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8 Unusual Presidential Candidates

8 Unusual Presidential Candidates



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1. William Wirt

America’s first third party presidential candidate ran under the banner of the Anti-Masonic Party, a political faction born out of the belief that the Freemasons were a murderous secret society that sought to impose their will on the electorate. In 1832, the Anti-Masons stepped onto the national stage by nominating former U.S. attorney general William Wirt to oppose incumbent and Freemason Andrew Jackson in the presidential election. There was just one problem—Wirt was himself an ex-Freemason, and he admitted in his acceptance letter that he considered the group a harmless “social and charitable club” with no conspiratorial aims. He even tried to drop out of the race after concluding that his presence was likely to split the anti-Jackson vote and give the president an easy victory. Party leaders persuaded Wirt to soldier on until Election Day, but the reluctant candidate only won 100,000 votes and carried a lone state—Vermont.

2. Victoria Woodhull

In 1872, Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to vie for the presidency when she ran as the Equal Rights Party nominee against Ulysses S. Grant. The White House bid came nearly 50 years before the 19th Amendment gave women the vote, but Woodhull’s gender wasn’t the only unconventional aspect of her candidacy. The Ohio native was also a former clairvoyant and psychic medium; a business maven who opened the first woman-owned brokerage firm on Wall Street; and a radical newspaper publisher whose “Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly” regularly touched on taboo topics such as legalized prostitution, birth control and free love. After choosing abolitionist Frederick Douglass as her running mate (he never accepted the nomination), Woodhull campaigned on a progressive platform that included women’s suffrage and abolition of the death penalty. It’s unclear how many votes she received, but she did succeed in stirring up controversy. Just a few days before Election Day, she was jailed on charges of distributing obscene literature for publishing an article accusing a prominent minister of having an extramarital affair.

3. Horace Greeley

Along with Victoria Woodhull, the challengers in the 1872 election also included New York Tribune founder Horace Greeley, a brilliant and eccentric newspaper editor known for dabbling in everything from temperance and vegetarianism to spiritualism. Greeley secured the nominations of both the Democratic Party and the offshoot Liberal Republican Party, but his attempt to unseat incumbent Ulysses S. Grant was nothing short of a disaster. Political cartoonists such as Thomas Nast had a field day satirizing Greeley’s appearance—he sported a set of unruly whiskers and often wore a flowing white overcoat—and despite his past support for the abolition of slavery, the newsman was widely criticized championing post-Civil War reconciliation with the South. Greeley’s troubles only mounted after his wife died shortly before Grant cruised to victory on Election Day, and his own failing health later forced him to check himself into an asylum. He passed away on November 29, 1872, becoming the only presidential candidate in history to die before the Electoral College had been totaled. Greeley’s 66 electoral votes were subsequently distributed among several other Democratic candidates.

4. Eugene V. Debs

Socialist icon Eugene V. Debs ran for president five times during the early 20th century, but it was his final bid in 1920 that proved to be the most surprising. Just two years earlier, the pacifist labor leader had been charged with sedition, stripped of his citizenship and sentenced to 10 years in prison for giving a speech calling for resistance to the World War I draft. Debs received the Socialist Party nomination despite the charges, and proceeded to campaign from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary under a variety of slogans including “From the Jailhouse to the White House.” Though restricted to just one public statement per week, he netted over 900,000 votes in the general election, finishing a respectable third behind Republican Warren G. Harding and Democrat James M. Cox. President Harding would later commute Debs’ prison sentence and set him free in 1921, but his U.S. citizenship was not restored until 1976—50 years after his death.

5. William Dudley Pelley

In 1936, as the Nazis tightened their grip on Germany, a fringe religious mystic and Adolf Hitler acolyte named William Dudley Pelley launched an unlikely bid for the American presidency. The Massachusetts native had previously worked as a Hollywood screenwriter before a near death experience inspired him to create “Liberation Doctrine,” a religious system that combined elements of spiritualism and New Age philosophy. He later became the subject of intense government scrutiny for founding a fascist, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant paramilitary group called the Silver Legion of America. Pelley made his White House run on the upstart Christian Party ticket, campaigning against Roosevelt’s New Deal and arguing that, “the time has come for an American Hitler and a pogrom.” Despite giving numerous speeches, he only succeeded in getting on the ballot in the state of Washington, where he received fewer than 2,000 votes. Pelley continued his controversial activities after the election, and was later imprisoned on sedition charges for publishing pro-Nazi literature during World War II.

6. Gracie Allen

Gracie Allen was a comedian known for hosting a wildly popular radio show alongside her cigar-chomping husband, George Burns. During the 1940 presidential election, the couple staged a now-legendary publicity stunt by throwing Gracie’s hat in the ring as the nominee of the tongue-in-cheek “Surprise Party,” which featured a kangaroo as its mascot and the slogan “It’s in the bag.” Allen toured the country on a whistle-stop tour, and fans flocked to hear her quips on the national debt (“we ought to be proud of it, it’s the biggest in the world!”) and her lack of a vice president (she was adamant that she would “tolerate no vice” in her administration). First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt even got in on the fun by inviting Allen to speak at the Women’s National Press Club. Allen suspended the joke campaign a few months before Election Day, but not before she was unofficially elected mayor of a small Michigan town and endorsed by Harvard University’s student body. She went on to receive a few thousand write-in votes during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s landslide victory in the general election.

