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Di Leo: Presidential Campaigns and the Lessons of History



The Presidents

By John F. Di Leo - 

In any primary, there are a thousand questions to ask, but the first one – yes, the primary one – must be this: 

What year is it?

No, not just “is this a presidential year or a midterm election,” though that’s important too…

But what year is it, historically?  That is, is it most analogous to a year we’ve seen before, or is it unlike any prior election, so we shouldn’t bother to see if we can learn from parallels?

It is often said that there is nothing new under the sun, that we’re always fighting the same war, that there’s nothing left to be invented… but that’s an exaggeration. Nevertheless, there are analogs in history, and if we can spot them, we can often make better decisions, and spare ourselves a lot of pain. As this goes for war and peace, for recession and recovery, so too it goes for presidential campaigns.

Is this 1980?

Many hoped that 2012 would be a repeat of 1980, a landslide presidential victory with coattails in Congress and the state capitols alike.

It was possible; the nation had a chance to evict a horribly failed president after a single term of destruction. The question of why that didn’t happen will be an issue of study for generations, since by any measure, Barack Obama’s first term was a disaster for America, as bad as the Carter era or worse. The most likely reasons that 2012 was not a 1980 repeat are these:

  • The GOP candidate, while certainly as decent and likeable as Ronald Reagan, suffered from his own association with a state healthcare program, that – in common parlance – bore his own name; the Romneycare/Obamacare similarities, though not complete, were enough to largely take what should have been the primary single issue off the table.
  • The GOP candidate, while incredibly effective in solidifying the party base (Romney had impressive 60/40 and 70/30 majorities in Republican regions), was admittedly defeatist in reaching out to independents and others. A famous quote – that “there’s 47% who will NEVER vote for us” – may have been the campaign’s primary doom, as it showed that the Romney campaign had given up before it even began, where outreach was concerned. Ronald Reagan, by contrast, spoke to blacks and latinos of why he was the right choice for them. With both big and little labor, Reagan conceded only the shop stewards, not the rank and file.

Can 2016 be another 1980? If we hope for that goal – and with the Carter era disaster increased geometrically over these eight Obama years, it’s certainly possible – then we must not make the mistakes of 2012. The GOP must nominate a candidate who isn’t hamstrung by associations with the Democrat party and their errors; the GOP nominee must be someone who concedes no segments of the electorate, but rather, reaches out to blacks, Hispanics, and other immigrant groups, brings back labor into the fold, and speaks to the entrepreneurial drive that flourishes in the hearts of all Americans.

Is this 1996 or 2008?

The worst fear for freedom-loving Americans, of course, is that 2016 will be a repeat of years in which a clumsy messenger and a poorly articulated message combined to lose the election to socialist Democrats.

The GOP has nominated people in the past who either didn’t connect well enough with the base or the independents to get over 50%… and with the massive Democrat vote fraud engine operating from coast to coast, even getting over 50% isn’t enough. A Republican probably needs 55% or more in some states just to look like he eked out a razor-thin margin. It can be done, but it requires someone more exciting than Bob Dole or John McCain, honorable war heroes who may deserve America’s appreciation, but far from inspiring leaders who win difficult votes.

Is this 1964?

Some fear the nomination of a conservative senator, with a half-century memory of the election day drubbing the GOP received in the 1964 Johnson/Goldwater matchup. Many have advised against the nomination of conservative ever since, conveniently forgetting the landslide victories of 1980 and 1984, all based on this one tragic election.

But the 1964 election was largely decided, not in the 1964 primaries at all, but on a Dallas street a few weeks before. It was the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, that paved the way for an LBJ victory. It is difficult, if not impossible to imagine any other Republican – Governor Nelson Rockefeller? Congressman John Byrnes? Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge? Governor Jim Rhodes? – doing much better in November of 1964.  

The party has feared that awful November day for over fifty years, and needs to stop. LBJ, of all people, should not have been able to do it, but he turned the election of 1964 into a day of national mourning for JFK, and an anointment of his successor. Deserved or not, that’s what it was, and no Republican on the scene at the time had the marketing talent to wrest control of the argument away from the funeral celebration of the Democratic Party.

Is this 1940?

Now it gets interesting.

On paper, 1940 was an amazing parallel to 2016. The nation was still suffering, deep in an eight-year-long depression which the two term incumbent Democrat had only made worse by big government tax-and-spend policies and disregard for Constitutional limits. The world was collapsing around us into war, and we were woefully unready for it. The Democrat incumbent himself, eight years prior, had even succeeded Herbert Hoover, a well-meaning but maligned moderate Republican who attempted Democrat-Light policies that failed to stave off economic hardship, giving FDR someone to blame for everything for his entire eight years. And the Democrat incumbent was, amazingly, running for reelection to a third term, breaking the 150-year tradition of presidents limiting themselves as General Washington had.

The GOP was virtually guaranteed a win in 1940… but it ran a corporate executive – likeable enough, smart enough – but without political experience. 1940 was the first and last time that either major party ever nominate a candidate who had never held either high public office or a military command, and Wendell Willkie was pummeled at the polls as a result.

The American voter thinks of the Presidency as a job for people with government experience – wartime military commanders, governors, senators, cabinet secretaries, vice presidents. The American people have never voted anyone else into the White House, and most likely, never will.

