A million things have to break right for a person to ascend to the highest office in the land. In 2004, a republican United States Senate nominee from Illinois, Jack Ryan, made the surprising decision to step aside. The investment banker then favored to win the seat was forced to pull out after a sex scandal indirectly involving his celebrity wife surfaced. With no serious republican challenger, that essentially gave the seat to the democrat nominee, a state senator whose previous flirtation with national politics involved losing a primary for a U.S. House seat four years earlier. That state senator's name is Barack Obama, and you presumably know the rest of the story from there.
A single one-night stand, hot microphone or emotional outburst can reduce even the most robust candidate to a historical footnote. It happens all the time, and the rippling effect on our economy is surprisingly widespread. In a way, Jack Ryan's alleged bad behavior brought us Obamacare and the demise of Osama Bin Laden. When you consider the power the president has to effect change, the personal failures of presidential candidates can heavily impact your life. While many of these presidential hopefuls labor to build their reputations through promoting of fiscal responsibility and sound government, a single, almost completely unrelated PR slipup can undo their hard work - and subsequently - their political aspirations. Here are just a few of the most notable instances:
The sole presidential election that Harry Truman won, that of 1948, is largely regarded as the greatest political upset in American history. Therefore, the man on the losing end, republican Thomas Dewey, must have pulled off the biggest choke job in history. How did that happen?
Even though Truman had served as Vice President under one of the most popular presidents in history (Franklin Roosevelt), assumed the presidency after Roosevelt died in office and authorized the atomic strikes on Japan that ended World War II, Truman remained a huge underdog entering the election. Many voters felt alienated by Truman's pro-union stance, while others (on both sides of the issue) were put off by his ambivalence regarding civil rights. All Dewey had to do was not make any mistakes and the Oval Office was his.
Except Dewey committed the gaffe of doing absolutely nothing. His strategy of playing "not to lose" backfired, a teaching moment coming when he offered the famous tautological quote, "You know that your future is still ahead of you." Today, presidential hopefuls spew such blather all the time. In the 1940s, audiences expected their candidates to say something of substance. Dewey's anodyne personality faded in the presence of the highly engaged Truman, who won 303 electoral votes to Dewey's 189, and was featured in one of the most famous photographs ever taken.
It didn't directly cost him the presidency, but a peccadillo kept former U.S. Senator Gary Hart from the 1988 nomination that was his to lose.
After finishing a close second in the previous campaign's primaries, the Colorado democrat was heavily favored to appear on the 1988 general ballot. To party faithful, Hart was the one candidate who could formidably challenge the presumptive republican nominee, sitting Vice President George H.W. Bush. In April of 1987, Hart formally announced his all-but-expected candidacy. Three weeks later, after being accused by multiple journalists of cheating on his wife, and in one of the biggest examples of overweening self-confidence ever uttered, Hart offered the portentous line to would-be muckrakers, "Follow me around. I don't care."
That very day, a major newspaper posted photographs of Donna Rice, a woman 22 years the senator's junior, sitting on his lap and embracing him. Within a week, Hart dropped out. So overwhelming a favorite for the nomination was Hart that the media mockingly referred to the septet of candidates that filled up the void as "The Seven Dwarfs." (The biggest dwarf, eventual nominee Michael Dukakis, lost the general election handily.) Meanwhile, nothing beyond Rice using Hart as a chair was ever proven, nor has either ever admitted to anything inappropriate. In fact, Hart recently celebrated his 54th wedding anniversary. Granted, that includes a couple of separations that predate the Rice affair, but that's a story for another day.
William Howard Taft
There's no parallel to the story of William Howard Taft in modern American politics, but here's the best we can do: Imagine if Hillary Clinton were to be elected president in 2016 and during her administration she infuriated her former boss, Barack Obama, to the point that he came out of retirement to challenge her in the subsequent election.
Taft served in the cabinet of his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, who groomed him for the presidency. By 1910, two years into his only term, Taft had lost control of his party and by some measure, his presidency. Taft lowered tariffs, yet instituted America's first corporate income tax. When Taft filed an antitrust suit against U.S. Steel - the Microsoft of the pre-WWI era - and named Roosevelt in the suit, that tore it. Roosevelt announced he'd seek the 1912 republican nomination, friendship be damned.
Taft narrowly won the nomination, forcing Roosevelt to run as a third ("Bull Moose") party candidate. The republican split handed the presidency to democrat Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt finished second and Taft a distant third, carrying only Vermont and Utah. To this day, that remains the worst showing by a sitting president in history. Taft eventually served on the Supreme Court, but his presidential legacy was forever tarnished by his inability to do one of the few things politicians are supposed to be good at - uniting disparate factions. The moral to the story? Even when you're on top there are still people you need to keep happy, and one thoughtless maneuver can be unforgiving.
The Bottom Line
Much like the other aforementioned elections, this year's election was no different in the number of potentially self-destructive gaffes occurring during a presidential hopeful's campaign. Despite republican candidate Mitt Romney's gaffe-filled race to the White House ("Binders full of women," "47%," "Big Bird"), he remained within a very tight margin up against POTUS Barack Obama. While both men have slipped up occasionally, by making spurious claims and awkward statements, it's important to make a distinction between an unfortunate sound bite and a politician's overall message.