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Front-Running Candidates Face High Expectations

Front-Running Presidential Candidates Face High Expectations

Front-runners in the race for U.S. president face a paradox: the advantage in leading their competitors might also be a disadvantage.

As Republican consultant Craig Shirley told USINFO, the inherent danger for presidential front-runners is that the "higher up the flagpole the candidate gets, the more people can see your backside."

Shirley, who heads the Virginia-based Shirley and Banister Public Affairs consulting firm, told USINFO that presidential front-runners enjoy more media attention and attract more campaign contributions and volunteers "because people naturally gravitate toward winners."

Shirley said the downside, however, is that more people "take potshots at you." Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, he said, is "finding that out right now," as is Rudy Giuliani, the Republican leader in most public opinion polls.

"The increased scrutiny of a candidate" offers the increased chance for "potential embarrassment," said Shirley.

Shirley said the "marketplace" determines the front-runners, which comes in the form of financial contributions, the candidate's position in the polls, the amount of support the candidate receives from interest groups and the extent of media coverage.

Leading the presidential race "obviously helps in fundraising because so much money is driven by name identification" and from being the front-runner, said Shirley.

Lower-rung candidates have a much more difficult time raising money, drawing crowds and getting media attention, he said. This results, he said, in the circular reasoning that voters say they cannot support such candidates "because nobody's supporting them."


Democratic consultant Tony Welch told USINFO that presidential front-runners must stay wary of media who "become all too interested in knocking" the leaders from their "perch."

Welch, from the Dewey Square Group in Washington, said a prime example of a front-runner experiencing free fall occurred in 2004 when Democrat Howard Dean uttered what was considered a primal scream after he finished third in the Iowa caucuses to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the Democratic Party's eventual nominee, and the second-place finisher, John Edwards.

Following that incident, said Welch, the media "literally picked" Dean apart, despite the fact he long had been considered the national front-runner for the party's nomination.

"We'll never know" if that scream ended Dean's presidential hopes, said Welch, a former newspaper reporter in Florida. Welch said much of the former Vermont governor's demise can be attributed to how media outlets repeatedly aired the "Dean Scream."

Welch, also a former press secretary for the Democratic National Committee, said Dean's candidacy might have achieved success if, in fact, he had been running from behind. Under that scenario, Dean might have "weathered the storm better" with less attention paid to his mistakes, said Welch.


Fritz Wenzel, director of communications for the Zogby International public opinion polling firm in Washington, told USINFO that the advantage for presidential front-runners is that their strengths are "magnified," but that any weaknesses also are magnified with such Internet Web sites as YouTube, Dailymotion, and Google Video repeatedly showing the candidate's faux pas.

Wenzel said, however, that American voters "always give a candidate the benefit of the doubt because they know everyone makes mistakes." He added that it is how the candidate "responds to the mistakes" that "makes or breaks you."

He pointed, for example, to incumbent Virginia Senator George Allen, who uttered in 2006 what was considered a racial slur during his campaign for re-election against the ultimate winner, Democrat James Webb.

Better handling of that situation probably would have meant that the incident not have been fatal to Allen's political career, said Wenzel.

But Allen's "fumbling around" after he uttered "macaca" showed "much more about his personality and character than the incident itself," said Wenzel.

Wenzel said Clinton is now trying "to backtrack" from a perceived mistake in an October 30 Democratic candidates debate in Pennsylvania. Her attempts to recover, said Wenzel, conjure up the political equivalent of trying to escape from quicksand -- "the first step in getting out of a hole is to stop digging."


Perhaps the most publicized case in recent American political history of a supposed front-runner losing occurred in the 1948 election between incumbent Democratic President Harry Truman and his Republican challenger, New York Governor Thomas Dewey.

Almost all polls and pundits declared Dewey the easy winner, with an infamous Chicago Daily Tribune headline before the polls closed erroneously pronouncing him the new president.

Shirley attributes Dewey's loss to Dewey running a "terrible campaign," and his premature halt to campaigning when he believed he would win easily. Meanwhile, Truman campaigned aggressively and convinced the American people that Dewey was part of a Republican-led "do-nothing Congress." Both Shirley and Wenzel said Americans voted for "stability" with Truman instead of "change" as represented by Dewey.

Wenzel says that polling methods in 1948 were far less sophisticated than today, when new technology and daily tracking polls result in much more accurate forecasts. Wenzel indicated the political world was taken by surprise in 1948 because the final polls, taken several weeks before the election, missed the fast-moving surge in voter sentiment for Truman.


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