7. Earl Browder

Kansas-born Earl Browder ran as the Communist Party’s presidential candidate in both the 1936 and 1940 elections, and once appeared on the cover of Time Magazine as the face of American Marxism. While he never succeeded in gaining traction for his campaigns—he won fewer than 100,000 votes on both occasions—Browder has since become famous for his alleged ties to Soviet espionage in the United States. According to decrypted government cables released in the 1990s, Browder campaigned for the White House while simultaneously serving as a go-between for Soviet intelligence, and may have taken part in covert activities along with several members of his family. One study has even claimed that he personally recruited many of the Soviets’ American spies. While Browder was never convicted of espionage during his lifetime, he was jailed for over a year for passport fraud before being pardoned in 1941. He was later expelled from the Communist Party after World War II for arguing that their philosophy could coexist with capitalism.

8. Benjamin Spock

Dr. Benjamin Spock is best known as the author of 1946’s “Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care,” which became the bible of a generation of parents during the post-World War II “baby boom.” But along with his work as a pediatrician, he was also a former Olympic gold medal-winning rower and—in 1972—a surprise candidate for president. Spock’s political career came on the heels of several years as a Vietnam War protestor and advocate of nuclear disarmament. “It isn’t enough to bring up children happy and secure,” he once argued, “you need to provide a decent world for them.” As the nominee of the People’s Party, Spock advanced a liberal platform that called for an end to American military intervention overseas, the legalization of marijuana and free healthcare. He only succeeded in winning ballot access in 10 states, however, and finished fifth with 78,000 votes. Spock later resumed his work as a political activist, and was arrested for civil disobedience more than a dozen times before his death in 1998.

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The 8 Biggest Unforced Errors in Debate History

Over the 56 years that presidential debates have been televised, one of their great legacies has been the sudden, public gaffe—a mistake on live TV that permanently cements the way voters see a candidate.

Julian E. Zelizer is a political historian at Princeton University and a Political Reform Fellow at New America. He is the author of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society (Penguin Press).

On the night of September 26, as the house lights dim in the Mack Complex at Hofstra University and the TV cameras go live, millions of Americans will be riveted to the scene. Will Donald Trump seem well prepared? Will Hillary Clinton’s commanding grasp of policy and nuance dazzle viewers? Will either candidate rise to the challenge and show voters that they have what it takes to be president?

Experience suggests it’s hard to make a positive breakthrough—especially with two candidates so well known and so widely disliked. But what is possible is a serious unforced error.

Over the 56 years that presidential debates have been televised, one of their great legacies has been the sudden, public gaffe—a mistake live on TV that permanently cements the way voters see the candidate.

Despite the hopeful aspirations of those voters who welcome a few hours of substantive deliberation on the major issues of the day, the truth is that these are televised performances. What the candidates say often matters less than how they look and what they do with their bodies: Every breath they take, every expression they make, and every emotion they convey can play a major role in determining how Americans evaluate their performances. And although debates don’t usually transform how most voters think of the candidates, they do confirm voters’ impressions—which matters on Election Day.

For both candidates, this will be a particularly big challenge. Donald Trump is a larger-than-life presence who likes to intimidate, cajole and verbally bully his opponents by saying things long considered out of bounds—which could lead to an unforced error by Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton, who sometimes betrays an aversion to letting too much emotion show, has a steely temperament and stinging wit that could easily get under Trump’s skin, instigating him into losing control with the cameras rolling. If either of these happens, it will join the long line of memorable, campaign-changing moments that candidates fumbled into.

1. 1960: Nixon sweats while debating JFK

Famously, the very first televised presidential debate offered early evidence that all future debates would be visual affairs. After eight years as vice president, Richard Nixon was running to inherit the White House from the enormously popular Dwight Eisenhower. His challenger was John F. Kennedy, the charismatic young Massachusetts senator whose eloquence and matinee-idol looks captivated much of the nation.

On September 26, at the candidates’ first debate, Nixon proved to be in strong command of policy. But he looked terrible. Famously, prior to the debate, he declined to have any makeup applied to his face. But that decision was made worse by the fact that for much of the previous two weeks, Nixon had been away from the campaign trail nursing a knee infection. As a result, he looked peaked.


Three ways Donald Trump's presidential campaign has made history

By Matthew Rozsa
Published November 8, 2016 9:47PM (EST)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Jacksonville Equestrian Center, Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP)

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Regardless of whether GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump wins on Tuesday, this election has already been a historic one — mainly within the history of the Republican Party, of course, but also by extension for America as well.

Here are the three main ways in which Trump's candidacy have broken historical precedent.

1. This is the first election since 1940 in which a major party nominated a presidential candidate without any governmental or military experience.

The last non-politician and non-military presidential nominee was Wendell Willkie, whom the Republicans nominated based on his strong record as a business executive. Although Willkie's candidacy was unusual in that he had never held elected office, the Republican Party has a long history of viewing business experience as a valued qualification for public office.

It's hardly a coincidence that George W. Bush was the first president to have an MBA or that Mitt Romney touted his business acumen as a main selling point. That said, Bush and Romney were both elected to other offices before running for president (as governors of Texas and Massachusetts, respectively), while Trump went directly from his business career to his presidential campaign.

If he wins, Trump will be the first president to be elected without a career stopover in politics or the military.

