Several factors have hindered 'next up' presidential candidates in recent years

Several factors have hindered 'next up' presidential candidates in recent years
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Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenPresidents and 'presidents' Biden to blast Trump's church photo op in Philadelphia speech Rudy Giuliani calls on Cuomo to remove Bill de Blasio MORE is expanding his lead in Democratic presidential primary polls and is aiming to make quick work of his primary opponents. He’s acting like a frontrunner with an air of inevitability. A quick examination of recent history highlights the dangers of being a “next up” candidate — someone whom a plurality of voters quickly rally around because of a perception that it’s simply her/his turn to be president. 

In the 1984 Democratic presidential primaries, it was former Vice President Walter Mondale’s turn. The establishment candidate with the 30-year political career was widely expected to win the nomination as soon as he announced, and he did. 


The 1996 Republican presidential primaries followed a similar script; after falling short in 1980 and 1988, 72-year-old Senator Bob Dole (R-Kan.) — building off a 35-year political career — immediately became the GOP’s unquestioned standard bearer.

In 2000 it was Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreCNN coronavirus town hall to feature science author David Quammen, 'Empire' actress Taraji Henson Top Democratic pollster advised Biden campaign to pick Warren as VP Melania Trump to appear on CNN coronavirus town hall Thursday night MORE’s turn — a sitting vice president and second runner-up in the 1988 Democratic primaries who had served the country publicly for nearly 25 years. Former Gov. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneySenate Republicans urge Trump to tone down rhetoric on protests Congress flying blind: Why now is the time to revive the Office of Technology Assessment Trump asserts his power over Republicans MORE (R-Mass.), the 2008 co-runner-up, was handed his party’s reins in 2012. And three years ago it was former Sen. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSessions accepts 'Fox News Sunday' invitation to debate, Tuberville declines The Memo: Trump lags in polls as crises press Biden savors Trump's latest attacks MORE (D-N.Y.)’s turn, parlaying almost 40 years of public life into a nearly predestined nomination.

All five of these candidates were early favorites to land the top spot on their party’s ticket. All five lost in the general election.

Coincidence? Not at all. Several factors have hindered “next up” candidates in recent years:

Playing it safe

When a party rallies around a favored candidate at or near the outset, those candidates are not vetted as thoroughly during the nominating process. Sure, Hillary Clinton was more battle-tested than most U.S. presidential candidates throughout history. Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMontana barrels toward blockbuster Senate fight How Obama just endorsed Trump Former Texas Rep. Sam Johnson dies at 89 MORE (R-Ariz.) and Bob Dole (R-Kan.) overcame extraordinary adversity to nearly reach the White House.

But none of them faced the challenges confronting most upstart candidates — for example, engaging head-on with the media, or staking out policy positions that might be unpopular, but which broaden and/or deepen their appeal. “Next up” candidates play it safer, so as not to fracture the coalition on which their nomination hopes rest.

Crafting a winning message 

“Why do you want to be president?” “next up” candidates consistently have had trouble responding to this question in a way that inspires the electorate. For example, Mondale recently shared his thinking heading into the 1984 campaign: “I figured if I waited [until 1988] I would be yesterday’s toast — that I was going to run, that somebody needed to challenge Reagan.” No doubt, Mondale and others like him were highly qualified. But most voters demand more than mere competency. “Hope and change” and “drain the swamp” proved to be winning messages. Running because “somebody” needs to is a sign of trouble. 

Longer campaigns

Mondale announced his run for the presidency 21 months before Election Day. Dole (19 months), Gore (17 months), Romney (17 months), and Hillary Clinton (19 months) all spent a long time on the campaign trail. While upstart candidates like Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonTop Democratic pollster advised Biden campaign to pick Warren as VP How Obama just endorsed Trump Trump, Biden signal how ugly the campaign will be MORE and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOn The Trail: Trump didn't create these crises, but he's making them worse Canada's Trudeau responds to Trump: Russia not welcome in G-7 George Floyd's death ramps up the pressure on Biden for a black VP MORE usually need extended campaigns to increase name recognition and support, “next up” candidates risk overexposure and voter fatigue.

Many of the most successful presidential campaigns in recent years have been built on foundations of discovery: voters listening to new voices, contemplating innovative ideas, and saying for the first time, “I want to see her/him as president.” Fresher faces and fresher ideas — even those that polarize — can become antidotes to the stale status quo of familiar faces and well-worn ideas. 

Four of the last six failed presidential nominees were “next up” candidates, and if current trends continue, Biden could be the fifth of seven. In a recent Morning Consult poll he’s up 20 points on Senator Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive things to watch in Tuesday's primaries Nina Turner responds to Cornel West's remarks about George Floyd COVID-19 pandemic will shrink economy by trillion in next decade: CBO MORE (D-Vt.) and up 31 point on the next closest competitors: Senators Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHarris: Trump 'just tear-gassed peaceful protesters for a photo op' Harris, Jeffries question why Manafort, Cohen released while others remain in prison George Floyd's death ramps up the pressure on Biden for a black VP MORE (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenGeorge Floyd's death ramps up the pressure on Biden for a black VP Judd Gregg: Biden — a path to the presidency, or not Vogue's Anna Wintour urges Biden to pick woman of color for VP MORE (D-Mass.). He’s ahead of the pack in favorability and is co-leading in name recognition.

Biden’s nearly 50-year political career makes him arguably the most establishment non-incumbent presidential aspirant in U.S. history. He is the prototypical “next up” candidate.

And that’s the danger. Because there is little new to be found in Biden. The only discoveries that remain, if any, will be bad ones. This is the misfortune of “next up” candidates, and it could soon become the misfortune of the Democratic Party.

B.J. Rudell is associate director of POLIS: Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.