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 BidenThe Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Castro swears off donations from oil, gas, coal executives Meghan McCain on Pelosi-Trump feud: 'Put this crap aside' and 'work together for America' 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. 

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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 GoreAnother VPOTUS tries for POTUS: What does history tell us? Several factors have hindered 'next up' presidential candidates in recent years Montana Gov. Bullock enters presidential race 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 RomneyOn The Money: Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump | Trump to offer B aid package for farmers | House votes to boost retirement savings | Study says new tariffs to double costs for consumers Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump Iraq War looms over Trump battle with Iran 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 ClintonFrustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Poll: Nearly half of Clinton's former supporters back Biden Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign 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 McCainMeghan McCain on Pelosi-Trump feud: 'Put this crap aside' and 'work together for America' Meghan McCain says Ben Carson should be developing brain cancer treatment, not working at HUD Graham urges Trump not to abandon infrastructure talks with Democrats 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 ClintonBudowsky: 3 big dangers for Democrats The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Another VPOTUS tries for POTUS: What does history tell us? MORE and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAssange hit with 17 new charges, including Espionage Act violations Progressive commentator says Obama was delusional thinking he could work with Republicans Obama makes surprise visit to Washington Nationals youth baseball program 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 Sanders2020 Democrats join striking McDonald's workers Billionaire's M gift to Morehouse grads points way to student debt solution Poll: Nearly half of Clinton's former supporters back Biden MORE (D-Vt.) and up 31 point on the next closest competitors: Senators Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisCastro swears off donations from oil, gas, coal executives Harris leads California Democrats in condemning HUD immigrant housing policy Billionaire's M gift to Morehouse grads points way to student debt solution MORE (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenThe Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan On The Money: Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump | Trump to offer B aid package for farmers | House votes to boost retirement savings | Study says new tariffs to double costs for consumers Overnight Energy: Democrats ask if EPA chief misled on vehicle emissions | Dem senators want NBC debate focused on climate change | 2020 hopeful John Delaney unveils T climate plan 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.