2. It is the first time a presidential candidate from either party has been explicitly anti-free trade since Herbert Hoover in 1932.

It may seem hard to believe now, but there once was a time when presidential candidates didn't dare speak out against free trade. Sure, some of the fringe-y candidates on the left or right might insinuate that trade deals like North American Free Trade Agreement and Central America Free Trade Agreement weren't all that great, but those guys never won their party's nomination.

The last presidential candidate — or for that matter president — to be openly anti-free trade was Herbert Hoover more than 80 years ago. Trump, by contrast, has been a consistent opponent of free trade since the 1980s, and along with Sen. Bernie Sanders has compelled Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to become more critical of impending trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

3. This is the first time the Republican Party has nominated a candidate openly opposed by its establishment since 1964.

Until this year, the conventional wisdom was that Democratic presidential primaries were the unpredictable ones. Republicans, on the other hand, could be relied upon to coronate a candidate who had already received the party establishment's blessing. This axiom held from Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign straight through to Mitt Romney's 2012 effort but was obliterated in 2016.

Not only did the GOP nod wind up going to Trump, a man loathed by his party's establishment, but the closest runner-up was Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, someone who many establishment Republicans held in equally low regard. The last time the party's leadership was so thoroughly repudiated, the candidate responsible for the rebuke — Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater — wound up pushing his party to the far right, where it has remained ever since. Obviously, it remains to be seen whether Trump's campaign will have the same effect.

It's hard to overstate the significance of Trump's campaign breaking these precedents. For more than half a century, the Republican Party could be relied upon to nominate candidates who had either political or military experience, passed muster with the party establishment and took "safe" positions on issues like trade policy.

These constants limited the type of person who could plausibly run for president and made sure that Republican ideology and policy were shaped in a relatively stable way. If just one of these precedents had been broken in this year's election, that would have been an enormous development on its own.

Having three precedents broken in a single election, however, is nothing short of shocking.

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.


8 People Who Played Presidential Candidates in Mock Debates

You’ve probably heard that Barack Obama recruited Massachusetts senator and ketchup-magnate-by-marriage John Kerry to play Mitt Romney in mock debates. But Obama certainly isn’t the first president to fine-tune his skills through pseudo smackdowns. In fact, almost every presidential candidate in recent years has hired a surrogate sparring partner. Here are 8 all-star stand-ins and the politicians they portrayed.

1. Television Monitor as Jimmy Carter (1976)

Gerald Ford staged the first full-scale practice sessions in 1976. Ford had a few different people play his opponent, Jimmy Carter. But when a human sparring partner wasn’t around, Ford used a television monitor to play sound bites from Carter’s interview with Meet the Press. Mock panelists asked the monitor questions, and Carter’s pre-taped response would play back. To practice looking confident, Ford was supposed to gaze forcefully at his TV opponent during the replays.

2. Samuel Popkin as Ronald Reagan (1980)

At first, Jimmy Carter thought the notion of practicing with a “dummy opponent” was nuts. But the incumbent president softened his stance when he was forced to square off with show business veteran Ronald Reagan.

Carter hired political science professor Sam Popkin to play ol’ Dutch. Popkin studied Reagan’s rhetoric extensively and devised a strategy memo for outwitting him called “Popping Balloons.” Popkin told Carter if he couldn’t beat one of Reagan’s stories with a fact, he should try to beat it with another story. He also tried to familiarize Carter with his opponent’s folksy oratory style by recycling old Reagan speeches during debates.

3. David Stockman as Jimmy Carter/Walter Mondale (1980 and 1984)

Eager to master the art of full-scale debate rehearsal, Ronald Reagan had his garage converted into a professional quality television studio and hired congressman David Stockman to stand in for Jimmy Carter. The practice proved helpful, helping to familiarize the veteran actor with a debate format . . . and landing Stockman a job as budget director once Reagan was elected.

But in 1984, all that practice backfired. Reagan’s team believed Mondale would be a scrappy fighter, so they encouraged Stockman to really bully the president during mock debates. Stockman’s brow beatings destroyed the president’s confidence – to the point where his wife asked, “What have you done to my husband?” After a rough first debate, the Reagan campaign staged a pep rally at the president’s Kansas City hotel to boost his spirits before the second face-off. Reagan rebounded – and ended up winning 49 out of the 50 states.

4. Fred Thompson as Bill Clinton (1996)

Bob Dole hired former actor Fred Thompson to fill the shoes of Bill Clinton. A fellow Southerner, Thompson could replicate Clinton’s raspy drawl with astounding accuracy. And when it came to attacking Dole, Thompson didn’t pull any punches. “I tried to beat him down!” Thompson once told NPR. “If you can generate a bit of hostility, that’s a good thing.”

5. Bob Barnett as George H.W. Bush/ Dick Cheney (Many Times)

This Washington D.C. attorney played a Republican rival in five campaigns – filling in for George H.W. Bush in 1984, 1988, and 1992 and Dick Cheney in 2000 and 2004.

Barnett’s relentless baiting drove his mock opponents crazy. During his 1984 practice debates with Geraldine Ferraro, the vice presidential hopeful often became so irritated with Barnett that she walked over and slugged him on the arm. And after grueling 1992 debate preparations, Bill Clinton said, “I was just so glad I didn’t have to debate [him]. The election might have turned out differently.”

