What might have been . . . and what was

Byline: | Category: 2008 Presidential Election | Posted at: Monday, 21 January 2008

NEW UPDATE: It’s over.


In the presidential straw poll at the 2006 Southern Republican Leadership Conference held in Memphis I cast a write-in vote for Fred Thompson. That might make me the first person in America to have voted for Fred for President. So you can imagine my disappointment Saturday when it became quite apparent that absent a chaotic convention where the nomination comes from the floor (still a remote possibility), Fred Thompson will not be the Republican standard bearer this year.

Even without a win, Fred’s presence was important to this contest. Before this summer the GOP contest pitted the social conservative, the fiscal conservative, and the military conservative against each other. Fred entered the race and effectively told Republican voters, that they didn’t have to settle for just one. Since his entry, rhetorically at least, the other candidates have echoed his across-the-board conservatism.

Fred’s loss doesn’t mean that he will no longer be a significant part of what happens in Minneapolis. In a divided field his delegates may make a difference; that’s why I’m voting for him in the Tennessee primary in two weeks. And Fred will almost certainly be on the short list of potential running mates no matter which of the remaining candidates is the nominee. Still, “What might have been?” is what millions of Americans wondered as they learned the results of South Carolina’s primary.

We can only wonder what might have been, but we can analyze what was. And so here are ten lessons that we can take away from Fred’s campaign.

1. Hit the ground running. Fred’s entry to the race wasn’t too late, but his start was too slow. The best publicity a candidate will ever receive is when he announces his candidacy. It’s the only time in the campaign when a candidate gets to set the agenda, determine the timeline, and most importantly, define himself. Fred’s much-anticipated entrance was delayed again and again. In the absence of an organized campaign and a coherent message, the media and his opponents defined Fred for him: he was lazy and disorganized. I don’t know how anyone could argue against the second charge. However, the first charge was disproven by his last month barnstorming tours of Iowa and Sourth Carolina, but it was too late. Had Fred started out with a well-organized bus tour instead of waiting for four months, he would have impressed voters in the three states where he had to make a good showing. Even better, he didn’t need a bus. A red pickup truck would have been cheaper. Which leads us to the next point . . .

2. Showmanship sells. Fred had a ready-made gimmick in the form of the red pickup truck that brought him great success in his first run for office in 1994. Certainly someone suggested such a tour, but for some reason Fred didn’t do it. There is no small amount of irony that the only actor in the field was unable to sell his “show”. Fred began the race at 20%. Had he spent September with one week each in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, it would have earned above-the-fold coverage in every town he visited and cemented 20% as his floor. Speaking of New Hampshire . . .

3. Never skip New Hampshire. Historically, it has been a far better bellwether of national opinion than Iowa which has picked only two new presidents in the entire history of the Iowa Caucus. Fred’s decision to not contest the Granite State was particularly inexplicable since, although a Southerner, he is not a stereotypical Southern-style conservative. Fred is more federalist which plays better in the libertarian-leaning New England state. His principled federalist opposition to an anti-abortion federal amendment, for example, would have been more popular there than it was in Iowa and South Carolina. The old adage that there are three tickets out of Iowa and two out of New Hampshire always applies. (Unless Rudy wins Florida and manages to eke out victories from then forward, in which case I’m wrong). Furthermore, when Fred entered the race there were only two candidates in New Hampshire: Rudy Giuliani whose strange decision to not contest the state certainly hurt him, and Mitt Romney who, if you know anything about the prickly relationship between the Bay State and the Granite State, should have been signal enough that Romney’s chances there were slim. But what about John McCain, you ask?

4. The best time to kick a man is when he’s down. Fred entered the race when John McCain was essentially a non-entity. In fact, Fred picked up much of his staff from McCain when the latter held a summer garage sale just to try and make ends meet. Now the man who was left for dead is the most likely nominee. You don’t leave fellow candidates for dead; you double tap them to make sure they’re dead.

