As politicians officially and unofficially begin their campaigns for the presidency in 2008, speculation about the strengths and weaknesses of each potential candidate will naturally be thoroughly debated in the media.
Frequent questions already being posed by pundits include: Will Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith alienate religious fundamentalists? Are John McCain’s foreign policy positions too closely aligned to an unpopular president? What will happen when Rudy Giuliani’s socially liberal pre-9/11 record becomes known to Republican primary voters? How will Barack Obama handle the post-honeymoon period of his campaign? Will Hillary Clinton’s support of the Iraq War hurt her chances to win Democratic primaries?
What is being missed in this partially substantive, partially fluffy, and wholly speculative analysis is the power the ‘unknown’ holds in determining a party’s nominee. For it is the ‘unknown’ that frequently sends one campaign into a tailspin and launches that of another to victory. The ‘unknown’ rarely has anything to do with a candidate’s policy position or strategic positioning among the other candidates in the field. In fact, several recent primary races—especially on the Democratic side—can point to one crucial turning point that seems to have derailed a frontrunner or strong contender for the nomination.
In the fight for the 1988 nomination, Gary Hart was an early frontrunner, before his affair with Donna Rice broke—dropping out of the campaign a week after the story emerged in May 1987.
But the unknown moment need not be a sexual indiscretion. In 1992, former U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas was running a strong campaign, raking up dozens of delegates after wins in New Hampshire, Maryland, Arizona, and Rhode Island. Tsongas then suddenly withdrew from the race after new questions about his health emerged (he had battled cancer in the 1980s). On the other hand, Bill Clinton’s campaign was ultimately able to survive ‘the unknown’ after revelations of his infidelity emerged in 1991; Clinton’s candidacy did suffer in the short term, but, as his ‘unknown’ was revealed early in the campaign, he (unlike Gary Hart, who quit) prevailed in the end.
In 2004, Howard Dean’s image took a huge hit when, at a post Iowa caucus rally, a unidirectional microphone filtered out sympathetic (and equally raucous) crowd noise in a call-and-response battle cry that—on television—made Dean appear rather unhinged and decidedly un-presidential. While Dean’s third place finish in the Hawkeye State admittedly also signaled that the momentum he had developed during the past year had been somewhat curbed, prior to that rally Dean was still a legitimate candidate—and still the most successful fundraiser in the field.
Although he was never viewed as a strong contender, Jesse Jackson’s 1984 campaign (as well as his chance for the Vice-Presidential nomination) took two steps back after making anti-Semitic remarks on the campaign trail.
So, the question may not be whether or not a candidate’s views on Iraq will earn him or her the nomination, but whether or not that candidate is harboring—or will fall victim to – the unknown.