6. Judd Gregg as Al Gore/John Kerry (2000 and 2004)

New Hampshire senator Judd Gregg acted as Democratic doppelgangers in 2000 and 2004. For Gregg, playing Gore was a piece of cake. He claimed that the then-vice president was mechanical, scientific, and uber-predictable. But he had a tougher time playing Kerry. He maintained that the notoriously flip-flopping senator was hard to pin down because he went in a few different directions when he spoke.

But regardless of whom he was playing, Gregg’s job was to push George Bush’s buttons – and he was good at it. On one occasion in 2000, Gregg’s relentless bushwhacking (no pun intended) sent the presidential hopeful over the edge. Bush became flustered and started angrily repeating the same points in a raised voice. Worried that the pseudo sparring match had gotten too real, an aide stopped the debate to let things cool down.

7. Greg Craig as George W. Bush/John McCain (2004 and 2008)

In the past two elections, Democrats called on Washington lawyer (and former White House counsel) Greg Craig to prep presidential hopefuls to face-off with Republican rivals. Craig was no stranger to controversial debates – he won an acquittal for John W. Hinckley, Jr., the man who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan. Moreover, Craig directed the team defending Clinton against impeachment following the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The powerhouse attorney was no Dana Carvey he didn’t mimic his doppelgangers’ body language or accents. Instead, he focused on suffocating his pseudo-opponents with airtight logic.

8. Rob Portman as Half the Democratic Party (1996-)

For years, Ohio congressman Rob Portman has been the GOP’s go-to guy for getting inside the heads of Democratic rivals. Since 1996, Portman’s filled the shoes of Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards, Barack Obama, and even Hillary Clinton.

Portman had an uncanny ability to capture the mannerisms of the candidates – right down to subtle body movements and vocal pauses. Republicans claimed he magically “became Barack Obama” during the 2008 practice debates with John McCain. Rick Lazio, who ran against Clinton for the Senate, remarked on his astounding ability to channel the first lady – even without a wig or makeup. And Joe Lieberman jokingly referred to Portman as his alter ego. Lieberman once said, "I've tried on occasion when I couldn't make it to a speaking engagement to send Rob Portman."

And Three All-Star Vice-Presidential Stand-ins.

Jennifer Granholm as Sarah Palin

Tina Fey and Julianne Moore aren't the only women to portray Sarah Palin onstage. Michigan governor and fellow beauty pageant winner Jennifer Granholm helped Joe Biden practice debating the Alaska governor in 2008. Granholm studied Palin nonstop. To get in character, she wore glasses and a red suit. But did she go the extra mile and try her hand at that famously folksy Alaska accent? You betcha.

Randy Scheunemann as Joe Biden

To prep Palin for the 2008 vice presidential debates, neoconservative lobbyist Randy Scheunemann played Joe Biden. He really got into character – so much so that Palin could barely keep a straight face. Scheunemann peppered his performance with frequent mentions of “God love ya” and “literally.” He also copied Biden’s loquacious speaking style, going on rants about everything from gun control to his own mother.

But while Palin was certainly convinced by her faux-opponent’s performance, she kept accidentally calling him “O’Biden.” That’s when Scheunemann suggested that she take a folksy approach and start calling him “Joe.”

Dennis Eckart as Dan Quayle

Former Ohio Congressman Dennis Eckart had a lot in common with the then-vice president. Both were young, telegenic Midwesterners who loved golf. Eckart joked that he got into character by spending hours at the Congressional Country Club. Once he even went through a mock debate with a golf tee stuck behind his ear. Eckart, a former college actor, said he loved “getting into the head” of people he played. But when reporters asked him what he found inside Quayle’s head, he answered, “Room to maneuver.”


The 8 Dumbest Presidential Campaign Blunders in Modern Political History

It’s hard to believe, but there are only 18 short months left until the next president of the United States is elected to office. Only 500 or so days remaining for candidates to somehow fit in corn dogs in Iowa, pandering in Florida, kowtowing in Ohio, and brown-nosing in Colorado, all the while ignoring most of the other states and collecting a billion dollars to run mudslinging television commercials on an endless loop. Oh, and let us not forget making a fool of yourself. In addition to running the longest campaigns in the history of human civilization, and spending more money than God doing it, it is a time-honored tradition in presidential campaigns to commit mind-boggling blunders, gaffes and bungles along the way.

The 2016 election promises to be no different we have already gotten a sneak peak at idiocies to come from Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, and Carly Fiorina. There is little doubt that there are many more missteps awaiting us in the coming 18 months. In the meantime, here are eight of the most mindboggling political stumbles in presidential campaigns of the recent past.

1. You say potato, I say potatoe.

No list of presidential campaign whoppers would be complete without Dan Quayle. Quayle was a little-known frat boy senator from Indiana when George Bush the Elder tapped him to be his vice-presidential running mate in 1988. Ostensibly added as a way to inject youth and energy to the ticket, Quayle proved to be a goldmine for late-night talk show comedians and a constant pain in the neck to Bush 41. Despite being destroyed in the 1988 vice-presidential debate by Democrat Lloyd Bentsen, the Bush-Quayle ticket prevailed in 1988 by running one of the dirtiest campaigns in history and tarring the reputation of Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, the Democratic candidate.

