Win or lose, Donald Trump will go down in history as a candidate who broke a lot of rules and took a lot of strategic gambles. He has, for example, largely eschewed the kind of data-driven turnout operation that has become standard for presidential campaigns. And late in the general election campaign, he decided suddenly to focus on states where Clinton had long been in the lead, like Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. While it’s hard to find Trump’s equal in history when it comes to breaking rules — particularly rules against profanity and extremely abusive rhetoric towards opponents and whole nations — you don’t have to look too far for presidential candidates who pursued similarly unorthodox strategies. Some of them even worked.
1960: JFK confronts fears about his religion.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy became the second Roman Catholic major-party presidential nominee. The first, Al Smith, lost the 1928 presidential race to Herbert Hoover in no small part because anti-Catholic backlash drove a number of normally Democratic states (including Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia) into the GOP column. They even had a name for the Protestant defectors: “Hoovercrats.”
And so Kennedy entered the 1960 general election naturally fearful of a similar backlash. His general approach was to project himself as a largely secular figure — the epitome, in fact, of modern American “style.” He went out of his way to oppose conspicuously “Catholic” public-policy stances, like public subsidies for parochial schools. And during the primaries he won states like West Virginia that had virtually no Catholic population.
But in the general election, as prominent Protestant ministers (including, for a while, the Trump family’s pastor, Rev. Norman Vincent Peale) began warning of the dangers of a Catholic president, Kennedy took his big gamble, scheduling a September 12 speech before a skeptical if not hostile audience of Protestant clerics, the Greater Houston (Texas) Ministerial Association. The speech was nationally televised, and avidly discussed by the chattering classes — and probably in a lot of both Protestant and Catholic churches.
In the speech, Kennedy repeated a lot of his earlier assurances that he valued separation of church and state and would not let his religion — or his religion’s authorities — dictate public policy. He skillfully defused some of the cruder Protestant fears about a Catholic president, but just as important he reminded Catholic voters of their stake in his success as a sign this long-suspected minority had finally been accepted as fully American.
Political scientists have endlessly debated whether in the end Kennedy benefited more than he suffered from the “religious issue” in 1960. But the fact that he confronted it directly meant that once he won, the issue would never come up again in any mainstream political discussion. That was a gamble that paid off for his presidency, his co-religionists, and (in my own opinion, looking at the numbers) his election as well.
1976: Carter embraces his Cracker heritage and remakes the electoral map.
Another Democratic presidential nominee with an “identity” issue was Jimmy Carter in 1976. Before Carter, going back to the Civil War, not a single candidate from a former Confederate State had been lifted to the White House by election (Lyndon Johnson of Texas had ascended to the presidency upon JFK’s assassination). Moreover, Democrats had been all but wiped out in the South in the previous two elections.
Carter’s regional accent guaranteed no one would miss his background, and his Southern Baptist “born-again” religion was nearly as controversial in 1976 as Kennedy’s Catholicism was in 1960. He could have run away from Dixie. But instead he embraced it, promoting an identity as a “New South” politician who could be embraced by black progressives and white conservatives equally. (While campaigning in the South, Carter played off an an old George Wallace slogan, saying: “Don’t send them a message — send them a president.”) And in the general-election campaign, his cast of supporters conspicuously included Martin Luther King Sr. and many of MLK Jr.’s closest associates — along with George Wallace himself and ex-segregationists like Mississippi Senator James Eastland.
As it happened, this mind-bending biracial coalition of southerners saved Jimmy Carter in the general election after his early lead over Gerald Ford evaporated. The regional favorite son won Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas. Of these states only Texas had gone Democratic in 1968, and all of them went Republican in 1972, mostly by huge margins (after Jimmy Carter left the White House, the next Democrat to win a Southern state — or the presidency — was another Southerner, Bill Clinton, in 1992).
1980: Reagan makes the race a referendum on Jimmy Carter.
When running for reelection, Jimmy Carter was undone by a challenger who overcame widespread fears that he was an extremist and instead made the campaign a referendum on Jimmy Carter and the domestic and international problems that made “wrong-track” sentiment very high.
Subsequent hagiography has made it hard to recall the image problems Ronald Reagan had in 1980. After jumping into politics as an opponent of Medicare and a supporter of Barry Goldwater, Reagan had been de facto leader of the conservative movement for many years and had launched a highly ideological primary challenge to a sitting Republican president in 1976. Early general election polls showed Jimmy Carter leading Reagan, who had the additional problem of a former GOP primary rival, John Anderson, on the ballot as an independent.
Reagan spent much of the campaign trying to take the spotlight off himself and recasting it towards Carter as the symbol of all the things wrong with the country’s trajectory. That meant carefully cultivating a moderate, reasonable image of a Republican who’d make an acceptable replacement for an unpopular incumbent. For example, Reagan’s first major post-nomination speech was before a predominantly African-American audience at a National Urban League conference. As attendees cheered, Reagan promised to address the problems of the cities with a three-part agenda: “Jobs, jobs, jobs!” This did not miraculously improve Reagan’s standing among black voters — but it did help convince moderate white voters that Reagan was not some sort of dangerous extremist ogre.
Reagan famously sealed the deal during the one debate he had that year with Carter. Even as the incumbent tried to make the debate and the election turn on the two very different futures the two candidates envisioned, Reagan made the most succinct “referendum” appeal ever:
[A]re you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we’re as strong as we were four years ago? And if you answer all of those questions yes, why then, I think your choice is very obvious as to whom you will vote for. If you don’t agree, if you don’t think that this course that we’ve been on for the last four years is what you would like to see us follow for the next four, then I could suggest another choice that you have.
It’s unclear whether any of Donald Trump’s strategic gambles will pay off today. He doesn’t exactly have the discipline Kennedy, Carter, and Reagan displayed. But the man takes risks.