What It Feels Like to Lose a Presidential Election
Presidential losers Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and Bob Dole on getting over over the sting of second.
It is a fact of any election: there must be a loser. On Wednesday morning, Mitt Romney woke up to the realization that he will not be spending the next four years in the Oval Office. Those plans for the transition? Throw them in the trash. That protective security bubble that has kept watch over you night and day and ferried you from city to city will be punctured. And a campaign that has been years in the making—a seemingly endless stream of hotel rooms, charter planes, handshakes, rubber-chicken fundraising dinners, and convention centers—will suddenly look like a big fat waste of time. How do you go on with your life, especially now that it is forever affiliated with the label LOSER?
We asked three second-place finishers—Walter Mondale (1984), Michael Dukakis (1988), and Bob Dole (1996) what it’s like to come so close … only to fall short.
THE FINAL STRETCH
Mondale: Unlike maybe a lot of people it became pretty apparent pretty early that it was going to be very very hard. Reagan was sort of celestial I would say at that point. We had some momentum where we would hope a little bit. We had a very strong convention. We came out of the convention maybe even, but then it slipped substantially. And then the other point was when the first debate ended, it looked like we were getting a good bounce out of that debate but it disappeared in the second debate. And then the last oh, couple of weeks before the election I was just campaigning hard to do as well as I could. I wasn’t preparing my inaugural address. And I think most of us knew that. I didn’t want a collapse that would hurt Democrats who were running for other offices. So I would say there was a not a lot of dreaming going on there in those days. It wasn’t like now when you are fighting over one-tenth of one percent. We didn’t have any of that.
Dole: In our case we knew we were in trouble, but you still hope that lightning might strike, that something happens and you can pull it off. If you don’t keep a stiff upper lip, you will start losing all of your good supporters. If you don’t remain optimistic, what are the odds that people around you will?
Dukakis: I lost 12 states by three points or less, so it was a competitive race. I lost Pennsylvania by two, California by two, Illinois by one. So I never stopped. I just kept charging. And in fact I was doing TV feeds to key states from Boston at six o’clock on election night. You never stopped even though I thought I blew the election by not responding to the Bush attack campaign. It turned out to be the biggest mistake I ever made. You knew going in that it was going to be you or the other guy. I knew I wasn’t ahead but thought I had a shot, and in fact we were closing fairly rapidly until the Boston Herald—no friend of mine—ran an edition the Thursday before the election, and the headline was “What a Mess.” By that time the recession was having an impact on the state, and that headline was about me. And Bush held it up at a press conference and the closing of the gap stopped. It didn’t mean we didn’t keep working. I had a shot. I had ’em scared.Mondale: It was, I would say, exhausting because you had to give the impression of engaged leadership. I felt strongly about the issues and I didn’t want the campaign to collapse from that basis. So it became very important to me and I think to the things I believed in that I both was intensely involved and I looked like I was fully engaged. You had to do that sometimes when, well for example you go to an event and it’s a disappointing crowd. Sometimes I thought I could see it in their eyes, they were being friendly to me, nice to me, but you know, an audience talks to you, even though they don’t use words, you could sort of feel the mood of the audience and sometimes I would sense that they were resigned to an unhappy result. I did my best to keep my strength there and give a great speech and give excitement in the ranks so we could get the vote out and so on.Dole: We did a 96-hour all nighter—I see Obama did a 48-hour all nighter, well, we did 96 hours in ’96, where we could rev up the troops in places we visited. And also, I had in the back of my mind that I may lose but I didn’t want to take a bunch of senators, House members with me. But I wasn’t worried about keeping up appearances.AFTER IT’S OVER
Dole: You get a lot of suggestions—“You ought to get away for a while, you ought to do this.” But you know you have to… [long pause] It just takes a while. If somebody told me they lost their bid for their White House, I’d say well, you better go see a doctor. People think it is just like another day in the park. To me it just takes time and one way is to get out, to keep busy. I never felt you ought to just take off somewhere and leave it all.Mondale: I was totally exhausted when it was over. You spend a lot of nights and quiet time re-debating the issues, wondering about this and wondering about that, but you know, a couple of months and you are all right.Dukakis: I went back to work the next day. I had work to do. We won the nomination on long weekends. I insisted in being at the state house as much as possible. What was I offering anyway? What I thought was a pretty good record as governor.Dole: I think we went on a trip. Way down to Florida.Mondale: We just took it easy for a bit, a month or so. I did a lot of reading. I think we went home. Maybe I went on a fishing trip or something, I forget. You just try to resume a normal life and for a while those memories and just the exhaustion and the tension of what you have just gone through still seems to reside.Dukakis: Your time clock is all screwed up. You cross the country four or five times in a three-week period. You wake up at two or three in the morning, not because you are nervous but because your time clock is all screwed up. Fritz Mondale told me that he kept a pile of books by his bed, and he would read for two hours before he got so tired he could go back to sleep again. It takes or three months before you get yourself back into some kind of sleep rhythm.Mondale: I was talking to George McGovern one day. He, like me, had ran for president and got clobbered, and I got clobbered, and he had run a long time ago, 1972, and I saw him one day and I said “George, how long does it take to get over a big loss like this?” And he said, “I’ll let you know when it happens.” [laughs] That’s not how I felt though. I knew what was happening. I was sorry for the loss, but I don’t think I carried it around.Dole: You don’t [get back to normal] very quickly. You kind of hang your head. You feel like you let down the party, you let down the people in all 50 states, your supporters. You start dissecting the campaign, what did we do wrong, was there ever a chance to win against Clinton. You sort of go over that a million times. Sometimes it keeps you awake at night. Dukakis: I never needed to go on a vacation or anything like that. Just getting home and resuming a kind of basic routine and spending time with friends and family was for me always enough. You think about for a while, but after a while you get tired of it. And I didn’t have a lot of time to sit around and think about it.Dole: I think in some cases it is harder for your staff. I would say that with a couple of exceptions it was a hard day after the election. There are always a few that figure, well, the race is over, let me find a body for the next race. It is just a business for them, it is never personal. “I got a client, and if he loses, I will just go out and get another client.”Mondale: There is one thing I would like to say because it sounds kind of depressing. In fact it is a high honor to be a presidential nominee of a political party. It is the highest office I ever held. It gave me a chance to speak and be heard about the issues that always motivated me. It gave me a chance to be a part of this, to learn as you can learn in no other way about the issues, about our country and how it works. So I don’t have any regrets. Well, I have one regret. We didn’t win. But all you can do is your best.
ADVICE FOR THIS YEAR’S CANDIDATES
Dole: My advice to people: Pick up where you left off where the campaign started and go back to your office, make phone calls to the people who won and to the people who lost. To the people who lost, say [to them] I hope I didn’t cause it. We actually picked up Senate seats that year and lost 7 or 8 House seats, which is pretty good when you run against the party in power. Sooner or later you got to face it, and people have different ways and different schedules I guess about how to finally get it behind you. I think the hardest part is what other people think of when they see you the next day or the next week or the next month. I remember four or five or six months after the election people would say there goes Bob Dole who lost the election. Anyway, bottom line, it is a great experience and not many people end up in the finals.Dukakis: If Romney loses, I honestly don’t know what he will do, since he has been running for so long and he doesn’t really have a regular job to go back to. It probably takes a month or two to be back to normal. Time is a great healer. They are both active. They should just get back to their normal routine and rhythm.Mondale: [Long pause.] You know, I don’t have any advice for them. Just there will be another day and life goes on.