Loving the limelight, and perhaps the newfound power of spending other people’s money, a host of candidates over the years have pursued the White House for no obvious reason other than that it fed their egos.
Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum and James Gilmore are this year’s ego-trippers. None of them are polling above 0.6 percent on the realclearpolitics.com average of all polls. No one even knows how low Gilmore is polling — he doesn’t even make the RCP list, which means he’s at 0.2 percent or lower.
Successful men — you bet. Presidential material? Umm, not so fast. They were never going anywhere, they’re still going nowhere — but they just keep going nonetheless.
It’s not a new phenomenon. Delusional candidates litter the ash bin of history. Here are a few candidates whose egos outpaced reality as they pursued their presidential aspirations.
1. Jesse Jackson — The Chicago-based civil rights activist ran for president twice, in 1984 (he came in third behind Walter Mondale and Gary Hart) and 1988 (he came in second behind Michael Dukakis). His politics have typically been far left of his own party, and he was never regarded as a serious nomination threat. He represented important viewpoints, but with Jackson’s bombastic style and reputation for self-promotion, it was hard not to think it was always just about Jesse. He still shows up around the country (with an entourage) at every hint of injustice, inserting himself into controversies like a right-to-work law in Michigan and police shootings where race has been part of the story. His presence is always certain to grab media attention.
Perot didn’t win a single Electoral College vote, let alone the 270 needed to move into the White House.
2. H. Ross Perot — The rambling Texas billionaire wanted to be president badly, running in 1992 and again in 1996 — and financing his bids with his own deep pockets. Big ears, strange voice, a bit of paranoia here and there. In 1992, he managed to capture 19 percent of the vote, making him our most successful independent party candidate for president yet. But he didn’t win a single Electoral College vote, let alone the 270 needed to move into the White House. He famously said in one debate (repeatedly): “Can I finish?” After drawing just 8 percent in his second run, he was finished.
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3. Alan Keyes — The former diplomat from Maryland has been a perennial candidate for president, seeking the office three times — in 1996, 2000 and 2008. He ran as a Republican, a Constitution Party candidate and then as a candidate from a new party formed by his supporters at the time, the American Independent Party. Whew! Never had a chance, but he always seemed to be enjoying himself. He has also run for the U.S. Senate three times, in 1988, 1992 and 2004, in a couple of different states. He got crushed in that last race, losing to the Democrat in Illinois by a 70 percent to 27 percent margin. The victor in that race? An unknown community organizer named Barack Obama.
4. Lyndon LaRouche — Conspiracy theories, socialism, psychological dogma and a whole lotta strange? None of it stopped LaRouche — a one-time federal prison cellmate of televangelist Jim Bakker — from creating a marginal movement of supporters and running for president repeatedly. He ran first in 1976 as a Labor Party candidate and then as a Democrat every four years through 2004 — a record eight consecutive occasions.
There was that nasty moment when McKinney assaulted a Capitol police officer who stopped her to ask for her congressional identification.
5. Tom Vilsack — Emboldened, perhaps, by being considered as a possible running mate for Sen. John Kerry when Kerry ran for president in 2004, the former Iowa governor returned to the limelight to announce in 2006 a presidential bid for the 2008 Democratic nomination. Vilsack, who has served as the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture since 2009, was beloved in Iowa — a place oft-dismissed by East Coast elites as simply “flyover country” — but unknown elsewhere, and he had little campaign funding. A true centrist, he never even got to the primaries or a debate stage amid a strong field that included emerging stars like Obama and well-known Hillary Clinton.
6. Cynthia McKinney — The longtime congressional Democrat from Georgia, serving six terms, ran for president as a 2008 Green Party candidate after leaving Democrats behind in 2007. Before this, McKinney was already raising political eyebrows inside the Beltway and beyond. A 2005 House bill seeking to release federal government documents on the death of rapper Tupac Shakur? A 9-11 conspiracy theory? You bet. And there was that nasty moment when she assaulted a Capitol police officer who stopped her to ask for her congressional identification. President McKinney? Wasn’t gonna happen.
Traficant is another one who landed in the Big House instead of the White House.
7. David Duke — The former Klu Klux Klan leader ran for president as both a Democrat and a Republican across a long and largely failed political career. His bids included a Democratic presidential primary attempt in 1988 and then four years later, a 1992 Republican presidential primary run after he switched parties. Duke came up short in both of those runs, as well as other races for House of Representatives, U.S. Senate and the Louisiana Senate. Duke served one term in the Louisiana House of Representatives. He pleaded guilty to tax fraud in 2002 and served time in federal prison instead of in the Oval Office.
8. James Traficant — Another one who landed in the Big House instead of the White House. The long-serving, poorly dressed, wild-haired outspoken Ohio congressman who later went to prison for bribery and racketeering ran a regionally focused and short-lived campaign for president in 1988. He set his sights on the White House after just two terms in Congress, but his nascent campaign went nowhere. He continued to serve in Congress and was indicted in 2002, later spending seven years in prison. Missing public service, he mounted from his jail cell a congressional bid and earned close to 30,000 votes, even while he was incarcerated and could not campaign. He died in a farm accident in 2014.