5 Promising Presidential Campaigns That Fell Apart

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As we’ve seen in the current GOP campaign for president, candidates rise and fall in the polls with more unpredictability than the stock market. This type of drama has played out countless times before in campaigns. Months of hard work, coupled with a great performance in a debate or a unique policy stance can boost a candidate to frontrunner status. But a moment of indiscretion or an awkward speech can bring a candidate’s campaign crashing down. Here are five presidential contenders who appeared on their way to their party’s nomination before disaster struck.


5. Howard Dean

The former governor of Vermont started the 2004 presidential campaign as just another face in a crowded field, but Dean’s staunch opposition to the Iraq War and a penchant for fundraising on the new medium of the Internet boosted him to frontrunner status among the Democratic contenders for president by the end of 2003. Dean’s short reign as the favorite fell apart in about two seconds on Jan. 19, 2004, after he unexpectedly finished third in the Iowa Democratic Caucuses. That night, Dean tried to cheer supporters by vowing to fight on, punctuating his emotional speech with what became known as the “Dean Scream.” Media outlets replayed the moment countless times in the coming days, leading to charges the media had targeted Dean. Dean’s standing in the polls fell sharply, and he dropped out of the race one month later.


4. Edmund Muskie

The Democratic candidate for vice president in 1968, Muskie had a head start on other Democrats in name recognition and campaign experience heading into the 1972 election season. The longtime Maine Senator was widely viewed as the frontrunner, even topping President Richard Nixon in a head-to-head national poll in August 1971. Although Muskie did reasonably well in the early 1972 primaries, the media and public became enchanted with the longshot candidacy of George McGovern, a strong campaigner who embraced the primary system. Muskie’s campaign suffered a major blow following a speech during the New Hampshire primary. Speaking outside the offices of the Manchester Union-Leader, Muskie appeared to cry as he denounced the newspaper’s publisher for a negative story the paper had run about Muskie’s wife. The appearance of weakness tarnished Muskie’s image and he never regained his early momentum. McGovern went on to capture the nomination.


3. Eugene McCarthy

McCarthy represented Minnesota in the U.S. Congress from 1949 to 1971, beginning in the U.S. House of Representatives before joining the U.S. Senate in 1959. In late 1967, McCarthy announced his candidacy for president, inspired by a single issue: Opposition to America’s growing military involvement in Vietnam. As the anti-war sentiment grew, McCarthy’s campaign gained momentum, and by the March 1968, McCarthy finished nearly even with President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. The beginning of the end came a few days later, when Robert F. Kennedy announced his decision to join the presidential race. After Johnson decided not to seek reelection, Vice President Hubert Humphrey stepped into the fray. Kennedy, of course, was assassinated in early June, opening the door for Humphrey to claim the Democratic nomination. McCarthy had by then become an afterthought.


2. Nelson Rockefeller

In 1964, two factions fought for control of the Republican party: the party’s moderate wing, which had long held power, faced a challenge from the growing conservative movement appealing to voters in favor of a more limited government. (Sound familiar? The GOP is facing the same ideological battle today.) New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, representing the moderate bloc, began the 1964 campaign season as a strong favorite to win the party’s nomination. Rockefeller’s candidacy faded in 1963, after he married a former member of his staff, a woman 18 years his junior. Rumors quickly spread that Rockefeller had been having an affair while still married to his first wife, whom he’d divorced more than a year earlier. Rockefeller’s support among social conservatives plummeted overnight. The veteran politician battled on, adopting a combative style in attacking what he called the “extremist groups” vying for control of the GOP. But bad timing struck Rockefeller, as his new wife, “Happy,” gave birth to a son just three days before the California primary, once again making the issue of adultery a campaign topic. Conservative Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater would go on to win that primary and capture the GOP presidential nomination. Rockefeller continued to be a major player in U.S. politics, most notably serving as vice president under Gerald Ford.


1. Gary Hart

Hart is the poster boy for promising presidential candidates whose hopes disintegrated literally overnight. Or in Hart’s case, in an overnight boat cruise. Hart, who served 12 years as a United States senator from Colorado, surprised political observers with his strong performance in the 1984 Democratic primaries before yielding to Walter Mondale. By early 1987, polls showed him the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. But in early 1987, Hart’s campaign imploded. When Hart officially announced his candidacy in April, rumors immediately surfaced that he had engaged in an extramarital affair. Hart challenged the media, telling a New York Times Magazine reporter, “Follow me around. I don’t care. … If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.” The Miami Herald, which had been investigating Hart’s fidelity even before his challenge, ran a story in early May detailing Hart’s affair with a model named Donna Rice. Hart dropped out of the race a week later. On a side note, the infamous image of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap on the boat Monkey Business did not appear in print until it was published in the National Enquirer that June.

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.