7 of the Worst Presidential Nominees of All Time

7 of the Worst Presidential Nominees of All Time

Patrick Lynch - October 16, 2016

The U.S. Presidential Election is a global event with hundreds of millions of people tuning in on election night to see who becomes ‘The Leader of the Free World’. The 2016 Election involves the two most disliked presidential nominees in history. In any other election cycle, Hillary Clinton would have a historically high disapproval rating but in Donald Trump, she happens to have an opponent with an even worse rating.

In this piece, I will look at 7 other presidential nominees who were either desperately poor choices, to begin with or ran a poor campaign. As it is realistically a two-horse race each time, I am only looking at failed Democrat and Republican nominees.

7 of the Worst Presidential Nominees of All Time
Wikimedia Commons

1 – Horace Greeley (1872 Election)

Greeley was the founder of the New York Tribune and became involved in Whig Party politics as a young man. He was a big advocate of settlement in the American West and is said to have popularized the phrase “Go West, young man, go West and grow up in the country”, a version of which was first used by John Soule in 1851. Greeley was involved in the winning campaign of William Henry Harrison in the 1840 Election and he created the Tribune soon after.

Although he was involved in politics, he wasn’t really a politician. His main political experience came in 1848-1849 when he was a Congressman in New York’s Sixth District. He only spent 4 months in the role and received it on the back of the resignation of the former congressman on the back of electoral fraud. Greeley helped found the Republican Party in 1854 and may even have named it. He also supported Lincoln during the Civil War and pushed for the abolition of slavery before the Great Emancipator wanted to.

After the death of Lincoln, Greeley supported Radical Republicans to oppose President Andrew Johnson but fell out with Republican President Ulysses Grant over corruption and Reconstruction issues. Despite Greeley’s career as an influencer in political circles, his lack of experience in a public office made him a bizarre choice as Grant’s opponent in the 1872 Election. To be clear, Greeley was not the choice of the Democrats; (he ran under the Liberal Republican Party banner) but the Democrats didn’t nominate their own candidate and threw their weight of support behind him.

Although he received 43.8% of the popular vote, Greeley only carried 6 states and was defeated 286-66 in the Electoral College. It should be noted that Greeley actually died before the Electoral College votes were counted but he had been comprehensively beaten. To say he had a terrible year up to that point is an understatement. The Republicans had successfully completed a smear campaign on Greeley and he had to suspend his own campaign almost a month before the election as his wife was gravely ill. She died on 30 October 1872, just six days before the election. Greeley died on 29 November and his Electoral College votes were divided among four other candidates. Oddly enough, he received three posthumous votes!

7 of the Worst Presidential Nominees of All Time

2 – James G. Blaine (1884 Election)

If you look at Blaine’s performance in the 1884 Election purely from a numbers perspective, you would suggest that he shouldn’t be on the list. He ended up losing a close election to Grover Cleveland. In reality, the Republican candidate managed to throw away this election due to incendiary comments during the campaign along with a bribery scandal. The Republican Party had won the previous six elections and Blaine should have made it seven in a row.

Unlike Greeley, Blaine was eminently qualified to be a president. He represented the state of Maine in the House of Representatives for 13 years and in the U.S. Senate for five years. He was Secretary of State on two occasions (and under three different presidents) and had two previous tilts at being named the Republican nominee (1876 & 1880) before finally being selected in 1884.

The issues of railroad promotion and construction were major issues in the era and due to Blaine’s support and interest in the railroads, he was routinely accused of bribery and corruption. As you might expect, these allegations were brought up constantly during the election campaign. It was a typically dirty affair as Cleveland was found to have fathered an illegitimate child while the railroad scandal wouldn’t go away for Blaine.

In what was a tight race, Blaine had hoped his Irish Catholic mother could give him the support of the Irish Americans in New York. This hope was destroyed when one of his supporters gave a speech deriding the Democrats. The speech was infamous as it said the Democrats were the party of ‘Rum, Romanism and Rebellion’. While Blaine didn’t notice the slur against Catholics (nor did the newspaper reporters present), a member of the Democrat team did and ensured it was publicized.