In 1992, running for re-election, Bush again tapped Quayle as his running mate, although there was inside-the-Beltway talk of replacing him. During this campaign Quayle made maybe the funniest gaffe in presidential political history. Visiting an elementary school in New Jersey for a photo op, Quayle watched as a student proved his spelling prowess by correctly writing the word “potato” on the chalkboard. Quayle told the young man he had forgotten a letter and urged him to add an “e” to the end of the word. When the boy doubtfully complied, Quayle happily cried , “There you go!” As many a comic pointed out in the days to follow, Quayle’s spelling smarts were less than stellar. The Bush team lost its re-election bid.

2. Oops, what was that third thing again?

The 2012 Republican campaign for the presidential nomination was marked by a plethora of less-than-stellar candidates, including Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, and Michele Bachmann, collectively known as the “clown car.” Fear was rampant in the GOP that a formidable opponent to Barack Obama would not step up. A hue and cry went out to Rick Perry. Good looking, folksy, a successful governor of Texas, and a good campaigner, Perry was looked at as the GOP savior. That is, until he actually threw his hat in the ring. Perry proved himself to be unexciting, and finally, inept. Still, nothing equaled the moment in a November 2011 debate among the candidates when Perry was asked how he would trim government spending. He replied that three entire departments would be cut the moment he was sworn in. “It’s three agencies of government when I get there that are gone: commerce, education and the um, what’s the third one there? Let’s see. Oh, five: commerce, education and the um, um… The third agency of government I would do away with—the education, the uh, the commerce and let’s see. Sorry, oops.” Perry was out within two months.

Perry now says a health problem was the issue, and is talking about another run in 2016.

3. Is it hot in here?

In 1960, Richard Nixon was one of the most well-known politicians in America. He had been vice-president for eight years under Dwight Eisenhower. He had conducted communist witch hunts earlier in his career, which made him hated among liberals but respected among the conservative voting blocs. The country was fairly prosperous, and Nixon had a giant head-start in the race for the presidency. His opponent, John F. Kennedy, seemed to have little to offer, on the surface, besides his good looks and beautiful wife, Jackie. In the campaign, however, the public discovered that Jack Kennedy had a razor-sharp wit and intellect, oratorical panache and sharp political instincts. Still, Nixon was the presumptive man to beat, and the odds were in his favor to capture the presidency. That is, until the first 1960 debate between the two candidates. Anyone who listened to the debate on radio thought that Nixon had won the debate, hands down. However, for the first time, the debate was televised, and a huge audience watched. While JFK appeared vibrant and dashing, smiling, and in control, Richard Nixon was profusely sweating, constantly wiping his brow, pale and chalky looking, his eyes shifty.

What the audience didn’t know was that Nixon had recently been in the hospital for a knee operation and had contracted a staph infection. He had lost a lot of weight and was still suffering the after-effects of the infection. Nixon held his own in the following debates, but never recovered from the first one. He lost in one of the narrowest elections ever. Nixon did, however learn his lesson. When he ran again in 1968, he refused to debate the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey. That time, he won.

4a. The theoretical rape of Kitty.

Despite the hosannas from GOP worshippers, when the Ronald Reagan presidency limped to its conclusion, Reagan was not the sainted man present-day Republicans paint him as. His administration was plagued by second-term scandal and the election of his successor, Vice-President George Herbert Walker Bush was by no means assured. In fact, headed into the election, Democrat Michael Dukakis was leading Bush in most polls by 20 points. It seemed assured that Dukakis could start composing his inaugural address. Then, the October 1988 debate happened. Debate moderator, CNN newsman Bernard Shaw took the opportunity to ask what many analysts have labeled a “gotcha” question: "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" Where the audience was waiting for an impassioned response, Dukakis instead gave a clinical one that made the country think he had ice water in his veins: "No, I don't, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life," he said, in a bloodless monotone. It was technically the right answer. But it did seem to hurt him.

Viewers who watched him display no visible emotional reaction to the theoretical rape and murder of his loved one almost immediately wrote him off. His poll numbers dropped overnight and he never recovered. Bush trampled him in the general election.

4b. G.I. Joe Dukakis

Not to be outdone by himself, Michael Dukakis made a worse misstep in the 1988 campaign. Painted by Bush 41 (soon-to-be) as soft on defense, Dukakis decided to show the world what a tough commander-in-chief he would be. Appearing for a photo op at a General Dynamics facility in Michigan, the short-of-stature governor was filmed riding around in an M1A1 battle tank, in a helmet that looked too small for his large head, waving and pointing at onlookers. Dukakis reminded people not of a general but a little boy playing soldier. It was immediately apparent to many of Dukakis’ handlers that this was a bad idea, but louder voices prevailed. The Bush campaign made quick use of the footage in a TV commercial highlighting Dukakis’ record against defense spending as film of him waving and smiling in the tank rolled in the background. It was the final nail in the coffin for the Dukakis campaign.

5. The sigh heard ‘round the world.

The year 2000 was supposed to be the year Al Gore, who paid his dues as Vice-President to Bill Clinton for eight years, ascended to the job he had been trying to win ever since 1988, when he first ran for (and lost) the Democratic presidential nomination. Coming off eight years of prosperity and relative peace, it should have been a piece of cake. Unfortunately for Gore, he had two things going against him. One was Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal, and Gore’s subsequent decision to distance himself from his boss. Most agree it was a tactical mistake. Despite Clinton’s problems, he remained popular throughout the country and his absence hurt the Gore campaign.

