'Campaigns Don’t End. They Run Out of Money.'
Running for president is hard. Former Representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri was twice a serious candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination -- in 1988 and 2004. In 1988 he won the Iowa caucuses and finished second in the New Hampshire primary. But his campaign petered out and he lost the nomination to Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. In 2004 Gephardt finished fourth in Iowa and dropped out of the race.
Gephardt served 14 terms in the House -- 14 years as Democratic Majority or Minority Leader. He was a top-tier candidate in both of his presidential races, with strong support from organized labor. But he learned just how grueling and unforgiving the presidential campaign trail can be. I asked Gephardt about it in an e-mail exchange, which has been lightly edited.
Hunt: Most candidates for president have run successfully for Congress or statewide office. Running for president is a different experience, but is it a difference of degree or of kind?
Gephardt: Kind. If you have run statewide, you have to multiply the challenge of that by 50 (or 49) states. Even running in the presidential primaries entails a multiplication factor of 20 or 30.
Hunt: There are more than a dozen Republicans running for president this time and (so far) four Democrats. What's the biggest shock they're in for?
Gephardt: First, the enormity of the task. Second, their personal life is over. Third, the physical and mental energy required.
Hunt: Is it good for Democrats to have a seemingly dominant non-incumbent (Hillary Clinton) running for President? Or would the party benefit from a more competitive race like 2008?
Gephardt: Hillary Clinton is a unique candidate and her presence in the race has caused a lack of competition. This may never happen again. She is like an incumbent for re-election.
Hunt: Once the primaries start it's a crazy-quilt calendar of elections. What are the challenges of scheduling that?
Gephardt: Political and fund-raising challenges make scheduling totally impossible. Each candidate needs to be divided into at least 100 additional people.
Hunt: When Democrats were in disarray in the 1970s and 1980s, you and other moderates developed the Democratic Leadership Conference to push the party toward the mainstream. Why don't Republicans have a DLC corollary?
Gephardt: Republican officeholders and the business community need to partner to create their version of the DLC. So far, they have been intimidated by the far right and the Tea Party.
Hunt: Money has been called the "mother's milk of politics." How crucial is it?
Gephardt: Now -- even 30 years ago -- it is huger than huge. There are two new developments: First, Internet fund raising (only good for “buzz” candidates like President Obama). Second, oligarchs who can ink $100 million-plus checks for a candidate.
Hunt: Is it different today for candidates with billionaire sugar daddies?
Gephardt: Very different. If you have just one oligarch behind you, you can last in the primaries for a long time.
Hunt: How is the scrutiny of a presidential candidate greater and what difference do social media make?
Gephardt: The press is in some ways even more important than ever. But when everybody can be a journalist with a tape recorder and camera phone, the microscope is intense and there is no margin for mistakes. (Mitt Romney fundraiser tape).
Hunt: There is already a plethora of state and national polls. How seriously should Clinton or Jeb Bush or other leading candidates take these now?
Gephardt: Polls are not very important now. Trends are more relevant. Some candidates are largely unknown. As they become better known that will entirely change the dynamics of the race. Hillary and Jeb will pay attention to negatives against themselves and each other, but the other candidates just have to mount and execute their campaigns.
Hunt: All but two of these candidates will lose their nomination fights. As the reality of impending loss becomes apparent do candidates resist it?
Gephardt: Campaigns don’t end. They run out of money.
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