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