Bill Clinton survived much worse.

Gary Hart Was Never Going to Be President

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Judging from the excerpt from his new book on the Gary Hart/Donna Rice flap in the New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai has a great story to tell. He's a good reporter, and he has a nice scoop: He ferreted out the person who called the Miami Herald and sparked the story of supposed womanizing by the early frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, ultimately leading Hart to withdraw from the 1988 presidential race.

Bai is dead wrong on one thing, however: The press frenzy didn't cost Hart the presidency.

The first question is the easiest to answer: Both Bai and Hart claim the Colorado senator could have defeated Vice President George H.W. Bush in November 1988. He would not have. Bush won that election by 8 percentage points, 7 million votes, and a lopsided 426-111 margin in the Electoral College. There is no reason to believe that Hart would have so outperformed Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis that he would have bridged that gap. Indeed, there's no particular reason to believe that Hart would have done any better. The Dukakis campaign is remembered as poorly conducted, but that's the case with all losing candidacies. In fact, Dukakis ran a scandal-free, ordinary (if perhaps a bit plodding) campaign that probably won the votes that could be won. Even in the 1980s, when voters were slightly less loyal to parties, candidates just didn't matter that much in presidential elections.

Bai reels off polling from before the Hart scandal erupted, but early polls such as those, 18 months before the election, are worthless. In particular, we know now that the Iran-Contra affair, which at the time was hurting Ronald Reagan's approval ratings and threatened to uncover information that could have damaged Bush's campaign, was about to fizzle out, at least as a public opinion issue. By November 1988, Reagan was becoming popular again, and and no new information about Bush's role in Iran-Contra turned up that might threaten his candidacy. None of that had anything to do with the Democratic candidate.

Would Hart have won the Democratic nomination? That one is a lot harder to answer. He had a strong polling lead in spring 1987, nine months or so before the Iowa caucuses. but those polls aren't good predictors, either: As the runner-up in 1984, he had significant name-recognition advantages over the rest of the field that would have disappeared by Iowa.

A lot of Democratic party actors were excited by a Hart campaign in 1987. But plenty of others hadn't trusted him in 1984, and weren't going to trust him in 1988. Indeed, part of the story of Hart's downfall after the Miami Herald suggested he had a liaison with Rice is that prominent Democrats failed to rally around him, and seemed more than happy to move to a more reliable candidate. Had the scandal never happened, those Democrats probably would have joined other whispering campaigns against Hart (as they did in 1984), or been quick to pounce on whatever gaffes or rough patches he went through later.

It's worth mentioning, in that context, that Hart hardly showed exemplary electioneering skills during the Rice flap. Bill Clinton had to face far worse four years later during the Gennifer Flowers and draft scandals in the weeks leading up to the New Hampshire primary, and displayed far better abilities. That's hardly proof of anything, but it suggests some vulnerabilities for Hart later in the nomination process even without the Rice story.

All that said, Bai has a great political story. Enjoy it (and then head to Richard Ben Cramer's classic reporting and storytelling, which Bai cites). Bai's best analytic points are about the press, and not about how strong a candidate Hart would have been. He was not going to be elected president in 1988.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net