Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Five pivotal moments from incumbent campaigns

By Sam Popkin


While a challenger’s presidential campaign can quickly adjust and adapt to shifting winds like a speedboat, an incumbent’s campaign behaves more like a battleship, maneuvering slowly and making very large waves. Instead of a core inner circle calling the shots from a “war room,” a president’s re-election team must coordinate with White House staffers and the President’s cabinet — all of whom have agendas difficult to change, control or coordinate.

The pivotal moments in incumbents’ campaigns are policy moves that take months to plan before they’re unveiled — and just as long to see their effects. Challengers offer talk about what they believe in, but the five classic moves outlined here show presidents making a credible commitment by paying a price.

Congress Overrides Truman’s Veto of Taft-Hartley

Harry Truman’s prospects for re-election in 1948 looked bleak. It didn’t help that unions viewed him as the “number one strike breaker” after he interceded in the railroad and mining strikes crippling the country. But when the Taft-Hartley Act came to his desk for his signature in 1947, Truman saw the opportunity to resurrect his candidacy. By vetoing Taft-Hartley – which outlawed secondary strikes, mass picketing and closed shops – Truman positioned himself as the last, best hope of the unions. The Republican-controlled Congress, which overrode the veto with support from nearly half of all Democrats, became an easy, visible enemy for Truman… and the unions. Without the financial support from unions in 1948, he would not have captured the normally Republican farm vote and countered Thomas E. Dewey’s urban appeal.

Nixon Visits China

To this day, when Democratic strategists think about dramatic moves a president can make, they ask each other to finish the sentence “If only Nixon could visit China, only a Democrat could…” Nixon’s surprising visit to China in February, 1972 was a key part of his re-election strategy. Senator George McGovern’s pledge to end the Vietnam War and bring U.S. troops home immediately made Nixon look like an unadulterated hawk by contrast. The trip to China — a historic attempt to restore the relations with the Communist nation — made the rest of Nixon’s foreign policy claims credible. It paved the way for Nixon to campaign on the goal of “Peace with Honor,” centered on a commitment to a more principled end to the war.

Carter Fails to Rescue Iranian Hostages

Carter is an important reminder that an incumbent’s bold moves can backfire badly. With the Iran Hostage Crisis entering its fifth month — and nothing but failed negotiations to show for his efforts – Carter decided to try to rescue the 55 Americans held in Tehran’s American Embassy. The rescue attempt, dubbed “Operation Eagle Claw,” was aborted when two defective helicopters forced the mission to turn back. Eight U.S. servicemen died, and Carter’s administration suffered a very public failure. “If we had it to do all over again,” Carter’s media advisor Gerald Rafshoon said after the election, “we would take the 30 million dollars we spent in the campaign and get three more helicopters for the Iran rescue mission.”

George H.W. Bush Takes Lee Iacocca to Japan

Although Bush’s January, 1992 state visit to Japan is now remembered for the vomit the jet-lagged president deposited in the prime minister’s lap, the trip was already a debacle before that incident. Trying to prove that his foreign policy focus could pivot from security to jobs, Bush brought Big Three auto executives along to persuade Japan to import more American cars. The failing CEOs’ salaries became the talk of the country; Lee Iacocca, Chrysler’s CEO, was paid more than all the Japanese auto companies’ CEOs together. The Wall Street Journal was so disgusted, they urged Bush to “Give Iacocca to Japan.” And the day after the president’s stomach problems, Johnny Carson’s joked, “If you had to look at Lee Iacocca while eating raw fish, you’d barf too.”

Clinton Outmaneuvers Newt Gingrich

In December 1995, the Republican controlled house and senate sent Bill Clinton a budget that would let Medicare, in Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s words, “wither on the vine.” With the same pen LBJ used to sign Medicare into law, Bill Clinton vetoed their budget, forcing a government shutdown. After their brinkmanship backfired, the freshman congressman, George Stephanopoulos wrote, developed a “kamikaze spirit” and “became Newt’s Frankenstein monster — and my best friends.”

Infuriated by losing the budget battle, Republicans then sent Clinton two welfare reform bills so stringent that he had no choice but to veto them. Though former Senator Bob Dole, now the Republican presidential candidate, begged Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott not to send him something he could sign, Senate Republicans were now worried about their reelection prospects. A compromise bill went through and Clinton signed it in August, 1996. By restoring Clinton’s centrist credentials, the Republican senate had sunk the Dole campaign. Said Dole strategist Tony Fabrizio, “they aimed the torpedoes at the hull and then started throwing water at it.”

Samuel L. Popkin is the author of The Candidate: What It Takes to Win – and Hold – the White House and Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego. He has also been a consulting analyst in presidential campaigns, serving as consultant to the Clinton campaign on polling and strategy, to the CBS News election units from 1983 to 1990 on survey design and analysis, and more recently to the Gore campaign. He has also served as consultant to political parties in Canada and Europe and to the Departments of State and Defense. His most recent book is The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns; earlier he co-authored Issues and Strategies: The Computer Simulation of Presidential Campaigns; and he co-edited Chief of Staff: Twenty-Five Years of Managing the Presidency.

Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only law and politics articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.
View more about this book on the

Recent Comments

  1. [...] Cross posted from OUPblog [...]

  2. [...] should Mitt Romney choose as his Vice Presidential running mate? permalink buy this book read more Posted on Saturday, August 11th, 2012 at 9:30 am [...]

  3. [...] Chief of Staff: Twenty-Five Years of Managing the Presidency. Read his previous blog post “Five pivotal moments from incumbent campaigns” and view his previous videos “How will Mitt Romney fare in the general election?” and [...]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *