Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants (Paperback)

by Lara Brown


*This book is in the Politics, Institutions, and Public Policy in America book series
(Series editors: Scott Frisch and Sean Kelly)

The quadrennial presidential election is the foremost event in American politics. Though it is, as Tocqueville notes, “a time of national crisis,” it is also the time when citizens put their faith in democracy and choose the nation’s next leader. Significantly, it is also the time when a handful of Americans jump onto the presidential racetrack and begin jockeying to win the White House.

Even though a president’s constituency is all of America, electoral success is achieved through both partisan structures and federal institutions. In short, attaining the presidency involves winning two contests: a major party nomination and a general election. Theoretically discrete, since becoming competitive in the 1790s, these contests are essentially sequential. Most observers (not to mention participants) ask two questions related to this paradox: first, how does a presidential aspirant win a major party nomination, and second, what type of aspirant makes it through this race which is more a marathon than a 100-yard dash?

Most presidency studies begin and end on Inauguration Day. The main sources of information on the presidents and their political decision-making processes prior to their ascension to the executive office are biographies and character analyses, originating mostly from the history and psychology disciplines.

A key factor to note in the study of presidents is that they are part of an elite group of aspirants––winners because all of them have successfully survived the rigors of the selection process (i.e., a party nomination contest and a general election). Thus, presidents may be more alike––as politicians––than different; but unless we place them within their campaigns and compare them with all their competing presidential aspirant counterparts, we will not know whether this is the case.

Yet despite aspirants being at the center of the presidential contests, few elections studies examine their political agency, experience, efforts, or legacies. Instead, the focus of these studies is on either the effects of political factors and exogenous conditions (e.g., partisanship and the economy) on electoral outcomes (voter behavior) or the consequences of rule changes and institutional development (e.g., caucuses versus primaries) on democratic participation (who votes). In the aim to differentiate among the presidential aspirants and explain electoral success, most researchers have limited their studies to the modern “candidate-centered” nomination period (1972–2008). Unfortunately, this lopsided emphasis has created a false impression about the politicians who have vied for the highest office in American politics––that past aspirants were less ambitious, and/or not as self-interested as today’s aspirants. This book not only corrects this misperception about presidential aspirants, but it also begins connecting presidents to their selection method in the political science literature.

In this first systematic study of presidential aspirants from the 1790s to the present, Lara M. Brown delves into the concept of political opportunism and reveals its significance in shaping the partisan and electoral competition in America. The book not only demonstrates the ways in which the constitutional design of the Electoral College structures aspirant behaviors, but it also suggests that opportunistic aspirants have driven the institutional development of the major political parties and the presidential selection method.

This pioneering study presents quantitative models and descriptive statistics, exploring the relationship between aspirant opportunism and electoral success. In compelling style, Brown provides readers with ten detailed case studies of aspirants who won the presidency; three who won their party’s presidential nomination, but lost the general election; and a complete chapter on all of the aspirants involved in the 2008 presidential campaign. Supporting these narratives are two exhaustive appendices, which offer first, electoral and popular vote data by region and candidate, and second, summaries of the people and the strategies involved in the campaigns. Overall, the book illuminates the ways in which presidential aspirants turn political conditions and exogenous events to their favor in order to promote their ambitions, or more concisely, how they learn and play at the game of presidential politics.

Jockeying for the American Presidency is an important volume for all political science and history collections focused on the presidents, parties and elections in the United States.


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