This insult energized the Irish-American voters who voted heavily in favor of Cleveland and Blaine lost the state of New York by just 1,149 votes. He lost the popular vote by just 0.57% and by 219-182 in the Electoral College. He would have been president had he won New York.

7 of the Worst Presidential Nominees of All Time

3 – Thomas Dewey (1948 Election)

Dewey belongs to the Ambrose Burnside school of ‘snatching defeat from the jaws of victory’ because that’s what he did in the 1948 Election which he ultimately lost to Harry S. Truman. Like Blaine, Dewey managed to throw away an election that was easier to win than lose. Truman was extremely unpopular and his Democrat Party was split three ways such as the level of dislike for their leader. Things were so bad for Truman that even his wife believed his chances of victory were slim.

Dewey was certainly a qualified candidate since he was the Governor of New York (an office he was to hold for 11 years) and already had one presidential campaign under his belt. While he was well beaten in the 1944 Election, the victor was the incomparable Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dewey did manage almost 46% of the popular vote. Almost every single prediction suggested a straightforward win for Dewey against Truman so when he lost it was deemed to be the biggest presidential election shock in American history.

So how did he lose? He became complacent and believed a win was inevitable. Since the Republicans believed they merely needed to avoid major blunders, Dewey adopted a ‘safety first’ strategy which was to backfire spectacularly. His speeches were dull, vague and utterly pointless. Statements such as “your future is still ahead of you” did nothing to rally people behind his cause. In contrast, Truman’s speeches were energetic and fired up supporters. As well as appealing to the white South, he also fared well with Midwestern farmers along with Catholic and Jewish voters.

Towards the end of the election, Dewey realized that things could be going against him and he wanted to change tactics. However, his advisors managed to persuade him from doing so which meant more boring, lifeless speeches while continuing to ignore Truman’s criticisms. This failure to answer Truman’s queries made him seem weak and in the end, he lost the election comprehensively. While he won over 45% of the popular vote, he was beaten 303-189 in the Electoral College; Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond won 39 votes.

It was assumed that Dewey would win right until the night of the election. The Wednesday 3 November 1948 (the day after the election), edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune had ‘DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN‘ as its headline. It had been printed before the results were known in the East Coast states. One of the main reasons why the shock wasn’t predicted was due to the flaws in public opinion polling. Truman gleefully held up the newspaper following his victory in what is one of the most enduring images in U.S. Presidential Election history.

7 of the Worst Presidential Nominees of All Time

4 – George McGovern (1972 Election)

You might be surprised to see four nominees from within the last 50 years but quite frankly, there have been a huge amount of terrible candidates in modern history! McGovern was a pretty woeful candidate and he limped to one of the most pathetic electoral performances ever seen.

The South Dakota senator became known for his outspoken criticism of the Vietnam War and was considered a model of modern American liberalism. When he announced that he was running for President in January 1971, he was given little chance of even securing the Democrat nomination as he was a long way behind front-runner Edmund Muskie. By January 1972, he only had 3% national support amongst his party and his candidacy appeared doomed.

However, the Muskie campaign fell apart with bad organization and lack of funds and another leading contender, Hubert Humphrey, was defeated by the surging McGovern. He only secured the Democrat nomination in July 1972 however and had to quickly pick a running mate. This search proved to be a complete disaster as he was turned down by several people including Ted Kennedy. Almost in a panic, he picked Thomas Eagleton without performing the correct level of vetting.

The last night of the Democrat convention was a complete farce as procedural arguments resulted in McGovern giving his ‘Come Home America’ speech at 3 am Florida time. A prime-time speech had a potential audience of 70 million; this was reduced to 15 million by the time he arrived on the podium. Things got worse when it was revealed that Eagleton had received electroshock therapy on several occasions for depression and nervous exhaustion in the 1960s. He withdrew and was replaced by Sargent Shriver, JFK’s brother-in-law. McGovern made another blunder by making a speech where he said he was 1,000% behind Eagleton only to drop him soon afterwards.

