The Official Losing Presidential Campaigns Tier List
How the failed national candidates of the modern era stack up against each other
When one thinks about success in presidential campaigns, there are a few key moments of our collective cultural memory that come to mind. There’s John F. Kennedy outperforming Richard Nixon in the 1960 debates. There’s Richard Nixon again, now president, rigging everything from the economy to foreign affairs to the election itself to win in 1972. In 1980, there’s Ronald Reagan effortlessly sidestepping countless legitimate attacks. Eight years later, there’s George Bush burying his opponent with racist ads. Bill Clinton ran on the economy, George Bush Jr. manipulated terror ratings, and Barack Obama gave soaring speeches. Donald Trump ripped the rules of politics apart, and Joe Biden wasn’t Donald Trump. Together, these stories seem to provide a strong foundation for understanding how the White House is won.
If you look closely, though, you begin to notice something. All of the moments that define national success come from, well, winners. There’s no problem with this by itself, of course. Obviously the candidates who win are going to have the most to tell you about winning. But this also has an interesting effect of self-selection. While winning presidential campaigns are often likely the ones to have the best strategies, they’re even more likely to be the ones placed in the best circumstances. Just a quick look at the successful candidacies of the past shows that they often fit the same type. Almost all are either incumbent presidents or opposition party members running in an open election. Rarely, if ever, can a winning candidate be said to have won under actually unfavorable conditions.
This puts us in something of a tricky situation when looking ahead to the 2024 election, where both parties can be pretty convincingly said to be facing unfavorable circumstances. On the Democratic side, liberals are soon to bear the burden of a thoroughly unpopular, 81-year-old incumbent at the top of their ticket. Republicans, on the other hand, are prepared to coronate one of the most singularly toxic figures in modern politics as their nominee. In this light, the usual gameplan that exists for presidential candidates goes out the window. Guides made for Reagan in 1984 and Clinton in 1996 no longer apply. Instead, it is best to look at what has been done by candidates who faced tougher roads—candidates who often lost.
That’s where this series comes in. Going from 1960 to 2020, I have ranked every modern losing presidential campaign in accordance with what they managed to accomplish based on the circumstances they faced in their elections. It’s a kind of list that I’m not sure has ever been made before, but I hope will be helpful as we look towards next year’s election. So, without further ado, let’s begin at the bottom, starting with a few you’re likely expecting.
George McGovern, 1972
Sometimes the obvious answer is the right one.
To be clear, this list isn’t just ranking candidates based on how much they lost by. Over the course of these rankings, there will be candidates who only lost by narrow margins listed very low, just as there will be some candidates who lost by large margins listed relatively highly. George McGovern is not one of these exceptions. His campaign was just as bad as the final result makes it appear. Even though his election may have never been truly winnable, there was never any reason for McGovern to have lost by as much as he did. The final result was truly, astoundingly bad, and it resulted in such massive damage to his wing of his party that, more than half a century later, it’s still yet to truly recover from it.
This isn’t exactly a rare conclusion, of course. You’d be hard-pressed to find any defenders of McGovern’s campaign strategy today. But the way in which he’s commonly understood to be a failure is, itself, mostly wrong. As the media still tells it, McGovern lost because of his ideology and policy stances, first and foremost. He was a radical left-wing peacenik, deeply out of touch with the way the “silent majority” in middle America felt. They hated his pledges for an expansive welfare state. They thought his calls for a withdrawal from Vietnam disrespected the troops. They were repulsed by his steadfast social liberalism. In rejecting him so decisively, they proved, then and forever, that America is a center-right country that will only tentatively accept self-flagellating radical centrist Democrats. This lesson was etched permanently into the minds of every Democrat in the entire country, and it has defined practically every move the party has made since.
Is this story true? Not really. McGovern didn’t really lose because he was a liberal. In fact, if you look at the congressional results that year, you can see that Democrats—many of them flaming liberals—actually gained seats in the Senate, which they wasted no time in pointing out. He definitely didn’t lose because he opposed the war, as many have falsely remembered in the decades since. Nixon ran as a peace candidate too, at least on paper, and received support because most voters thought he was the most well-prepared to end the war, not continue it. The real reason why McGovern lost by as much as he did was because he simply ran a bad campaign.
Practically everything, from its strategy to its tactics to even its logistics, was utterly baffling. He gave his acceptance speech at 3 AM. He straight up sat around and didn’t do campaign events during pivotal stretches of the cycle. He refrained from advertising his own military background despite being hit brutally hard on a supposed lack of patriotism. He attacked Nixon on Watergate by comparing him to Hitler, which was simply far too real. And, most flagrantly, he became the only candidate in modern times to swap his own running mate in the middle of the campaign, and he didn’t even really have a good reason to do so (Eagleton actually received sympathy, not scorn, over the news of his depression).
You don’t need to belabor the point to come to the easy conclusion: McGovern’s campaign was truly, historically bad. It did not only lose an election, but it lost in a way that ended up killing an entire political philosophy for a generation. For these reasons, it earns an easy last-place slot.
Hillary Clinton, 2016
Yeah, you remember it correctly. It really was that bad.