Some Republicans, horrified by Donald Trump’s slap-dash campaign, personal sleaziness and lack of fealty to bedrock GOP conservatism, seem to think Mike Pence would be a dandy candidate for president in 2020. Many suspect he took on the thankless task of being The Great One’s running mate precisely to position himself for that election.
If I were them, I wouldn’t bet my retirement accounts on it. One lesson of political history is that vice presidential nominees on losing tickets don’t even come back to win their party’s nomination. In my lifetime (born in 1951), only one non-incumbent vice presidential nominee on a losing ticket – Bob Dole, who ran with President Gerald Ford in 1976 – has ever come back to win their party’s nomination. None has ever been elected president.
In 1960, then-Vice President Richard Nixon chose former Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. as his running mate. They got beat, of course, by JFK. In 1964, Lodge won the New Hampshire primary in a surprise as a write-in candidate, defeating declared candidates such as Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. But he dithered from that point about whether to actively seek the nomination, did poorly in succeeding primaries, and Goldwater won the party’s nod.
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In 1968, Maine’s Democratic Sen. Edmund Muskie, with his craggy, Lincolnesque visage, comported himself well in a losing cause as Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s running mate. Given Humphrey’s narrow loss to Nixon, most Democrats assumed Muskie would be the odds-on favorite for the 1972 nomination. Although Muskie won the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, his campaign collapsed several weeks later when he was filmed crying over a published attack on his wife.
And 1972 also provides the next case study in failed vice presidential nominees. George McGovern chose Sargent Shriver as his running mate, the Kennedy in-law who JFK had appointed as the first director of the Peace Corps. The ebullient Shriver waged an energetic and optimistic campaign in a hopeless cause. But when he ran for the 1976 nomination, his campaign went nowhere, and former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter walked away with the nomination.
In 1988, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis put Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen on the ticket. Bentsen, a stately Southern gentleman, produced one of the most memorable moments of the campaign when he snapped back at Dan Quayle during their debate: “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Although Bentsen was considered by many to be more presidential than his running mate, he abandoned a quest for the 1992 nomination.
The most recent examples of this phenomenon occurred in 2004 and 2008. Vice President Al Gore tapped Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman for his ticket in 2000. I was heavily involved in that campaign, and Lieberman, the first Jewish member of a national major-party ticket, was a very solid player out on the trail. I personally believe he was one reason Gore actually won the popular vote, given his reassuring, avuncular manner and upright personal appeal in more conservative-leaning areas.
In 2003, once it became clear Gore wouldn’t run again, Lieberman announced he would seek the Democratic nomination. I served as a senior adviser in that campaign. Though Lieberman led in almost all national polls through the fall, he bypassed the Iowa caucuses, finished fifth in the New Hampshire primary, and did not win a single state before he pulled out of the race. One of the oft-made comments I heard was, “I think the world of Joe, but he and Gore had their chance, and I want to move on to a fresh face.”
Sen. John Kerry won the Democratic nomination in 2004, and designated North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as his No. 2. Edwards also campaigned admirably in a losing cause, but when he sought the 2008 nomination, he failed to carry a single primary or caucus – including in his native South Carolina – before he dropped out.
If the Republican Party truly believes it can stake its future on Pence, it will be defying decades of history. As Trump himself would say, voters apparently don’t like losers.
Garry South is a longtime Democratic strategist and commentator who has been involved in presidential campaigns since 1976. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.