The second problem Gore had was worse: his personality. Perceived as wooden and arrogant, Gore struggled to present himself as someone other than the smartest kid in the class. Running against the folksy George W. Bush, Gore, in comparison, was never the guy you wanted to share a beer with, and alas, Americans cared about that. It was in the presidential debates that year that Gore sealed his fate. Despite his obvious smarts compared to Bush, Gore could not stop himself from sighing and rolling his eyes and interrupting every Bush debate answer. It happened so often that Saturday Night Live parodied it during the campaign.

Other comedians jumped aboard the Gore ridicule train, and his unappealing brand was reinforced. Gore then inexplicably tried to intimida te Bush during one of the debates, walking up to him and invading his space as Bush tried to answer a question. Perhaps Gore felt it would show him as tough, but it only made him seem like a bully. It was enough to sway some voters in an incredibly close election and throw the decision into the Supreme Court’s conservative hands, which awarded the presidency to Bush 43.

6. Communists? What communists?

Gerald Ford was the nation’s first and only unelected president (unless you want to count George W. Bush), having attained the office through Richard Nixon’s resignation after the Watergate scandal. In fact, Ford was also an unelected vice-president, after being chosen for the office by Nixon after Spiro Agnew also resigned in disgrace following a bribery scandal. These facts made for an unusual 1976 campaign for the presidency, as both candidates, Ford and Jimmy Carter, were essentially introducing themselves to the public for the first time. Carter was a virtually unknown former governor of Georgia who presented himself as a religious, honest, down-to-earth peanut farmer who would cleanse the nation of the stain of Watergate. Ford tried hard to overcome Nixon’s legacy of scandal and pushed his experience in Washington and his knowledge of the presidency from having served out Nixon’s second term. Ford’s challenge was also to overcome the perception that he was dumb and clumsy, an image that was reinforced when he tripped on camera, which Chevy Chase parodied on Saturday Night Live.

It was in this context that Ford committed the blunder that would cost him the election that year. In his second debate with C arter , Ford, attempting to look tough, proclaimed, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration." It was an incredible statement to make, since Eastern Europe was a virtual Soviet playground, and even the debate moderator was stunned at the error, asking Ford to restate it to make sure he understood what he had heard. Ford’s statement only reinforced the public perception that he was not smart enough to be president, and they voted their sentiment, placing Carter in the office.

7. Sarah Palin, news junkie.

The 2008 presidential election pitted John McCain, elderly senator and former war hero from Arizona, against Barack Obama, the first African American ever to gain the presidential nomination from a major political party. Obama was an acclaimed orator and was perceived to be the frontrunner for the office, after having dispatched his main rival, Hillary Clinton, in the Democratic primaries. McCain was seen as old and angry, having lost the luster of his maverick reputation in the Republican primaries by pandering to right-wing interests.

This changed, however, in one stunning moment when McCain announced that his running mate would be Sarah Palin, an unknown governor from Alaska. Palin would be the second woman ever chosen to run for vice-president (after Geraldine Ferraro in 1984), and her oratorical abilities were on wide display during the Republican Convention, as she charmed the base and electrified the media. McCain surged in the polls and it looked like he had a fighting chance.

Sadly for McCain, however, Palin’s alleged charms dimmed the longer she commanded the stage. While she was an effective attack dog for the campaign, the traditional role of vice-presidential candidate, her knowledge of basic facts became more apparent every time she opened her mouth. Stories began to circulate that in private she was demanding and petty, more interested in fame than public service. The last straw came when she had a one-on-one interview with news anchor Katie C ouric . It was clear she had not prepared adequately for the interview, and she tried to buttonhole rote answers into any question Couric asked. Other than Roe v. Wade, she was not able to name a single Supreme Court decision that was of importance to her, nor a single newspaper or magazine that she read (“All of ‘em. Any of ‘em”). She even claimed foreign policy expertise because Russian President Putin liked to fly over Alaskan airspace.

So ridiculous was Palin’s performance that she elevated Tina Fey from comic to superstar. In the end, only the far-right-wing base remained loyal to Palin, and she was an albatross around McCain’s neck for the rest of the campaign. McCain was trounced on Election Day and Obama became our 44th p resident.

8. The scream that wasn’t.

It was 2004 and the U.S. was in the middle of two wars, one (maybe) justified in Afghanistan, and one definitely not justified in Iraq. Casualties were mounting and there was no end in sight. Bush administration assurances that we would be greeted in Iraq as liberators proved to be as bogus as the weapons of mass destruction. The public was growing increasingly disenchanted with the carnage, and out of that discontent rose an unexpected candidate for the Democratic nomination for President, Governor Howard Dean of Vermont. The progressive Dean climbed in the polls on the promise to reclaim the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” and to end the war in Iraq immediately. There were echoes of the Eugene McCarthy campaign in 1968, which, though unsuccessful, toppled the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Dean became the frontrunner and there was genuine talk of a threat to the Bush White House.

Then came the Iowa caucuses. Although the polls showed Dean leading the Democratic pack, which included eventual nominee Senator John Kerry, the more conservative voters in Iowa would have none of it. When caucus night was over, Dean finished not first, but third, after Kerry and North Carolina Senator John Edwards. If the balloon had not burst, it had at least been somewhat deflated. The actual bursting came later that evening, as Dean addressed the large crowd at his headquarters. Shouting over the din, Dean promised, “Not only are we going to New Hampshire…we're going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico, and we're going to California and Texas and New York. And we're going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan, and then we're going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House!” Then he let out a scream.

