5 Historic Presidential Campaign Collapses

By: Dave Roos
A supporter for Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean cheers for him in Falls Church, Va., during the first stop of his "Sleepless Summer Tour" in 2003.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Some presidential campaigns fizzle with a whimper — e.g. Jack Kemp (1988), Wesley Clark (2004) and Fred Thompson (2008) — and some go out with a cringe-inducing bang. The 2012 political season saw its share of bottle-rocket candidates like Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann and Newt Gingrich, who shot to the top of the polls with fiery confidence and then exploded amid colorful comments and personal controversies.

But 2012 was hardly the first political season to witness the sudden collapse of a can't-lose campaign. We proudly present our list of the five most impressive presidential campaign implosions of the past century, starting with the story of a veteran politician undone by a snowflake.


5: Edmund Muskie's Snowflake Problem

By all accounts, Ed Muskie was prime presidential material. Standing at 6 feet, 4 inches (1.93 meters), the "Lincolnesque" senator and former governor of Maine had earned a reputation as one of the most intelligent and influential Democrats in Congress [source: PBS NewsHour]. In 1968, Muskie ran as the vice presidential candidate on Hubert Humphrey's losing ticket. By the 1972 Democratic primaries, Muskie was considered the frontrunner and the best hope for defeating incumbent Richard Nixon.

But that was before New Hampshire. A man named William Loeb was the publisher of an extremely conservative New Hampshire newspaper called the Manchester Union Leader. Loeb was famous for his provocative front-page editorials attacking his political foes. In the week leading up to the New Hampshire primary, Loeb published an editorial called "Moscow Muskie" that questioned the candidate's patriotism. But it was a second editorial targeting Muskie's wife that sent the normally reserved candidate over the brink [source: PBS NewsHour].


On a frigid New Hampshire morning, Muskie led a group of staffers and reporters to the steps of the Manchester Union Leader offices to denounce the libelous personal attacks made by the paper. As snow began to fall, Muskie called Loeb a "gutless coward" who was "fortunate [that he's] not on this platform beside me." What happens next is a point of historical controversy. Reporters at the scene say that Muskie choked up and wept silently when coming to the defense of his wife. Muskie's staff claimed that it was just snow melting on his cheeks. A photo of Muskie's contorted face accompanied newspaper headlines across the country. The candidate's tears became the story, not the newspaper's attack.

Muskie still won the New Hampshire primary by a margin of 46 percent to George McGovern's 37 percent, but the numbers were much lower than expected [source: Broder]. The damage had been done. Muskie's opponents cast him as a weakling and a crybaby. It would later be revealed that the source for Loeb's "Moscow Muskie" editorial was a letter forged by a member of Nixon's white house staff [source: Broder].

Don't cry for Muskie, though. He abandoned his presidential aspirations, but went on to serve as Secretary of State in 1980, successfully negotiating the release of the American hostages held in Iran [source: PBS NewsHour].

4: Hart's 'Monkey Business'

Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart speaks shortly after his victory in the New Hampshire primary in February 1984.
Michael Grecco/Getty Images

"I know I'm going to be president." Those were Gary Hart's confident words in the early days of the 1984 Democratic primaries [source: Hanlon]. While the ruggedly handsome Colorado governor — known as "Camelot in cowboy boots" — made a strong and surprising early showing, he would eventually lose the nomination to Walter Mondale, partly due to two blips in his backstory: That he was born Gary Hartpence; and that he was a year older than advertised. Also, Mondale crushed Hart in a primary debate with the pop-culture zinger: "When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad, 'Where's the beef?'"

But 1988 was a new year and a new race for the White House, one in which Hart was widely considered the Democratic frontrunner. That was before another shadow from his personal life threatened to eclipse his platform of "new ideas." Like his political idol, John F. Kennedy, the married-and-loving-it Hart had a tragic weakness for beautiful women. Rumors of Hart's infidelities traced back to his years as the young and brash campaign manager for George McGovern, during which he became close friends with the infamous Hollywood playboy Warren Beatty [source: Dionne].


When womanizing charges surfaced in the 1988 race, Hart not only denied the claims, but openly dared the press to follow him around [source: Blake]. Bad move, Mr. Hartpence. The Miami Herald put a team of reporters on Hart's tail, culminating in a damaging series of articles detailing the 52-year-old candidate's dalliance with a 29-year-old model and actress named Donna Rice [source: Dionne]. Both Hart and Rice vehemently denied that the relationship was sexual, but a single photo effectively killed the campaign: the blonde and beautiful Rice sitting on Hart's knee as they prepared to board a private Caribbean yacht called "Monkey Business." Yes, the boat was called "Monkey Business." Hart's second presidential run was over a month after it began.

