This is the sixth in my series profiling the biggest losers in American presidential election history. To survey the previous victims, refer to the following. Greeley (1872): smashed. McGovern (1972): annihilated. Parker (1904): humiliated. Landon (1936): destroyed. Dole (1996): vaporized. We now move on to the single biggest loser, mathematically speaking, in American history–at least by one measurement. (Fortunately there is another, so I can use that metaphor again…I’m looking your way, Barry Goldwater!) In 1984, Walter Mondale was buried under the largest number of electoral votes ever won by a Presidential candidate. That unhappy number was 525, and this article is the story about how he lost every one of those votes.
First, the political backdrop. The story of the 1984 election, which was so anemic that a book written about the contest was titled Wake Me When It’s Over, was really written four years earlier, in the much more dramatic electoral showdown of 1980. In that year, incumbent President Jimmy Carter found himself in a tough fight for re-election against former California Governor and ex B-movie actor Ronald Reagan whose long-awaited day as the north star of American conservatism had finally arrived. There are a lot of historical misconceptions about the 1980 election. Although it was a landslide in Reagan’s favor, most people are surprised to learn that it was too close to call until the very end, with Carter and Reagan polling neck-and-neck for much of the contest. Reagan’s victory was also tainted by a number of serious missteps. He won decisively in the end, but this result was by no means inevitable–or at least it didn’t seem so–while it was going on.
As Carter’s VP, Mondale conducted a great deal of diplomacy. Here he is with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in the late 1970s.
Seen from that standpoint, challenging Reagan for re-election in 1984 may not have been as totally hopeless in late 1983 as it seems today. Reagan almost died less than 2 months on the job, and then during his recovery the nation was buffeted by a savage recession–some say as a result of Reagan’s bull-in-the-china-shop economic philosophies–and serious, perhaps civilization-threatening tension with the Soviets. Democrats still controlled Congress. And for once the Democratic Party, which usually has much more wide-open contests, operated on the principle of primogeniture, meaning the heir-apparent at the end of the last contest had a pretty open path to the nomination. It’s usually Republicans who operate this way, which is how we got nominees like Mitt Romney who often seen like they’re re-fighting the last election rather than trying to blaze a path forward.
This was exactly the problem for Democrats in 1984. The heir-apparent was Carter’s long-suffering but still quite capable Vice President, Walter Mondale. A Minnesotan of Norwegian extraction, Mondale was a relatively centrist Democrat, not an ardent New Dealer, though he started to come up through the party when FDR’s New Deal and Truman’s Fair Deal were the only games in town. He worked on the 1948 Senate campaign of Hubert Humphrey–also himself fated to be Vice-President and a failed Democratic nominee (1968)–and was then appointed to fill Humphrey’s unfinished Senate term in 1964 when Humphrey became Vice-President. Mondale won the seat in his own right in 1966. He served in the Senate until he himself resigned the same seat for the same reason: in 1976 he was Carter’s veep choice. Presidential nominee was the next logical step.
Mondale’s campaign strategy emphasized lower class “ordinary” people whom he argued Reagan couldn’t see. This ad is typical of that strategy.
Like many “Biggest Losers,” Mondale’s path to the nomination was rockier than it should have been. Colorado Congressman Gary Hart led an insurgent campaign to Mondale’s left, and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson made a try for the nomination largely by rallying working-class African-Americans and other ethnic groups. Mondale always painted himself as the candidate of the “hard hat and steel lunch pail” sort of voter–meaning usually white blue-collar men. The nomination process was largely about identity politics as opposed to issues, although Mondale made headway (and headlines) by hijacking burger chain Wendy’s ad slogan, de rigeur in 1984, “Where’s the Beef?” to criticize Hart’s lack of policy specifics. By the time Democrats came to their convention in San Francisco in July, Mondale had a plurality of delegates but no sure lock on the nomination. This is where the “Superdelegates” first make their appearance in American politics. These traditional big-money folks got solidly behind Mondale, and he steamrolled Hart and Jackson at Moscone Center.
The 1984 race is very interesting because it essentially ended at the convention. After his loss Mondale was more frank than many losing nominees have been, and admitted in a 1987 interview that he knew at the convention that he was going down to an epic defeat. But at San Francisco, for really the only time in the campaign, he had the spotlight to himself. His one card to play–not to beat Reagan, but to get himself in the history books–was to nominate a woman for Vice-President, the first time in U.S. history this has happened. He chose Geraldine Ferraro, Congresswoman from New York. The headlines and cable news shows–in their infancy in 1984–crowed and bubbled about this historic pick for several days as Democrats went home from Frisco. After that, Mondale began sliding down the hill and he didn’t stop until he hit bottom.
For his part, Ronald Reagan remained remarkably disengaged, probably more so than any Presidential nominee in modern history. The 1988 book Landslide described a famous meeting of Republican advisers (many of whom went on to serve both George Bushes) in July 1984 lamenting that they had exactly zero ideas for the campaign and no real program to try to sell to the American people. Thus, Reagan’s campaign focused on content-free, issue-free and fact-free advertising made to make people feel either good, like his magic-hour “Morning in America” commercials, or scared, as with the “Bear in the Woods” spot that played on fears of the USSR. With the economy rebounding and the international situation at least somewhat stable, Reagan had little to fear from Mondale. His polls consistently predicted an utter slate-wipe in November.
Reagan’s largely content-free feel-good campaign not only played up patriotic tropes, but tied Mondale to the still-unpopular Carter by asking “Why would we want to go back to the way we were?”
His pollsters were right. Nearly every segment of the American electorate–from blue-collar workers to married women, and almost every ethnic voting group you can think of–went solidly for Reagan. Mondale won only one state, his own, Minnesota, and even that was frighteningly close. In addition to the staggering electoral landslide, the Gipper fire-hosed Mondale in the popular vote too, 58.8 to 40.6%, which is about as decisive as it gets in modern American politics. Still, despite the undeniable lopsidedness of the victory, 4 in 10 Americans would rather have had a Minnesota Norwegian liberal in the White House than another four years of jelly bellies and cowboy boots. If historians today tell the story of the 1960s as conservatism retrenching under the surface, the same story can certainly be told about liberals in the 1980s. The roots of Bill Clinton’s 1990s and Barack Obama’s 2000s/2010s victories can be glimpsed in the ashes of 1984.
After the election Mondale retired–briefly. In 1993 Clinton tapped him to be Ambassador to Japan, and his career surged again when he replaced, at the very last minute, Senator Paul Wellstone on the Minnesota Senate ballot in 2002 after Wellstone was killed in a plane crash just 11 days before the election. Mondale lost, but he did pretty well considering he didn’t even know he was going to be a candidate until 11 days before the vote. Since then he has lived quietly in Minnesota.
In retrospect one can wonder what the hell the Democrats were thinking in 1984, running Carter’s Vice-President against the guy who repudiated Carter and everything he stood for in the last election. But in another take, as with all of the Biggest Losers, you can see an up side too. Mondale was a capable politician and a compassionate man. He just came to political prominence at the wrong time. It’s hard to blame him for that.