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It’s always hard to win as the heir of a popular president. Clinton is in very good company.

- November 30, 2016


Hillary Clinton concedes the presidential election on Nov. 9 in New York. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It’s never easy to be second. Hillary Clinton has met the same fate as many men who ran as heirs apparent to an outgoing administration, and failed to be elected.

Al Gore, Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon (in his first presidential candidacy) were the vice presidents and apparently the heirs to outgoing presidents of their own party. They were closely tied to their respective predecessors, proudly advocated their administration’s record of achievement, and promised continuity. All three men boasted impressive résumés, with experience and party loyalty.

At the same time, each of the three were tainted with all the problems that had built up over a two-term administration. In addition, they lacked the winning characteristics of their predecessors: Nixon lacked Eisenhower’s heroic reputation, while Humphrey and Gore lacked the campaign skills of Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton, respectively. For his own part, Al Gore in 2000 awkwardly tried to distance himself from Clinton personally while politically promising to continue his policies.

Hillary Clinton faced many of the same challenges.

Despite a long résumé, many achievements and an opponent with many flaws, Clinton could not translate her predecessor’s surging popularity into an electoral victory.

Some of the baggage she carried was entirely her own: The pesky email scandal that would not go away, as well as more than two decades of scars inflicted upon both Clintons on matters ranging from absurd (that she murdered White House counsel Vince Foster) to arguably serious (that she had grown too close to moneyed interests).

On the other hand, some constituencies that voted twice for Barack Obama nevertheless held Clinton accountable for the administration’s policy shortcomings.

Governing as the heir of a popular president can be tough

It’s not necessarily easier for those heirs apparent who do manage to get elected president. Governing as the third term of a popular president can be thankless.

Supporters expect all policies to continue uninterrupted; observers critique any new policies as either too much like, or too different from, the preceding president’s approach. Supporters and opponents alike expect the heir to correct any malfunctions in the previous administration’s policies. And the heir probably presides over a weakening and fractious party, as the opposition party grows stronger.

Harry Truman and George H.W. Bush faced all these dilemmas, and found it difficult to get credit for their own presidential achievements. Had she won, Hillary Clinton likely would have found herself in the same position.

So how can a candidate get elected as the heir?

But first an heir apparent has to get elected. Ordinarily, the most logical path is to reassemble the predecessor’s electoral coalition. Bush and Truman managed this but failed to win electoral victories as large as those of their predecessors. That’s common for the heir apparent. Al Gore, for example, didn’t have Bill Clinton’s success with moderate white Southerners. Bush won convincingly in 1988, but with a little less support from the so-called Reagan Democrats who had given Reagan two landslide victories in the 1980s.

Similarly, Hillary Clinton didn’t match Obama’s success with young people, African Americans and Northern white working-class voters. Those small drop-offs in votes and turnout from key constituencies, here and there, added up — or rather, subtracted — on Election Day. Nor did Clinton have much success when she tried to broaden the Obama coalition by bringing in moderate Republican voters.

As an heir apparent, Clinton did what her predecessors had done: stressed her experience, her judgment and the current administration’s achievements. Obama maintains job approval ratings in the low to mid-50s, which is historically a very strong position for an eighth-year president.

But while Obama remained popular, and Clinton promised to build on his achievements, some of Obama’s electoral coalition felt discouraged by his administration’s shortcomings on one policy or another — and may have held back on Nov. 8 as a result.

Rarely does the heir have as much charisma as the president in office

There is also the matter of an heir-apparent’s charismatic appeal, or lack thereof. A two-term president has often been a trailblazing, transformational figure, with the charisma to match.

An heir-apparent, on the other hand, is more likely to be a highly skilled, usually experienced public servant who sees him or herself not as a revolutionary but as the faithful custodian of the current administration’s policy record — and not as charming and charismatic.

Gore was no Bill Clinton; Humphrey was no Lyndon Johnson; Truman was no Franklin Roosevelt; and William Howard Taft was no Theodore Roosevelt. Few would argue that Hillary Clinton ever duplicated Obama’s charismatic appeal — or, for that matter, her husband’s.

None of these assessments excuse any individual candidate’s campaign tactics or messaging. But for any presidential candidate, the campaign context matters. Had Clinton won her first presidential campaign in 2008 — taking over a nation with a failing economy and succeeding an unpopular Republican — she would not have been burdened with the weight of being an heir apparent. Had she been that year’s Democratic nominee, she would have been better positioned to challenge the policy wreckage of the George W. Bush administration, rather than defending the record of her husband, or any other Democratic administration.

Donald A. Zinman is associate professor of political science at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich. He is the author of “The Heir Apparent Presidency” (University Press of Kansas, 2016).