3: Dewey Defeats Himself

President Harry Truman holds up the Chicago Daily Tribune headline trumpeting his "defeat" in the 1948 presidential election.
Underwood Archives/Getty Images

It's the most famous -- and infamous -- newspaper headline in American history: "Dewey Defeats Truman." On the eve of the 1948 presidential election, every major political poll predicted a landslide victory for Thomas Dewey, the Republican governor of New York, against the unpopular incumbent, Harry Truman. Truman's Democratic party had been crushed in the 1946 midterm elections, saddling the new president -- Truman assumed the office in 1945 after the sudden death of Franklin D. Roosevelt -- with an opposition-led "do nothing" Congress [source: Miller Center]. The Democrats also suffered a blow during the Democratic primaries, when Strom Thurmond and the "Dixiecrats" jumped ship to form their own party.

All of the momentum was in the Republican's camp, and Dewey knew it. The candidate had run in 1944 and narrowly lost to a much more formidable foe in FDR. (Some blame his mind-bending campaign slogan: "Dewey or Don't We." Nope, no question mark.) With the political winds in his favor, Dewey chose to take a prudent tack. While Truman crisscrossed the country on "whistle-stop" train tours, preaching New Deal policies and bold civil rights reforms, Dewey stuck to bland, non-boat-rocking generalities [source: Miller Center]. As a result, Dewey developed a reputation as the dullest man in the room, but the polls still had him leading by a wide margin with only weeks left until election day.


Looking back on their mistake, the good folks at Gallup found several flaws in their polling methods. For starters, they stopped polling three weeks before the election. And more importantly, they polled a representative (not random) sample of Americans of voting age, but not necessarily Americans who were most likely to vote. Truman's tireless campaign efforts brought out a strong union vote, while the overconfident Republican base "played golf that day" [source: Jones].

Predicted to lose by five to 15 points, Truman won by 4.4 percent of the vote. On a train ride back to Washington D.C. two days later, a staffer found an early edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune under a seat. In the famous picture of the infamously wrong headline, Truman's impish grin says it all: Dewey blew it.

2: Rick Perry's Brain Freeze

Texas governor Rick Perry, on the day of his fateful debate gaffe.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Rick Perry was supposed to save the Republican Party in 2012. When he entered the presidential race in August 2011, the Texas governor was the only candidate to nail the conservative trifecta: Legitimate Tea Party membership; vocal and devout Christian faith; and a small-government, anti-Washington platform [source:Parker]. When Perry finally threw his ten-gallon hat into the ring after months of playing it coy, he leapt to the top of the polls, at one time commanding 40 percent of polled Republican voters [source: Rachman].

Perry had the conservative credentials, the Texas drawl and the outstanding hair of strong Republican candidate, but he showed his Achilles' heel early: debating. In the very first Republican primary debate, Perry's rivals ganged up on the popular new guy and Perry seemed ill-prepared for the challenge, stumbling frequently over his words. In the ensuing weeks, Perry and his team worked hard to remove the "bad debater" brand from his longhorn hide. But then came the debate on November 9, 2011, and its infamous "oops" moment.


Perry was a minute into a longwinded comment on somebody else's longwinded comment about political divisiveness, when he abruptly turned to Ron Paul and held up three fingers. "It's three agencies of government that when I get there are gone," Perry promised in his Yoda-esque delivery. "Commerce, education, and... [painful pause] what's the third one there?" Even after his helpful new "friends" on the stage offered suggestions — maybe the EPA, Ricky? — Perry just looked down at his empty podium and muttered, "I can't... the third, sorry. Oops!"

Perry's "oops" clip went instantly viral, causing some viewers and political commentators to not only question Perry intellectual fitness for the office of the president, but whether or not he was on drugs [source: Fikac]. So much for frontrunner status. Perry suspended his campaign after receiving 0.7 percent of the primary vote in New Hampshire [source: Blake]. For the record, the third agency he promised to kill was the Department of Energy.

1: The Dean Scream

Howard Dean was the Internet's first presidential darling. The unpolished, straight-talking former governor of Vermont used a strong online presence to recruit hordes of young "Deaniacs" who were expected to propel the Democratic candidate to the top of the ticket in 2004. Young, liberal voters were drawn to Dean by his off-the-cuff, unscripted attacks on both the Republican President George W. Bush and centrist members of Dean's own party [source: Kuhn].

In the end, it was Dean's most admired qualities -- his boldness, bluntness and distaste for scripted stump speeches -- that led to his undoing. Despite weighty endorsements by former presidential candidate Al Gore and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, Dean placed a disappointing third in the Iowa Caucuses, an early gauge of primary campaign strength. When Dean took the stage in Iowa to rally his sunken supporters, his emotions got the better of him. The result is one of the most-played political fails on YouTube: the Dean scream.


