“It’s always easier the second time around,” goes the lyrics of the old song. But while that may be true in love and romance, it is certainly not the case in presidential politics.

And that is not good news for Republican John McCain and Democrat John Edwards (or for that matter, Democrats Joe Biden and Dennis Kucinich) who are making second tries for the White House in 2008 after failing to win their party’s nomination on their first attempts.

To be sure, there are some advantages in having run a national campaign before, even an unsuccessful one. There is a realistic sense of all that is required — from fundraising and dealing with the media to the emotional and physical adjustment to life on the road, with the frequent forays required to the hamlets of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Yet those who win their party’s nomination on the second (or third) try are far fewer than those who go 0 for 2. And the quintet of candidates who have succeeded under such circumstances since World War II shared a common characteristic that neither McCain, Edwards, nor the others possess this time.

Virtually all of the successful “late bloomers” significantly embellished their national credentials between their first and second bids for the White House, and through that process expanded their acceptability within their party. Three used the vice presidency as a launching pad for a nomination-capturing second bid: Hubert Humphrey in 1968, George H.W. Bush in 1988, and Al Gore in 2000. When Bob Dole finally won the Republican presidential nomination on his third try in 1996, he had advanced to the position of Senate majority leader. And by the time Reagan captured the Republican nomination in 1980, he had come to define a whole political movement.

In the process, all five of these successful “late-blooming” presidential candidates evolved from contenders with rather limited bases of support the first time they ran for president to the favorite of much of their national party’s establishment.


John McCain and John Edwards lead a group of second-time presidential candidates in 2008, who failed to win their party’s nomination on their first run but hope to do so on their second. Only five other candidates have accomplished this feat since World War II. And those that did had significantly improved their national standing by their second try, to the point that they were the favorite of much of their party establishment.

Office Held
Candidate (Party) Unsuccessful

First Try

Second Try (or later*)
Hubert Humphrey (D) Senator (1960) Vice President (1968)
Ronald Reagan (R) Ex-CA Governor (1976) Ex-CA Governor (1980)
George H.W. Bush (R) Ex-CIA director, liaison to China,

UN ambassador, U.S. Representative (1980)
Vice President (1988)
Bob Dole (R)* Senator (1980) Senate Majority Leader (1996)
Al Gore (D) Senator (1988) Vice President (2000)

Note: An asterisk (*) indicates that Bob Dole made a second run for the White House in 1988 and did not win the Republican nomination until his third try in 1996.

Note: This tally includes only those candidates in the McCain-Edwards mold who lost their first bid for their party’s nomination. Among those not included are Adlai Stevenson and Richard Nixon, who were nominated on both their first and second tries for the White House; Lyndon Johnson, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in 1960, then was nominated in 1964 after his sudden ascension to the presidency; George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic nominee, who made a brief, 11th-hour bid at the Democratic convention in 1968, the same year that Ronald Reagan made a similarly brief foray on the Republican side; and Ron Paul, who ran for president as the Libertarian Party nominee in 1988.

The same cannot be said for the current crop of 2008 contenders. None has climbed any further up the political ladder since their first run. McCain and Biden remain senators as they were during their initial presidential tries eight and 20 years ago, respectively; Kucinich is still a Cleveland-area congressman as he was in 2004; and Edwards has left the Senate since his first presidential bid four years ago.

While McCain and Edwards have both raised more money this year (over $30 million apiece through the third quarter of 2007), their totals pale when compared to other well-funded candidates who have raised two to three times as much. Further, neither McCain nor Edwards is running appreciably better in the national polls than at a comparable point of their first campaigns. A Gallup survey of Democratic presidential aspirants in mid-November, for instance, showed Edwards hovering around the 10 percent mark, as he did at a similar point in late 2003. Meanwhile, McCain’s 13 percent showing in a similarly timed Republican poll this fall was several percentage points below what he was attracting in late 1999.

The good news for McCain is that the dynamic of the current Republican nominating campaign is quite different than it was when he first ran eight years ago. Then, all the GOP candidates were eating the dust of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who enjoyed a clear-cut advantage over his rivals in fundraising, endorsements, and organization, as well as drawing the support of roughly 60 percent of Republican voters in the Gallup Poll throughout the second half of 1999.

This time the Republican race is much more open. While former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has led the field throughout 2007, his lead has not been commanding. And though McCain had hoped to run this year as the party’s heir apparent, he seems increasingly comfortable in reprising his previous role as the outspoken insurgent.

Yet his presidential campaign has a different emphasis this time and more bite. The well-chronicled amiability aboard McCain’s 2000 campaign bus, “The Straight Talk Express,” has been replaced by talk of “no surrender” and “let us win” — a reference to his ardent support of the war in Iraq, an issue that was not even on the radar screen when he first ran for president eight years ago.

Edwards’ campaign this time also has more bite. The theme of “two Americas” that he offered out of his personal biography in 2004 has taken second billing this year to his sharp criticism of other leading Democratic contenders. A particular target is the front-running Hillary Clinton, whom he describes as a pawn of a morally corrupt political establishment.

There is clearly some risk to Edwards’ attack mode. He was never higher in the polls this year than after the announcement this spring of the recurrence of his wife Elizabeth’s cancer; it brought the couple a sympathetic response. Yet Edwards’ increasing aggressiveness appears to be a matter of political necessity. Unlike McCain, he confronts a less fluid, more uphill Democratic race than four years ago. At this point in 2003, Howard Dean was the tenuous front-runner, pulling the support of around 20 percent of party voters. These days, Clinton flirts with majority support among the nation’s Democrats.

For both McCain and Edwards, any success in 2008 will depend on a strong showing in the places where they effectively launched their first campaigns — Iowa for Edwards, New Hampshire for McCain. Yet it is an open question whether victory there would be enough to put either candidate on the path to nomination in 2008. Unlike other “second-time” candidates such as Gore, Humphrey and the elder Bush, they do not have the advantage of being an heir apparent, with the powerful support within their party which that coveted position provides.


John McCain and John Edwards have each raised much more money at this point of their second presidential campaigns than they did at a similar point of their first runs. However, neither candidate has improved their poll standing, as measured by the Gallup Poll. The data below is as of Dec. 1 of the pre-election year, except where noted.

John McCain (R) John Edwards (D)
1st Try (’00) 2nd Try (’08) 1st Try (’04) 2nd Try (’08)
Age 63 71 50 54
Office Senator (AZ) Senator (AZ) Senator (NC) Ex-Senator
Campaign Money Raised

(end of 3rd qtr. of preelection year)
$9.3 m. $32.1 m. $14.4 m. $30.3 m.
Gallup Poll

(mid-Nov. of preelection year)
16% 13% 9% 9%
Percentage points behind front-runner at the time -47%

(behind G.W. Bush)

(behind Giuliani)
– 7%

(behind Dean)

(behind H. Clinton)
Primary Votes Received 5.1 m. 3.1 m.
Primaries/Caucuses Won 7 – AZ, CT, MA,

2 – NC, SC

Note: John Edwards’ standing in the mid-November 2007 Gallup Poll is taken from a survey that includes Al Gore.

Source: The Almanac of American Politics (National Journal), America Votes (CQ Press), Federal Election Commission, Gallup Poll.

In the 2000 contest for the Republican nomination, John McCain won 7 state primaries and caucuses, shown here in orange. In 2004, John Edwards won just two such Democratic events, shown in Tarheel blue.