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The Strangest Presidential Campaign Ever

Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot laughs after saying, "Watch my lips," in response to reporters asking when he plans to formally enter the presidential race. Questions came May 5, 1992, in New York City, where Perot was speaking before the American Newspaper Publishers Association. Richard Drew/AP hide caption

toggle caption Richard Drew/AP

Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot laughs after saying, "Watch my lips," in response to reporters asking when he plans to formally enter the presidential race. Questions came May 5, 1992, in New York City, where Perot was speaking before the American Newspaper Publishers Association.

Richard Drew/AP

Right out of the starting blocks, the presidential campaign of Donald Trump has been headline-making controversial — with stories of the candidate remarking on rape, expressing disgust with a nursing mother and calling into question Sen. John McCain's heroism as a prisoner of war.

The Hillary Clinton campaign has already had its share of oddities, as well. More than 50 percent of Americans say they do not trust her, CNN reports: "And it's likely the result of the weight of several problems that haven't gone away — particularly her use of a private email while at the State Department and her family foundation's acceptance of foreign contributions."

Meanwhile, Mike Huckabee — when speaking of President Obama's dealings with Iran — invoked the Holocaust. And Martin O'Malley sometimes plays a guitar on the campaign trail.

What is an American political campaign if not a challenge to convention, a stretching of the status quo, an ode to originality? There have already been many remarkable moments on the trails this season. But, historically speaking, which candidate's presidential campaign was the strangest ever?

Crackers And Milk

The question is really about the strangest "campaign" — as a whole — in American history as opposed to the strangest thing or things that "happened" during someone's campaign.

Political observers of the past have pointed to:

Sen. William E. Borah, 1939.

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Dwight D. Eisenhower political ad, 1952.

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Jimmy Carter political ad, 1976.

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  • ... the curious and austere run by Republican hopeful Sen. William E. Borah in 1936. "Borah travels strictly alone, in contrast to the entourages which usually accompany an aspirant to the highest office in the land," a United Press reporter recorded on April 22, 1936. A multimillionaire from Idaho, Borah paid his own campaign expenses. "His meals are simple. He likes to break crackers into a glass of milk, to eat an apple with his luncheon. He is fond of shredded cabbage." Borah "rejected" the overtures of influential newspaperman William Allen White who asked Borah to help articulate the Republican platform. Borah said a platform was useless unless you knew who was going to be standing on it. He lost the nomination to Alf Landon at his party's convention.
  • ... the audacious first campaign in 1952 and re-election bid in 1956 of Republican Dwight Eisenhower. The first time around, Eisenhower had to deal with accusations that his running mate, Richard Nixon, had used campaign funds for personal expenditures — leading to Nixon's "Checkers Speech." The second time around, Eisenhower was running in the wake of a heart attack and other health problems. Eisenhower won both elections.
  • ... 1976 when Democrat Jimmy Carter — with his Peanut Brigade and crossover Republican support — conducted a surprisingly effective campaign. He won.

'Remarkable And Unique'

So do any of these qualify as the Strangest Presidential Election Campaign in American History?

"While I would give honorable mention to the ones you cited," says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, "I'd add Jerry Brown's quixotic effort in 1992. But my nominee would be Ross Perot in 1992. He broke all the rules and had a very significant impact on politics and policy even in losing." Sabato lists his reasons:

  • In a first, Sabato says, H. Ross Perot's "campaign headquarters" was a TV show, Larry King Live. Perot, a Texas billionaire, convinced untold numbers of average people to send him $5 apiece to help finance his bid.
  • The renegade candidate perhaps made a difference in the election. "While Bill Clinton very probably would have defeated President Bush in a two-way race," Sabato says, "Perot did a great deal of damage to Bush early on, paving the way for Clinton."
  • Perot dropped out of the race in the summer "because Republicans were allegedly trying to disrupt his daughter's wedding — the most unusual excuse ever," according to Sabato. "Yet Perot jumped back in with only a month to go and managed to get 19 percent of the national vote, the best third force showing since Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose total in 1912."
  • Finally, Sabato says, "both parties went to work to reduce the deficit — in part to attract Perot's voters. Briefly the budget was actually balanced for the first time since 1969. All in all, Perot is a remarkable and unique story in the annals of American politics."

'Legitimately Odd'

Perot speaks at the U.S. Capitol in the spring after the 1992 election. Maureen Keating via Library of Congress hide caption

toggle caption Maureen Keating via Library of Congress

Perot speaks at the U.S. Capitol in the spring after the 1992 election.

Maureen Keating via Library of Congress

We put the same open-ended question to Jason Johnson, a political historian at Hiram College. And we got the same answer.

"I would probably say Ross Perot, at least in recent memory," Johnson says. "Ross Perot's campaign was legitimately odd for the time." Johnson lists his reasons:

  • Perot was a third-party candidate who actually got on the ballot in all 50 states, Johnson says, which was unheard of at the time.
  • The way Perot "used television — for his half-hour-long lessons about the economy and other issues — was more reminiscent of British party election broadcasts than anything that had ever been done in America," Johnson says.
  • The Texan's folksy style and messaging, Johnson says, "changed the nature of the first town hall debate, which subsequently changed every American presidential debate since then."

So Perot wins. At least when it comes to weird campaigns. And at least with our two historians. But there are many months to go in the 2016 race. And there are a lot of candidates. So who knows? In politics, things can always get stranger.


Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org

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