From on-the-scene reports, we know that the room was whipped into a frenzy when Dean took the stage. The large, flag-waving crowd was raucous and very loud, but none of that comes through in the audio on the video clip [source: Salzman]. All we hear is what comes out of Dean's closely held microphone. As Dean reaches the climax of his speech, he starts rattling off the names of the other primary states where his campaign will do victorious battle, leading all the way to reclaiming the White House.

Again, reporters on the scene tell us that people in the crowd were yelling out names of primary states, which explains why the video clip shows Dean pointing menacingly at different spots in the crowd as he lists the state names [source: Salzman]. What can never be fully explained is the exclamatory noise Dean makes at the very end. It's somewhere between a cowboy's "yee-hah!" an evil genius' "bww-ahhh" and a mongoose being run over by a vacuum cleaner. Whatever it was, the crowd seemed to love it, as did the 24-hour cable news cycle and every late night host from Dave Letterman to whoever is the Dave Letterman of Albania.

The scream made Dean look unhinged, and the campaign lacked the appropriate damage control mechanisms to make a full recovery [source: Salzman]. Dean finished second in New Hampshire, but never gained back the momentum that fed his early popularity. He bowed out of the race in February.

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Author's Note: 5 Historic Presidential Campaign Collapses

As I read about the famous flops of presidential candidates, I can't help but wonder how I would fair under the microscopic scrutiny of the massively mass media. My guess? Poorly to very poorly. And what about our political heroes of the past: the Lincolns and Kennedys and Reagans? How would they handle the soundbite culture drowned out by the noise of endless commentary from the blogosphere and pundit-verse? Don't you think Lincoln made a few odd remarks during those Lincoln-Douglas debates that didn't make it into print? And don't even get me started on Kennedy's personal indiscretions. The scrutiny of modern presidential candidates is brutal, but I would also argue, necessary. We deserve a president who is cool and, preferably, smart under pressure; someone who can stand up to tyrants and serve the people's best interests; and maybe even someone who can resist picking his or her nose on live TV.

Related Articles

  • Blake, Aaron. The Washington Post. "Rick Perry and the 10 biggest presidential campaign flops." January 19, 2012 (July 2, 2012) http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/post/rick-perry-and-the-10-biggest-presidential-campaign-flameouts/2012/01/19/gIQA6xYcBQ_blog.html
  • Broder, David. Washington Monthly. "The story that still nags at me — Edward S. Muskie." February, 1987 (July 2, 2012) http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1316/is_v19/ai_4696993/
  • Dionne, E.J., Jr. The New York Times. "Courting Danger: The Fall of Gary Hart." May 9, 1987 (July 2, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/1987/05/09/us/courting-danger-the-fall-of-gary-hart.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
  • Fikac, Peggy. The Houston Chronicle. "Debate meltdown does not help Rick Perry." November 9, 2011 (July 2, 2012) http://blog.chron.com/rickperry/2011/11/debate-meltdown-does-not-help-rick-perry/
  • Hanlon, Michael. The Montreal Gazette. "'Camelot in cowboy boots' excites U.S. voters." March 10, 1984 (July 2, 2012) http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1946&dat=19840310&id=_4U0AAAAIBAJ&sjid=jKUFAAAAIBAJ&pg=5521,4010065
  • Jones, Tim. Chicago Tribune. "Dewey defeats Truman" (July 2, 2012) http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/politics/chi-chicagodays-deweydefeats-story,0,6484067.story
  • Kuhn, David Paul. CBS News. "The Rise and Fall of Howard Dean." February 11, 2009 (July 2, 2012) http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-250_162-601046.html
  • Miller Center. "Harry S. Truman: Campaigns and Elections" (July 2, 2012) http://millercenter.org/president/truman/essays/biography/3
  • Parker, Ashley. The New York Times. "Promising Better Direction, Perry Enters Race." August 13, 2011 (July 2, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/14/us/politics/14perry.html?pagewanted=all
  • PBS NewsHour. "Remembering Ed Muskie." March 26, 1996 (July 2, 2012) http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/remember/muskie_3-26.html
  • Rachman, Gideon. Financial Times. "The rise and fall of Rick Perry." October 27, 2011 (July 2, 2012) http://blogs.ft.com/the-world/2011/10/the-rise-and-fall-of-rick-perry/#axzz1yYL5pRMS
  • Salzman, Eric. CBS News. "Dean's Scream: Not What It Seemed." February 11, 2009 (July 2, 2012) http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-250_162-596021.html