While Dean was probably just trying to be heard above the intensely noisy room, he was the only one who was miked, and the whole speech came off as mildly deranged. Dean was visited in the following days by the kiss of death to any political campaign, comedic derision. Late-night hosts had a field day with “the scream,” and the campaign never recovered. In the next contest, in New Hampshire, he finished in second place after having led there in the polls by 30% just the week before. A month later Dean withdrew from the contest.


Abraham &aposHonest Abe&apos Lincoln had a number of nicknames

Photo: Stock Montage/Getty Images

America’s 16th president came from famously humble origins, born in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky. He had little formal schooling but was self-educated and ambitious. He worked a series of odd jobs and used his lanky frame to his advantage as a wrestler to chalk up a reported 299-1 record, earning him one of his first nicknames, "Grand Wrestler," and a spot in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

By his mid-20s, Abraham Lincoln had moved to New Salem, Illinois, where he worked as a shopkeeper, postmaster and store owner. It was here that Lincoln earned his reputation for honesty, reportedly chasing customers out of his store if he had accidentally shortchanged him. “Honest Abe” became a lawyer and settled in Springfield where he was elected to one term in Congress. When Lincoln unsuccessfully ran against Stephen Douglas in an 1858 Senate race, Douglas confided in a friend that Lincoln’s reputation for truthfulness and honesty made him an attractive candidate.

When Lincoln ran for president in two years, friends and supporters looked to turn his humble background to his advantage, marching into the Republican National Convention in Chicago with a set of fence rails that they claimed Lincoln, the “Railsplitter,” had split in his youth. The nickname quickly caught on, helping propel Lincoln into the national consciousness. As president, Lincoln’s leadership and evolution on the issue of slavery led to his issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and championing passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, earning him one final nickname, “Great Emancipator.”


Before running for president, Cynthia McKinney served in Congress, where she used her political position to force the government to release a secret file it allegedly has on deceased rap legend Tupac Shakur. She also believes that the U.S. government murdered thousands of men, dumped their bodies in a swamp, and has gone to great lengths to keep the incident in the dark.


Perhaps the weirdest turn of events in 2016 and 2020 is Kanye West’s run for presidency. We’re pretty sure that Kanye is also the first presidential candidate in history to include a hashtag in their campaign slogan. Unfortunately, all that #2020VISION put too much pressure on West, and in July he had a very concerning meltdown on Twitter that derailed his campaign completely.


It's a tie, 1800

Electoral politics got serious in 1800. Forget the hand-holding peace of George Washington's first run &mdash political parties were in full swing by this time, and they battled over high-stakes issues (taxes, states' rights and foreign policy alignments). Thomas Jefferson ran as the Democratic-Republican candidate and John Adams as the Federalist.

At the time, states got to pick their own election days, so voting ran from April to October (and you thought waiting for the West Coast polls to close was frustrating). Because of the complicated "pick two" voting structure in the Electoral College, the election ended up a tie between Jefferson and his vice-presidential pick, Aaron Burr. One South Carolina delegate was supposed to give one of his votes on another candidate, so as to arrange for Jefferson to win and Burr to come in second. The plan somehow went wrong, and both men ended up with 73 electoral votes.

That sent the tie-breaking vote to the House of Representatives, not all of whom were on board with a Jefferson presidency and Burr vice-presidency. Seven tense days of voting followed, but Jefferson finally pulled ahead of Burr. The drama triggered the passage of the 12th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which stipulates that the Electoral College pick the president and vice-president separately, doing away with the runner-up complications.


Presidential debates: The history of the American political tradition

Debates continue to be a significant part of the presidential election process.

LOS ANGELES - Political debates between major political candidates are an American tradition in the United States. While presidential debates continue to develop and evolve, their competitive spirit has not changed and continues to be a significant part of the presidential election process.

But where, and how, did political debates begin?

To start, it began with no moderator or panel

American presidential debates can be traced from a series of Illinois Senate race debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858, according to writers Josh Clark and Melanie Radzicki McManus of HowStuffWorks.

With no moderator or panel, Lincoln would follow Douglas on his campaign trail around the state, and Douglas would give his own remarks in that location. Then, Lincoln would do the same.

Illustration of Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln speaking on stage during a debate with Steven Douglas and other opponents, Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois, October 7, 1858 (Kean Collection / Staff)

𠇍ouglas eventually agreed to take the stage with Lincoln seven times for three hours each to debate the moral and economic quandaries posed by slavery,” Clark and McManus wrote.

These debates required the two candidates to speak at great length. “The first candidate spoke for one hour, followed by a one and one half hour rebuttal, and then a half hour closing by the opening speaker,” according to PBS.

The debates eventually became known as the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, and “provided the conceptual framework which brought about formal presidential debates in the modern era,” the Bill of Rights Institute said. “These debates helped establish the precedent that candidates should present their cases and state their criticisms before the public, and engage in a constructive dialogue with each other about the future course of the nation.”

The debates went quiet for more than a decade before a radio reemergence

According to Clack and McManus, 15 election cycles went by without much public argument between candidates. Dialogue to the public was primarily in the format of campaign speeches, not from debating.

But things started to change in 1948 with the advent of radio and television.