1940 is the greatest warning to any primary voter: have the audacity to offer the public an inexperienced businessman instead of someone with a government resume, and the public will repudiate you with a resounding NO!

Is this 1920?

Another interesting comparison is 1920. In 1920, the Democrats nominated Governor James Cox of Ohio, setting up an unusual “Crosstown Classic” election for November, as the Republicans nominated Senator Warren Gamaliel Harding, also of Ohio.

Cox was a better politician, and had better government experience; Harding was a solid conservative, but on the dull side, with a habit for making up words, which gave the press no end of joy. In theory, on paper, Governor Cox should have won.

But 1920 was the culmination of a disastrous eight year progressive Democrat presidency. Woodrow Wilson had expanded government, creating new taxes, new agencies, even joining wars that the United States had no business participating in. The American people responded to this disaster the only way they could: by giving the presidency to the opposition party.

Senator Harding – dull though he was – won in 1920 not because he ran a great campaign or because Cox ran a poor one, but simply because the American people were done with Democrats after those eight painful Wilson years.

A case can be made – in fact, it’s so obvious, the case makes itself – that 2016 is the logical analog to 1920. While there is certainly a left-wing base that will always support the Democrats, no matter what, the majority of the country is more than tired of the Obama administration, and this country will likely vote Republican, almost regardless of who the GOP nominates… as long as the GOP doesn’t make a foolish error by nominating a lifeless geriatric like Senator McCain who admitted out loud during the campaign that he didn’t understand economics, or a political novice like Wendell Willkie whom the Democrat can whip with his or her elective office resume.

If this is 1920, the GOP may have much less to worry about than we think; we should be concentrating on getting the most policy-focused candidate we can, and then ensure a coordinated campaign so the winner has the coattails of a 1980!

Is this 1968?

Finally, there is one more precedent worth reviewing: the election of 1968,

In 1968, the Democrats nominated the very nice, likable Minnesota liberal Hubert Humphrey, and the GOP nominated Richard Nixon, one of the most disliked politicians in the country. This wasn’t just about the independent middle: even Republicans generally disliked Nixon. And yet, he won in a near landslide, 301 to 191 in the electoral college.


1968 was a year of turmoil, a year in which a country in recession (the mid-Sixties were paving the way to the economic pain of the 1970s) was beset with a world of troubles.

  • Mismanagement of what should have been a relatively small and worthwhile war by the Democrats…
  • the fears as we watched Soviet communism expanding across the globe…
  • the creation of huge new government programs by the Democrats…
  • vocal party infighting among the Democrats as to which of the candidates was truly enough of a liberal extremist for the socialist activists of the age…
  • and a terrible crime wave, with cities aflame with demonstrations, and assassinations of major political leaders.

Not since 1968 have we seen so many of these kinds of issues surface in a presidential election timeframe. From Obamacare to the Libya and ISIS debacles, from riots in Ferguson to teacher union demonstrations in Chicago, the nation is again aflame, and the Democrat nominee will clearly be on the side of the cause of all the ills.

Richard Nixon won in 1968 because he campaigned as the bulwark of civil society against these troubles, a firm “law and order” leader who would restore the rule of law and make government responsible again.

If 2016 is 1968 again – and it could well be – then the question is: will the GOP recognize that fact, and nominate a candidate, and campaign nationwide along with him, in proper recognition of this theme?

If Warren Harding could win in 1920, so could any Republican except a Wendell Willkie.

The harder question is 1968: if Richard Nixon could win in 1968, who on the Republican side today is situated to be the law-and-order, steady hand at the wheel, limited-government advocate who will solve this array of problems by leading Congress back to Constitutionalism, by leading foreign policy back to strong pro-American leadership, and by leading the Justice Department back in the direction of protecting our persons, our property, and our values against the foreign onslaughts of the islamists and the domestic attacks by illegal aliens and anti-police protesters?

Of course, there are no perfect analogies; no year is a direct repetition of a prior one. But even so, as the puzzle pieces come together and we review the last century of American and world history, the facts are unmistakable:

The case for Senator Ted Cruz – legislator, lawyer, eloquent Constitutional conservative leader – gets stronger every day.

Copyright 2016 John F. Di Leo

John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance trainer. An actor, writer, and recovering politician – he served as county chairman of the Milwaukee County Republican Party in the mid 1990s – his columns appear regularly in Illinois Review.


Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included. Follow John F. Di Leo on Facebook or LinkedIn, or on Twitter at @johnfdileo.


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  1. Johnny D.
    It is said. wrongly, that the country is 40% liberal, 40@ Conservative and 20% in the middle. The key is to get the 20% on your side to win.
    That assumes that 100% vote. What about 58% voting in 2012? What happened to the other 42%. That is the Trump mine. Dissatisfaction by registered voters, the seriously hard truth that the powers what be paid no attention to their needs, their concerns. This bloc will vote. Their issues are family, jobs, future opportunities.
    No other person has reached out. We characterize ourselves as Conservatives. Others are liberals. Neither brand counts…wrong. These are the people who are not on the gravy train of OPM, addicted to Other People’s Money. They are not bought and paid for.

  2. It will be intersting to see how many Illionis GOP voters “sit out” this election rather than vote for Establishment candidate Mark Kirk.
    This may be the key to explaining the GOP’s failures in this state.