During this primary election season, the American public has been enthralled, appalled and entertained by Republican candidates like Ron Paul — candidates who have absolutely no chance of being president but who draw a wide following because they have one compelling idea (e.g., Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan) or purport to represent a key constituency (e.g., Tea Party adherent Michele Bachmann). You know they will never be the nominee, but you wonder if their values and ideas will gain traction and outlive their candidacies.
Interestingly, the history of African-American politics provides the road map for distinguishing between the influential also-rans and the forgettable candidates. A few weeks ago, CNN contributor Jamal Simmons compared Paul followers to Jesse Jackson supporters in the mid-1980s. Simmons argued that Paul's acolytes, like Jackson supporters during his presidential runs a generation earlier, were loyal, often-young foot soldiers whose engagement evinced a deep frustration with status quo politics and with being marginalized by the mainstream of their party.
I think the comparison to Jackson is an apt one — so much so that Ron Paul and all dissident candidates could learn a thing or two about leverage from Jesse Jackson.
The late political scientist Ronald Walters, who advised Jackson in 1988, argued extensively for leverage strategies. He contended that black candidates destined to lose presidential-nomination battles should still run to give voice to the issues and concerns of everyday black America. If these candidates ran professional campaigns and performed strongly in primary contests, then they could gain enough clout to negotiate for greater representation of black interests within the Democratic Party.
Jackson's two presidential bids embody the essence of Walters' argument. In 1984 America was emerging from a deep recession. Urban centers were adjusting to the new normal of reduced federal aid to cities. Sensing the frustration, Jackson ran for the presidency to give voice to the problems of those for whom "morning in America" had not yet dawned.
Unfortunately, Jackson was largely frustrated during that run in his efforts to leverage any gains for blacks. Older and less educated blacks were less likely to support him, and most black political leaders endorsed Walter Mondale. Jackson's use of an anti-Semitic slur undermined his credibility. Moreover, winner-take-all delegate-allocation rules meant that Jackson's third-place finish (which was about 18 percent of the overall vote and included wins in two states plus Washington, D.C.) translated into only 12 percent of the overall convention delegates.
The lessons from 1984 were clear. If Jackson was going to be a viable player, he was going to have to play to win. So in 1988 he restructured his campaign. Instead of making frequent appearances in black churches, as he had done in 1984, Jackson adopted a more conventional campaign schedule. He also reached out to organized labor to cultivate ties to working-class whites, and he consolidated support among blacks.
These changes translated into greater primary success. He won nine states and Washington, D.C., 29 percent of the primary vote and a nearly equal proportion of delegates — a second-place finish overall. With this kind of showing, Jackson now had the clout to advocate for black interests.
Scholars and analysts credit Jackson's performance in 1988 with the inclusion of an anti-apartheid plank in the Democratic Party platform and with the elevation of Ron Brown as the party's first black chairman. Most important, Jackson was able to negotiate changes in the delegate-allocation system that benefited Barack Obama 20 years later.
Ron Paul clearly wants to replicate the leverage strategy this year. He hopes to collect enough delegates in caucuses and primaries to make a splash in Tampa, Fla., this summer. In order to have the desired impact, though, he must do more to improve his overall performance.
Without question, Paul is outpacing his last presidential-campaign performance. In 2008 he earned a little over 5 percent of the overall Republican primary vote and 40 delegates to the Republican National Convention. As of the Maine caucuses, he had won more than 11 percent of the Republican vote and 27 delegates (the latest delegate count is here).
But this still may not be enough. He has yet to win a primary, and his views (especially on foreign policy) are so extreme that they scare many Republicans and relegate him to also-ran status, even as his economic arguments gain traction.
Paul is not the only candidate who could have had real influence in shaping the GOP's platform. Rick Perry could have challenged the orthodoxy on immigration reform. Instead he capitulated to partisan pressure and then completely undermined his credibility with lackluster debate performances. Cain could have had a seat at the table on tax-reform issues, but his widely discredited proposal rendered him more the court jester of the Republican field than a serious contender.
Despite the impending demise of his campaign, many people, including progressives, will study Paul's candidacy for clues about how to mount an insurgent presidential campaign. My advice to them is to learn from Jackson's successes and failures. Present ideas that can be taken seriously. Act like a credible presidential candidate. Have a large, clearly defined constituency. And win primaries and caucuses.
Andra Gillespie is associate professor of political science at Emory University and editor of Whose Black Politics? Cases in Post-Racial Black Leadership.