Nixon on the other hand was riding the crest of a wave and did relatively little campaigning. It didn’t matter because an element of the Democrats had deserted McGovern and some even endorsed Nixon. By election week, McGovern knew he was finished and told a Nixon supporter to “kiss my ass” at a rally. He won just 37.5% of the popular vote and was beaten 520-17 in electoral votes. McGovern didn’t even win his home state of South Dakota!

The manner of his defeat caused a sea-change in Democrat thinking. McGovern was considered to be too far left so the party as a whole began making their way towards the center for fear of another election drubbing. After Barry Goldwater was thrashed in the 1964 Election, the Republican Party embraced his radical conservatism instead of fleeing from it. After McGovern’s loss, the Democrats endured a miserable 20 years whereas the Republicans rebounded from Goldwater’s loss which actually paved the way for Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

7 of the Worst Presidential Nominees of All Time

5 – Walter Mondale (1984 Election)

I could have included Ford in 1976 or Carter in 1980 as they were both dismal candidates. However, I have opted for Walter Mondale who was on the wrong side of the biggest electoral vote defeat in history (yes, even worse than McGovern). To be fair to Mondale, every potential Democrat candidate would have been trounced by the extremely popular Ronald Reagan but there was nothing about him that was appealing.

Mondale had enough political credentials to be a nominee; he had been a U.S. Senator for his home state of Minnesota for 12 years and had been the Vice President under Jimmy Carter from 1977-1981. However, Carter wasn’t a popular president and the American economy nosedived during his tenure. Nonetheless, the Carter and Mondale team were nominated by the Democrats for the 1980 Election. It was a complete bloodbath as the Reagan/Bush Republican ticket won by a landslide with 489 Electoral College votes to just 49 for the Democrats.

You would have thought that the Democrats would want to distance themselves from the stench of failure but instead, they nominated Mondale as their 1984 presidential candidate. Apparently, he was the best in a very bad field but he put his foot in his mouth immediately after winning the nomination. At the Democratic Convention, Mondale’s acceptance speech included the following: “Let’s tell the truth. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.” His attempt to play the ‘honest’ candidate card was naïve at best and idiotic at worst.

Even though Reagan was 73 years old, Mondale couldn’t make a dent and his liberal campaign was a disaster. He was seen as a man who would help the poor but at the expense of the middle classes. This caused traditional Democrat voters, such as blue-collar workers in northern states, to vote for Reagan who was credited with the recent economic boom. In the end, Mondale was beaten 525-13 as he only won D.C. and his home state of Minnesota (by less than 4,000 votes) although he did win over 40% of the popular vote.

7 of the Worst Presidential Nominees of All Time
www.politico.com (Dukakis looking ridiculous in a tank)

6 – Michael Dukakis (1988 Election)

Dukakis is the longest-serving Governor in Massachusetts history with 12 total years in office and seemed likely to become the President of the United States when he was first nominated. Reagan’s second term didn’t go as smoothly as the first and when his vice president George H.W. Bush won the Republican nomination for the 1988 Election, he was far from certain to win. In fact, Dukakis was leading most polls by up to 20 points at the beginning of the campaign. However, a couple of gaffes destroyed his chances and he was well beaten in the end.

He won the Democrat nomination for the 1988 Election handily enough with Jesse Jackson in second place. Familiar names such as Joe Biden and Al Gore were also involved but didn’t seriously threaten Dukakis. His early lead in the national polls soon dwindled as his stoic nature made the general public think he lacked passion. One of his campaign blunders was not offering full details of his medical history. This led to all kinds of rumors including one that he had undergone psychiatric treatment.

