into doubt—see Hillary Clinton’s victory over Obama in 2008, after she lost in Iowa. Or, it can be torn up entirely in favor of a new one—see Bill Clinton’s resilient comeback in 1992.

In 2020, a win in New Hampshire for Bernie Sanders or Pete Buttigieg would cement their front-runner status. But the campaign is young—and anything could happen.

Bonus Note: A Win in new hampshire is better for the GOP

New Hampshire’s significance is also amplified depending on if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. No Republican who won the Iowa Caucus has gone onto be win the presidency—by contrast, it was Democrats (Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama) whose Iowa wins led them to the White House. (Bill Clinton also won in Iowa in 1996, but as the incumbent.)

For Republicans, winning New Hampshire has historically meant more than Iowa. This won’t matter in 2020—unless there’s a surprise dark horse about to jump in the race—but in the last 44 years, Republicans who win New Hampshire—even if they lost in Iowa—are more likely to reach the White House. This trend is especially strong in the election cycles between 2008 and today. In 2008 Mike Huckabee won Iowa; John McCain won New Hampshire. In 2012 Rick Santorum won Iowa; Mitt Romney won New Hampshire. And in 2016, Ted Cruz won in Iowa—Donald Trump won in New Hampshire.

From the Sidelines: The Role of Former Political Stars in New Campaigns

Those who have run for president, either successfully or not, play a curious role during new campaigns

By Kaleena Fraga

(to check out this piece in podcast form click here)

As the field of Democratic candidates running for president in 2020 begins to solidify, there is a heightened interest over who is meeting with whom. The New York Times recently published a piece entitled: Hillary Clinton Is Not a Candidate. She Looms Over 2020 AnywayThe paper also wrote about how former president Barack Obama has met with several Democrats running in 2020. Despite no longer holding office—despite, in the case of Clinton, losing her own bid for the presidency—figures like Clinton and Obama remain an important influence as the next big election looms.

So, historically, what role do former political stars—that is, either ex-presidents or those who got close to the presidency—play during a new presidential campaign?

The Role Ex-Presidents Play in Campaigns 

During the 2016 campaign, there was much discussion about the unique aspect of Barack Obama’s post-presidency life. Obama, who was only 55 when he left office, left at a much younger age than most presidents. With his former secretary of state running, pundits speculated the ex-president would play a strong role in her campaign, and he did.

Addressing a group of black voters in 2016, Obama said:

“I will consider it a personal insult — an insult to my legacy — if this community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election. You want to give me a good sendoff? Go vote.”

Obama campaigned, hard, for Clinton. This isn’t always the case when an ex-president is put in the position of campaigning for the new candidate of his party.

When Richard Nixon sought the presidency after serving eight years as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president, the president was, at best, lukewarm. When asked about Nixon’s specific contributions during their partnership, Eisenhower fumbled the question.

Journalist: “if you could give us an example of a major idea of his that you had adopted in that role as the decider and the final, ah….”

Eisenhower: “If you give me a week, I might think of one—I don’t remember.”

His fumble later became an attack ad.

Of course, this gets to a larger point about vice presidents running for a term consecutive to their vice presidency. We already know that it can be tough to move from the vice presidency to the presidency. While candidates need the president they served to point to their accomplishments, the president leaving office often doesn’t want to suggest that big decisions were made by anyone except himself.

Case in point: Eisenhower, in the same press conference, also said: “No one can make a decision except me.”

Even Obama, while he campaigned on Clinton’s aptitude for the presidency, also tied her victory to his own legacy.

Ronald Reagan, similar to Eisenhower, offered a somewhat tepid endorsement of his vice president, George H.W. Bush, fumbling his vice president’s name of eight years while announcing his endorsement.

Then there is Harry S Truman. Truman, who had been out of office eight years when John F. Kennedy ran for office in 1960, launched himself into the campaign. Although he had his doubts about Kennedy’s youth, he campaigned hard.

Truman’s case is slightly different than the above—unlike Obama, Eisenhower, or Reagan, he leaped into a race nearly a decade after his own administration.

Certainly, the party powerful often lend a hand—but it is rare to have a president campaign, simply because most of them either haven’t lived long after their presidencies (see Eisenhower or LBJ), they were unpopular post-presidency (Nixon, Ford, Carter), or their vice presidents didn’t want to rely on their help to win.

Vice Presidents Who Want to Forge Their Own Path 

If presidents are hesitant to relinquish their legacy to their vice presidents, then vice presidents can often be just as hesitant to use the same legacy as a step towards their own term in office.

In the election of 1992, the incumbent George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton, ending twelve years of Republican power. Reports trickled out that Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, were “upset, even angry” over how Bush had steered his campaign. According to their friends, they saw his campaign as “seriously flawed” not least because he had “failed to use Mr. Reagan as a campaigner until late October.”

This was, perhaps, because Bush had been haunted by Reagan’s legacy during his presidency. As the economy soured, a vice chairman for Goldman Sachs noted:

“”[Bush] was trapped by the Reagan legacy. Most Presidents can make changes when they come into office by blaming their predecessor. He couldn’t do that.”

Then again, Bush’s reluctance to use Reagan during his campaign could have less to do with wanting to define his political legacy apart from Reagan’s, and more with the fact that their partnership had been a “marriage of convenience.” Once their shared term ended, longterm tensions came out into the open.

“[Bush] doesn’t seem to stand for anything,” Reagan is reported to have remarked, eight months before the 1992 election. Reagan saw Bush’s performance as a reflection of his own legacy. Bush saw Reagan’s presence as a hindrance to his independence. His aides sneered that Reagan was “too senile” to make public appearances supporting the president.

The dynamic would be similar in the election of 2000 when the incumbent vice president, Al Gore, decided to run for president, following eight years of Bill Clinton’s White House. Gore and Clinton had a tense relationship during that campaign. For his part, Clinton wondered “why Mr. Gore was not making more of the successes of the administration.”

During a blunt exchange after Gore’s loss, Gore told Clinton that it was Clinton’s sex scandal and his low approval ratings that had eventually hobbled Gore’s bid for the White House.

Famous Losers in Presidental Campaigns 

Presidents have a natural role in campaigns of their own party, even years after their own administrations—assuming, of course, that they are popular, and that the party or candidate wants their help. So what about the famous losers?

The questions seem especially pertinent as 2020 looms, and pundits wonder what role Hillary Clinton will play. The quick answer—if she’s anything like the losers of old, she will definitely play a role.

Adlai Stevenson ran for president twice in 1952 and 1956 and lost his bid for the nomination in 1960 to John F. Kennedy. He played a role—giving speeches in support of Kennedy, and maintaining a correspondence with the nominee about his “youth and inexperience.”

Another famous loser, Richard Nixon, who resigned from the presidency, was consistently consulted by presidents of both parties. (Even if they chose to keep these consultations private).

Clinton, who lost her bid for the presidency in 2016, and her bid for the nomination eight years before that, remains a powerful figure in the Democratic party. So far, many of the Democrats seeking the nomination in 2020 have consulted with Clinton—everyone from Amy Klobuchar to Joe Biden.

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Whether a winner or a loser—if you ran for president once, there’s a good chance you’ll be involved in the next campaign. The 2020 primaries will be crowded with Democrats vying for the nomination. With figures like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and others, the actual race will be crowded too—this time, with winners, losers, and others looking to lend a hand to defeat President Trump.