5. Politics is a blood sport. Fred had opportunities in each of the debates to pound his opponents on various issues but he didn’t until the last couple. It isn’t right and it’s certainly not fair, but the media prefer to report controversy over platform. So the one way to guarantee a sound bite is to attack an opponent whenever they leave an opening. People say that they dislike negative campaigning, you argue? Well, people love to say that . . . but they’re lying. Speaking of the media . . .

6. Since the media only print sentences don’t talk in paragraphs. Fred has displayed more depth and intelligence than any of his opponents in either party. It is clear that he understands the issues of the day and has thought about them deeply. No candidate in the past two decades has ever entered the race with such a wealth of knowledge. But he wasn’t able to convey his thoughts in short soundbites. What he intended to say, therefore, often got lost in what he said. Like the old adage perhaps, his late start meant that he “didn’t have enough time to be brief.” Still, if he wasn’t campaigning in the early states, and he wasn’t spending the early campaign time raising money hand over fist, he should have spent the time working on his stump speech. Instead he never matured his message until it was too late. Which brings up another point about the media . . .

7. Every candidate needs a few friends in the media. It’s not a bad idea for candidates to occasionally pick fights with the media. Especially Republicans. But when the media make mistakes (and they will whether intentionally or not), only the media can correct the error. Fred was the victim of several hit pieces that were very quickly debunked by his supporters in the blogosphere. However, absent a sympathetic media member to write another story, only bloggers knew that the original stories were wrong. Speaking of bloggers . . .

8. Like Dixville Notch, the internet picks losers. Fred Thompson now joins Ned Lamont, Howard Dean and Ron Paul on the list of those whose popularity was greater online than off. Fred was smart to cultivate a good internet relationship through his postings on RedState, and toward the end he put the net to good use for fundraising. But the net is just one tool among many. It is, not a crutch. The internet simply doesn’t reach enough people. That’s because it is an active media. For now the net requires visitors to actively seek for content, which means that most of Fred’s web content was being found only by those who were looking for it. Fred’s 17-minute web video may some day be viewed as being as seminal a moment as Reagan’s 1964 speech supporting Barry Goldwater. But it was only seen by the already decided. The internet simply won’t be a determinant in political races until like radio, tv, and newspapers, it brings content to passive visitors. There is another problem caused by the internet (and talk radio): they exaggerate the real importance of issues . . .

9. If it’s the most important problem, but it doesn’t have a good solution, it’s not an important issue. Poll after poll of Republicans showed that illegal immigration was the biggest problem and that people were opposed to amnesty. But what then is the solution? Mass deportations? No, voters knew that would be infeasible and inhumane. It would look like the “Trail of Tears II”. Sometimes voters are angry and upset about the status quo, but are astute enough to know that as bad as the status quo may be, the alternatives are worse. An analogy with the Iraq War in the Democratic primary of 2004 is helpful. Democrats thought that the war was the most important issue and there was almost universal agreement that the country was on the wrong path on that issue. However, no Democratic candidate offered a viable new path. As bad as the war was, withdrawal was worse, and so Howard Dean lost. Democratic voters saved their party from being portrayed as a bunch of “blame America first” dirty hippies. Similarly, Republicans have now rejected every one of the candidates who made illegal immigration their first issue, in part probably because they didn’t want to be portrayed as the party of xenophobic bigots. Deprived of the electoral impact from the issue of illegal immigration Fred didn’t have a base of supporters.

10. Build a base. In making thousands of calls and knocking on hundreds of doors I learned that everyone liked Fred. He was under consideration by virtually every undecided voters and was the second choice candidate of nearly all the decided ones. Because of the flaws in the rest of the Republican field I’m convinced that Fred was going to beat any one of his opponents if he could just get to where the primary was a one-on-one fight. But to get that point he had to survive a five-man scrum. Mitt Romney’s plan was to have enough money to survive the scrum ensuring that he would be among the final two or three candidates. Fred had no such financial advantage. In a five candidate race, the average is 20% which meant that Fred had to find and keep that 20% of the electorate that was going to be his base come hell or high water. He had the opportunity early had he jumped right in to the campaign. In the fall he was polling over 20%, but he had to close the deal with them. He didn’t, and so far in six states he hasn’t achieved the 20% level of support even once. Without a base, Fred performed worse than average. When you finish worse than average you don’t get to go to the playoffs.