A presidential debate debuted on a radio broadcast between Republican primary contenders Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen. According to Clark and McManus, between 40-80 million listeners tuned in to the radio broadcast to hear the two debate over outlawing communism in the United States.

The radio debate was followed a couple of years later with the country’s first televised debate in 1952. This debate featured all potential presidential candidates and was hosted by the League of Women Voters (LWV).

1960 set the stage for modern debates

In 1960, Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy and Republican nominee Richard Nixon appeared in the first nationally televised presidential debate between two candidates.

According to the Bill of Rights Institute, “Kennedy appeared to viewers as calm and collected, well groomed, and handsome”, while “Nixon, on the other hand, began to sweat, looked unshaven, and shifted his eyes between the camera, the moderators, and the clock.”

Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy during the last of their four debates in 1960 (Bettman/Contributor)

Interestingly, those who heard the debate on radio thought Nixon was the winner, while those who watched on television chose Kennedy, PBS noted. Nixon lost in the election that followed.

The televised debate built up the concept of presidential debates, and “the public began to expect debate between candidates debates became an American institution,” Clark and McManus wrote.

In fact, since 1972, every presidential contest has included television debates, acknowledging the TV screen as an important element in the decisions of voters.

But, not all candidates were open to debates

In fact, there were no debates from 1964 until 1976, as seated presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Nixon refused requests to debate.

Nixon even vetoed a bill that repealed the equal time provision of the Communications Act of 1934 — a federal communications law which required candidates in national elections to have equal exposure in the media. Thus, presidential candidates could use this provision to their advantage, refusing to debate.

In 1975, the FCC created a loophole

In 1975, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said that as long as debates were sponsored by an organization outside of TV networks, then they would be exempt from equal time requirements. Therefore, the LWV was able to take control as the third party and run the presidential debates for eight years from 1976 to 1984.

Between this time period, debates proved to be crucial to decisions among voters.

In 1976’s debate, President Gerald Ford stated, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." Many analysts believe his statement contributed to Jimmy Carter’s win in the election.

Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter (left) engages in a face-to-face political debate with incumbent President Gerald Ford in Philadelphia, PA, in the fall of 1976 during the height of the presidential campaign that year. (Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

In 1980, Carter refused to debate with Republican nominee Ronald Reagan and independent candidate John Anderson in a presidential debate. Thus, the debate was held without Carter, and experts believe his absence was one factor in Reagan’s election win, according to PBS.

Throughout his presidency, Reagan became known as a talented debater, “mastering the art of short and effective soundbites that energized his political base,” the Bill of Rights Institute said.

In 1988, the Commission on Presidential Debates stepped in

In 1988, Democrats and Republicans formed the joint nonprofit bipartisan organization The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) — the only organization capable of legitimately hosting presidential debates.

“The CPD oversees height requirements for podiums and room temperature at debate halls, chooses moderators, and serves as a propaganda arm for both the Republican and Democratic parties,” Clark and McManus wrote.

In addition, the site of the debate must be neutral, meaning that the location cannot be associated with the candidate. Furthermore, an equal division of time to candidates is required at debates.

Debates continued to evolve in the 1990s

In 1992, there were many changes made to the traditional format of debates.

The changes included the incorporation of “town hall” debates, where candidates sat on stools instead of podiums and wereਊsked questions from audience members.

Democrat Bill Clinton utilized and thrived in the new format by being able to engage directly with voters.

Presidential candidates George Bush (41st President of the United States), Ross Perot and Bill Clinton during the second presidential debate. ( Ron Sachs/Keystone/CNP/Getty Images)

In the 2000s, the internet came into play

“Visual media, especially the internet, is one of the most important factors in modern elections,” the Bill of Rights Institute said.

In the 2008 presidential primaries, CNN hosted debates using questions submitted by voters via YouTube.

Twitter was also launched in 2008, providing a platform for campaigns to argue on behalf of their candidates.

But as with all technology, there is a downside. Videos and on-air flubs can live on and be preserved by the public in the digital age.

“In 2011, during a Republican primary forum, candidate Rick Perry forgot core parts of his platform. In the age of the internet, debate footage never dies,” the Bill of Rights Institute said.

Today, many people get their news through social media, rather than television or print. But while more eyes may be on the debates than ever, they might be watching for less time. Data from YouTube found that the average YouTube viewer watched the three 2016 presidential debates for an average of 22 minutes.

Debates in 2020 continue amid a global pandemic

The CPD continues to organize and host presidential debates, despite the U.S. being in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the year 2020, there will be three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate. Each debate will be 90 minutes in length without commercial interruption, according to the CPD.

The stage is set for the first Democratic presidential primary debate for the 2020 election at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, June 26, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Drew Angerer)

There will only be one moderator and a limited audience due to COVID-19 precautions.

In addition, debates will be divided into six 15-minute sections, each covering a different topic.

There are technically no winners in debates, only a perception

There are technically no winners in debates, but they can help shape the opinions of voters. Pollsters track the effects of debates on voters’ mindsets by calling and inquiring about what they thought of the event.

But experts still argue over whether debates truly change or just further reaffirm a voter’s opinion.

According to Gallup polling, Hillary Clinton “won” all three presidential debates, and despite winning the popular vote, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.

Republican nominee Donald Trump (R) watches Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri on October 9, 2016 (Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images)

Whether debates are an effective means for candidates to sway voters’ opinions or not, the process could still prove beneficial for undecided voters in hotly contested swing states.


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