What Makes a Good Nominee?
Former Vice President Walter Mondale passed away yesterday at age 93. Mondale served in the U.S. Senate for more than a decade, was Vice President under Jimmy Carter, and Ambassador to Japan under Bill Clinton. But fairly or unfairly, he will be remembered by many mostly for being on the business end of one of the most lopsided presidential elections in American history, losing to Ronald Reagan by 18 percentage points and winning electors only from Washington DC and his native Minnesota.
This is actually a great opportunity to ask whether or not he was a good presidential nominee in 1984. What makes someone a good nominee is a complicated question, and I often get into this with my students. For some, a good nominee is simply a nominee who wins. I don't think that's right. As I see it, a good nominee is one who can articulate and champion the concerns of a broad range of party groups while also having a chance of winning in the fall election. This is part of what makes Mondale a great test case.
Mondale had a brief run for the presidency back in 1976, but failed to impress party leaders and activists and donors in large part because he refused to kowtow to them. This turned out to be an unsuccessful approach to the nomination. By the time the 1984 cycle rolled around, however, Mondale had become much more attuned to the needs of party insiders, making all sorts of commitments to labor unions, Black leaders, feminist groups, and others prominent in Democratic circles. He was even criticized by some media outlets for being the candidate who couldn't say no to his party. This was a much better strategy for winning its nomination.
A good nominee is one who can articulate and champion the concerns of a broad range of party groups while also having a chance of winning in the fall election.
Sixteen of the 34 Democratic governors at the time endorsed Mondale's candidacy, as did the AFL-CIO and other prominent unions. He also won the support of a large number of prominent Black leaders in the party, despite the fact that Jesse Jackson was running in that race, as well.
None of this means that the nomination was a cinch for Mondale. He lost the New Hampshire primary to Gary Hart. He went into the convention that summer with a pretty bare majority of pledged delegates, and the Mondale and Hart teams were working the phones constantly to pledged delegates and super delegates to secure support. In the end, the party was there for Mondale, in large part because he had pledged to be there for them.
As a general election candidate, Mondale was mostly fine. His pledge to raise taxes, done as a bid to demonstrate his honesty and Ronald Reagan's dishonesty, really didn't work out, and made all the accusations of tax-and-spend liberalism look suddenly true. But beyond that, he was a skilled debater, he campaigned enthusiastically, and he didn't endure many of the major coalition defections that George McGovern had seen 12 years earlier.
But he still got walloped. Why? Well, for starters, the economy was growing by about 7 percent that year, bouncing back dramatically from a double-dip recession that had spanned the Carter years and much of Reagan's first term. It was one of the fastest periods of economic growth since World War II. That really helps an incumbent! Indeed, when you account for economic growth, Reagan's landslide victory doesn't look like much of an outlier.
I would contend that just about any other Democrat running that year would have been similarly annihilated. It's possible that Gary Hart, who was a bit more distant from key Democratic constituencies, had been polling better against Reagan, and probably wouldn't have pledged to raise taxes, would have done somewhat better that November, but not eighteen points better.
It is possible to be a good nominee and lose, even by a lot. Conditions simply strongly favored the incumbent that year. It is also possible to be a bad nominee and win. Donald Trump, who forced his party to take embarrassing stances in defending him and to scramble and then erase its platform, was not a good nominee in 2016; he still won.
It is interesting how Mondale's loss was received by others in the party, though. For an establishment liberal like Mondale to lose so dramatically suggested to many that the party needed to pivot away from its traditional stances. It sought the more technocratic Mike Dukakis in 1988 and then the more moderate Bill Clinton in 1992, who notably ran by criticizing Jesse Jackson and other prominent Black leaders for standing by a controversial rapper.
In the end, Mondale was a decent player handed a very, very bad hand, and he was largely blamed for that hand's loss. But as we remember his long and honorable career, it's good to reflect on a campaign that taught us a lot about what it means to represent a party.