One final thought. Much will be made of Fred’s delayed entry to the race being the cause of his defeat. (Keep in mind that many of those making the case will be professional campaigners and pundits who directly benefit from extended campaigns.) I don’t think he began too late at all. Furthermore, I really wish he had won so that we could hold back this urge to begin campaigns earlier and earlier every four years. It’s like seeing Christmas decorations go up in the stores right after Labor Day. I hate it.

Fred’s start date, however, did mean that he wouldn’t be able to fail. At all. John McCain failed miserably. He was at zero– zero support, zero money, and zero staff—right about the time that Fred jumped in to the race. McCain made lots of mistakes in the previous year, but he has made the best of his second start. The manner in which Fred entered the race meant that he didn’t have time for a restart. He had to do it right the first time, and he didn’t. Oh, what might have been . . .


Stop the ACLU: “I really can’t see a strategy at this point that could bring a win for Fred if he stayed in.”

IMAO: “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Fred Thompson (other than trolls, whose opinions never count), and the reason I’ve seen Republican primary voters give for not voting for Fred Thompson is that he didn’t come to their state and do a silly little monkey dance to prove how much he wanted to be president.”

Race42008 reports that the defections have begun.

Susan Davis reports from the campaign that there is no news.


Click here to see what I think Fred should do. (Hint: it doesn’t involve dropping out.)


ACK argues that it was Huck whose campaign died in Dixie over the weekend. He might be right. I sure hope he is, but he’ll definitely need to pull off an astonishing finish in Florida if he has any further life in him. Like I’ve said before, Fred beats anyone of them in a two-man race. The trick is getting there with a campaign and volunteers still intact.

Read Kleinheider and see if you agree.


MyDD, as liberal-leaning a website as there is and, as such, inclined toward supporting the weakest possible Republican candidate argues that Huckabee is in fact the one most damaged in South Carolina. Now you might believe that this is political jujitsu where MyDD thinks that Fred is a more easily defeated foe, and so they push the notion that Huck is in worse shape. However, whether truth or subterfuge, they might be right. Fred could have weathered SC with a second place finish just fine, but Huckabee, in as evangelical a state as there is, coming in second might actually be worse for him than Fred. I’d still like to think that Fred has a chance. I don’t honestly see it except through a divided convention fight, but there is an argument to be made that going in to Louisiana tomorrow, that Huck is in even worse shape.


Now with Fred on the verge of collapse I’m beginning to read more of this:

the GOP folks seem pretty unhappy. Weirdly, a lot of people are unhappy that Fred Thompson isn’t running well, but not a lot of people seem to have, you know, actually voted for, or donated to, Fred.

So here’s my challenge to Mariner, et al:


If Fred raises $1 million tomorrow (Tuesday), I’ll add another $1,000. So, if you’re going to complain that I’ve given up on Fred, don’t do it until you’ve spent at least that much money yourself. If you really want Fred to stay in the race, show him the money!

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53 Responses to “What might have been . . . and what was”

  1. PoliGazette » The GOP Comes a’Courtin’ Says:

    […] uninterested in who gets the Republican nod for the nomination from here on out. I will, like Bob Krumm, vote for Fred in the Super Tuesday primary in Illinois. I will then be able to sit back and watch […]

  2. Reflections on Fred Thompson « Constitution Club Says:

    […] What might have been . . . and what was Even without a win, Fred’s presence was important to this contest. Before this summer the GOP contest pitted the social conservative, the fiscal conservative, and the military conservative against each other. Fred entered the race and effectively told Republican voters, that they didn’t have to settle for just one. Since his entry, rhetorically at least, the other candidates have echoed his across-the-board conservatism… […]

  3. Pajamas Media » Fred Thompson, Ronald Reagan, and the Goldilocks Republicans Says:

    […] To continue to run for an office he did not truly want, while right-wing voices were beginning to urge donations on his behalf, would have emphasized the questionable ethics of the whole endeavor. And as anyone who is paying […]