When reluctant presidential candidates need a push
Here’s how to woo a potential president: Rally voters at vaudeville shows. Broadcast a television ad during the premier of a new political drama. Craft careful plans to topple an embattled incumbent. Hold a press conference that’s light on frills but full of accolades.
These techniques are some of the ways New Hampshire voters have tried over the years to persuade reticent candidates to enter the state’s presidential primary. Commonly called “draft movements,” such efforts became prominent starting in 1951, when local Republican leaders urged Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for the GOP nomination. Modern drafts are underway on behalf of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Dr. Ben Carson, and even former vice president Al Gore.
In between, countless other voters have tried to use the Granite State’s first-in-the-nation primary to launch new political legends. Most of these efforts never moved beyond hopes and rumors, but some have grown into sweeping operations complete with devoted volunteers, crowded fund-raisers, and a curious press corps.
“We had a real campaign, except we didn’t have a candidate,” said Dudley W. Dudley, a New Hampshire Democrat who helped lead draft efforts for Senator Edward Kennedy in 1979 and retired Army General Wesley Clark in 2003.
Kennedy and Clark are on the short list of politicians who joined the presidential primary after draft movements. (Eisenhower, of course, went on to win the Oval Office.) Many other sought-after candidates have declined. In 1980, there was a brief push on behalf of former president Gerald Ford. In 1988 and 1992, a network of New Hampshire voters prepared to support Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, but he declined to run both times. In 1997, groups of Granite Staters organized on behalf of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and billionaire businessman Donald Trump. (Gingrich did eventually run for president, but not until 2012; Trump’s political plans remain unclear.)
Federal election records show a long list of other draftees including former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Although these candidates didn’t run, efforts of their behalfs may have nonetheless influenced the political atmosphere.
“There has to be something that’s driving folks toward trying to offer another choice,” said Wayne Lesperance, a professor of political science at New England College in Henniker, N.H. “A draft campaign can force declared or soon-to-be-declared candidates to talk about issues they wouldn’t otherwise talk about.”
The Federal Election Commission defines a draft committee as an organization established “solely to draft an individual or to encourage him or her to become a candidate for federal office.” Committees are allowed to use a candidate’s name, but they must make it clear that the movement is independent. Draft committees that raise significant amounts of money are subject to federal election laws and must file with the FEC.
Potential candidates may also attract the attention of informal, state-level groups that never raise enough money to land on the federal roster. That was the kind of operation Nashua lawyer Tim Bush ran in 1995 on behalf of Powell.
“It was a grass-roots organization,” he said. “The type of thing we were trying to do, we could pretty much do it on our own: bumper stickers, shirts, signs. The phone number was my home phone number.”
Bush remembers the movement fondly. He met great people and got to support a man he believed would be a strong, calm leader. In February 1995, he worked with Powell supporters from around New England to organize a press conference in Manchester where they spent more than 45 minutes describing why the former general would be a good president.
Although Bush devoted a lot of time to the movement, he respected Powell’s decision not to run. “No one thought he owed anybody anything,” Bush said.
Without willing candidates, draft committee organizers have to use other methods to attract voters. For Eisenhower supporters, that meant rounding up prominent political speakers and putting them on stage with swing bands and vaudeville shows. Some events ended with New Hampshire’s governor, Sherman Adams, leading the crowd in song.
“It was in the 1952 campaign that we merged entertainment with the primary,” said Michael Birkner, a liberal arts professor at Gettysburg College who has studied Eisenhower’s New Hampshire campaign. “It’s going to be fun as much as serious political talk.”
Dudley and her colleagues didn’t sing to voters, but they did work hard to stump for Kennedy. The movement started on New Year’s Eve 1979 when Dudley and a small group of fellow Democrats shared their concerns about President Jimmy Carter and decided Kennedy was the right person to challenge him in the primary.
“We really did set out a bona fide, honest-to-God draft, started to raise money, started to get attention, started to get called by the press from all over the world,” she said. “All of a sudden, we realized we had something going.”
They held fund-raisers around the country and hosted “Draft Beer” parties for supporters. Dudley spoke to the Gridiron Club on Kennedy’s behalf.
“People really, really liked him and were hoping he would be the nominee,” she said. “Looking back at it now, I’m sort of stunned we pushed Kennedy to do it that year. [Republican Ronald] Reagan won in a landslide. Kennedy might have done better, but it would have been hard for him, too.”
The modern political landscape is different from the eras that spawned movements to draft Eisenhower and Kennedy. Voters have more tools at their disposal to rally support for a favorite would-be candidate.
Supporters of Clark began their draft effort in the spring of 2003 with the launch of DraftWesleyClark.com, a website that served as a digital companion to traditional campaign offices and on-the-ground volunteers like Dudley. Clark declared his candidacy that September, and thanked the draft movement in his announcement speech.
“He turned out to be a pretty good candidate,” Dudley said.
In the months before the 2008 primary, there were a number of blogs and websites launched on behalf of Rice, according to a summary prepared by Democracy in Action. The sites had names like www.4condi.com and Condipundit. One group of supporters raised enough money to buy $4,000 of ad time on WMUR, the local ABC affiliate, during the premier episode of “Commander in Chief” — a short-lived drama about a woman who unexpectedly finds herself serving as president.
The potential for this kind of campaigning has only grown in recent years, something Lesperance says may shift the dynamics of draft movements.
“Imagine if in the day of Eisenhower they had Facebook and Twitter and Instagram,” he said. “You have this fire in the belly of all these people who want to do something, and the technology becomes gasoline.”
Draft movements make for interesting political conversation and may temporarily change the dynamics of the race, but it’s hard to know how much they actually affect an election’s outcome. News reports from 1995 hint that Senator Bob Dole may have used the specter of Powell to win key endorsements in New Hampshire, but Bush remains uncertain of any lasting effects.
“I would like to say we had some small part in New Hampshire changing the conversation, but I don’t think it really did,” he said. “Everybody said some really nice things about Powell for a news cycle, but I think the election went on the way it was going to go without us.”