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January 30, 2016

Harold Stassen was a rising Republican star in the late 1930s and 1940s. Nicknamed the “boy wonder” of Minnesota politics, in 1938 he was elected governor at the age of 31, after two terms as the Dakota County district attorney. He gave the keynote address at the 1940 Republican National Convention. Governor Stassen resigned in April 1943 to serve as a naval commander on Admiral Bull Halsey’s staff in the Pacific theater during World War II. Still in uniform, Stassen was an American delegate to the San Francisco conference that led to the creation of the United Nations.

Former Governor Stassen ran a credible campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1948. Relatively few states held primaries in those days, and Stassen won more of them than any other candidate. With Stassen leading, New York Governor Thomas Dewey made his stand in the Oregon primary, where polls showed Stassen leading.

Dewey and Stassen agreed to a debate before the Oregon primary, broadcast on national radio. The topic was whether the Communist Party should be outlawed, and Stassen, despite being clearly the most liberal candidate in the race, took the “pro” position and Dewey stood “anti.”

Dewey famously said that “you can’t shoot an idea with a gun,” and it was generally believed that Dewey had beaten Stassen in the debate. Dewey then won the Oregon primary with about 52 percent of the vote to 48 percent for Stassen, and re-took the momentum from Stassen.

At the convention, delegates were divided among three major candidates – Dewey, Stassen, and Ohio Governor Robert Taft – and several minor candidates. It took three ballots for Dewey to win a majority and the nomination – the last Republican convention to go to more than one ballot. (Democrats last went more than one ballot in 1952, selecting former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson on the third try.)

Although Dewey beat Stassen, he lost the election to Harry Truman, the Chicago Tribune’s reporting to the contrary notwithstanding. Stassen was appointed president of the University of Pennsylvania, where he served for five years, followed by two years in an appointive position in the Eisenhower Administration.

Stassen ran for president again in 1964, barely registering in the primaries and winning no convention delegates. In 1968, he won even less of the primary vote, but did get two delegates. He tried again in 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992, to no discernible effect. He became known not as a one-time governor and national leader, but as a “perennial candidate.” The pathos of his candidacies was only underscored by the ridiculous toupee Stassen wore in his later years.

It is a truism of political campaigning, even if not entirely true, that candidates don’t drop out because they’re losing; they drop out because they’re out of money. But in a post-Citizens United world, it’s not clear that even losing candidates ever need to run out of money.

This year’s Republican presidential campaign counts five candidates who do not reach a 5 percent polling average in any of the first three voting states. If a candidate can’t crack 5 percent in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina, three very different states, the candidate really should give up, even if the money hasn’t run out.

The five candidates in question are Carly Fiorina, former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Huckabee and Santorum ran reasonably well in 2008 and 2012, respectively, rendering them vulnerable to the illusion that they are popular; they are not. Fiorina and Paul are certainly well known, both having made national splashes. Their problem is not a lack of voter awareness, it’s a lack of voter approval. And I have no idea what Gilmore is doing, or thinks he’s doing.

Fiorina has never held public office, although she lost a Senate race in California in 2010. Santorum and Huckabee haven’t held office for nine years. Gilmore’s term as governor ended in 2002, although he chaired a Congressional advisory committee until 2003. He ran briefly and unnotably for president in 2007, and ran for Senate in 2008, losing by almost 2 – 1 to Mark Warner. Paul is a first-term senator who must either quickly re-focus on re-election to the Senate, or find himself unemployed in 2017.

Not everyone can be president. There’s no disgrace in running and losing. But running for president, or for anything else for that matter, when there is no chance to alter the campaign, much less win it, looks an awful lot like Harold Stassen pretending to run for president at the age of 85 under a truly awful toupee.


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