The worst was yet to come as a photo op turned into one of the all-time great presidential campaign mistakes. Dukakis was widely criticized for being soft on defense issues so his team decided to try and make him look tough. A picture of him was taken in an M1 Abrams tank but instead of making him look like a strong commander-in-chief, it made him look like a kid playing toy soldiers. When you see the image of the diminutive politician in a giant tank in army gear and a helmet that didn’t fit, your main thought is how ridiculous he looks and how unfit he is to be the president.

While some political commentators believe the tank cost him the election, what happened on the night of 13 October 1988 sealed his fate. During the campaign, Bush tried to smear Dukakis as someone who was soft on crime due to his support for a prison furlough program during his first term as Governor of Massachusetts. He vetoed a bill designed to prevent first-degree murderers from benefiting. During his second term, Willie Horton, a convicted murderer, was furloughed and committed rape and murder in Maryland during this time. Ads such as ‘Weekend Passes’ and ‘Revolving Door’ portrayed Dukakis as someone who went too easy on criminals.

Dukakis’ team knew the issue of Horton would come up so they prepared their candidate for the second presidential debate. The moderator asked Dukakis if he would favor an irrevocable death penalty for someone that murdered his wife Kitty. Instead of the impassioned response everyone expected, Dukakis offered a clinical one: “No I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life.” This more or less finished him because he dropped from 49% to 42% in the polls overnight.

Although he fared better than the previous two Democrat candidates, that wasn’t saying much. He managed just 45.6% of the popular vote and lost 426-111 in the Electoral College.

7 of the Worst Presidential Nominees of All Time

7 – John Kerry (2004 Election)

Kerry is yet another genuinely mystifying pick by the Democrats, this time for the 2004 Election. George W. Bush had only scraped into office in 2000 where he beat the dull and uninspiring Al Gore. The Democrats clearly thought this was a good strategy (he only barely lost right?) and chose another candidate with the charisma of a plank of wood. The party could have taken back the White House with a better candidate since the first Bush Jr. administration ended with America in two wars; one was possibly justified while the other was not. As a result, the American public was frustrated by news of dead soldiers and bogus WMDs.

Alas, Kerry was not the man to benefit from their disaffection and he ran a pretty dreadful campaign if truth be told. While he criticized Bush over the Iraq War, he wasn’t able to make much headway in the polls and he made a real blunder when it came to his own military record. The Swift Vets and POWs for Truth campaign hurt Kerry badly; they suggested that he lied about the effectiveness and indeed the nature of Swift Boat operations in Vietnam. There were even baseless allegations that he lied to get war medals. He was far too slow to respond to the accusations of his former mates and his campaign even backtracked regarding a mission in Cambodia and his behavior in the battle that earned him his bronze star.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the Bush campaign managed to successfully paint Kerry as a ‘flip-flopper’. The Democrat nominee didn’t help his cause by actually flip-flopping over certain issues. For example, he said that marriage was something between a man and a woman but he didn’t support any of the numerous state bans on gay marriage. He didn’t respond when Democrat Party members said those against gay marriage were backwards thinking homophobes. It got even worse when he brought up Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter during the third presidential debate. No one really cared about the vice president’s daughter and it ruined the momentum he had gained by seemingly ‘winning’ all three debates.

The coup de grace was allowing himself to get dragged into a fight over the so-called ‘battleground’ states while ignoring the rest of the country. This was a real missed opportunity to distinguish himself from Bush. Instead of grasping the nettle, Kerry revealed himself to be a typical politician that only cared about stats and winning rather than the people he represented.

Despite his dismal campaign, Kerry managed 48.3% of the vote and only lost 286-251 in the Electoral College. A less incompetent candidate could quite easily have won the election for the Democrats. Kerry lost Ohio by just 2.1% for example; he would have been President had he won this key state. Incidentally, he had approximately $14 million of unused funds at the end of his campaign. In American politics, not using your entire war chest is perhaps one of the biggest mistakes of all.