Margaret Chase Smith's run for President
That time a Mainer ran an outsider presidential campaign that shouldn't have been one.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Bangor Daily News.
Many years ago — 58, to be precise — a Mainer waged an uphill battle for the presidency of the United States. This candidate faced resistance from the party establishment, from the social norms and conventions of the time, and from the prevailing national mood. This candidate chose to run, instead of a traditional presidential campaign, a grassroots efforts aimed at circumventing the party bosses and the big corporate donors. In a time when direct primaries and caucuses were just coming into vogue, this candidate was using a campaign model that would later be adopted by candidates as widely varied as Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Ron Paul, and Barack Obama. This candidate was no extremist, nor was she truly an outsider, at least not in the way we use the word today. She was Maine’s own Margaret Chase Smith.
Of course, when she ran for president, in 1964, Margaret Chase Smith was considered the eponymous outsider, but it was for one reason and one reason only: Her gender. That was why she ran an insurgent campaign — not because she was too conservative or too liberal, but because she knew the party establishment would be against her not only because of her independent stances, but because of her gender. Had she been male, it is likely that many of the Republican insiders who laughed off her candidacy would have been solidly behind her: As a moderate, prominent Republican from a northern state, she would have been a perfectly viable alternative to Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater.
Instead, the Republican Party — with a divided establishment vote, much as was the case in 2016 — nominated Goldwater, a good man who was nevertheless far too conservative to win the general election. Smith — who voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which Goldwater opposed — stood against Goldwater on principle, while Hillary Clinton was a Goldwater Girl at the time. This made for an interesting dynamic vis-a-vis Smith’s legacy in 2016, because while she would undoubtedly be no fan of Donald Trump, she also was vehemently opposed to the candidate Hillary Clinton supported in 1964.
Smith ran an uphill, grassroots-fueled presidential campaign based not on being an extremist, but on being a moderate. She was, in a sense, both an insider and an outsider, or she should have been: she was an insider as a politician, but an outsider due to her gender, relegated to the sidelines thanks to a factor beyond her control. She established a national legacy for a whole generation of women to be involved in politics — including Hillary Clinton. Moreover, by insisting that her political identity was not wholly informed by identity politics, she set an example for many candidates in both parties — like Barack Obama, for instance. She also established a viable new model for candidates, one that would see success further down the line: the candidate who successfully combines aspects of both the insider and the outsider.
It would be interesting if, today, we ever see a presidential candidate return to this insider-outsider model. Obama embraced this model to a certain extent in his campaign, making him the most successful example of it thus far, but he was also heavily supported by a large chunk of the establishment that wanted a viable alternative to Hillary Clinton. Obama’s establishment supporters didn’t really care about identity politics; they just wanted someone who could beat Clinton. Moreover, Obama, like Joe Biden, didn’t ever have much of a career outside of elective office, and both of them largely embraced the mainstream ideological thought of their party at the time. Although Obama emerged through a surge of populist support in the primaries, he was never an outsider the same way as, say, Ron Paul or Bernie Sanders - and Biden has always been the consummate insider.
We’ve never really had a Republican candidate like Obama - though we may yet in the upcoming presidential cycle. Trump certainly didn’t qualify as one in 2016; he was never, in any way, shape, or form, an insider candidate, fighting both the establishment in his own party and the country at every step of the way. Indeed, it appears that many of the 2024 Republican field could conceivably be considered candidates who embrace this insider-outsider model. Trump, for instance, is no longer a true outsider; having served as President, he can no longer lay full claim to that mantle. Neither can his chief (potential) rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis - you don’t get to be the governor of one of the largest states in the country and still call yourself an outsider. Still, neither of them are ever likely to be fully embraced by the Republican establishment - which, depending on your views, could be an endorsement or a handicap.
The only other declared major Republican candidate, Nikki Haley, can’t really be considered a pure insider or outsider either. Although she’s likely to be embraced by a large number of mainstream conservatives wary of any kind of populist rhetoric, it remains to be seen whether the Republican Party is ready for a presidential nominee who isn’t a white male. Tim Scott, the U.S. Senator from South Carolina who Haley first appointed to the role, is likely to face a similar challenge should he ultimately elect to run.
While it’s hard to see a true outsider candidate, like Margaret Chase Smith, Ron Paul, or Bernie Sanders, ever win the presidential nomination of a major party, it’s also unlikely we’ll ever see a consummate insider emerge as the nominee again. Joe Biden, who has spent his entire career in elected office, may have been able to get a few things done, but he’s floundered in a number of areas, too, and his approval numbers reflect that. Instead we may see more figures like Barack Obama, or Donald Trump, who begin as outsider candidates but ultimately win over at least a portion of the establishment. If that trend continues, we can expect presidential politics to remain both highly polarized and quite scrambled for the foreseeable future, which will make for interesting times.
You may follow Jim on Twitter or Facebook. He is also a weekly political columnist for the Portland Press Herald, Maine’s largest daily newspaper.