I’m going to break this into a two-parter, and start from 1904, with Teddy Roosevelt being, arguably and with the partial exception of Abraham Lincoln, the first modern president. Plus, the first party primaries came into existence early in the 20th century, so that’s another good reason to make this a break point.
I’m not going to reference every campaign, just the worse ones, along with some interesting ones. We’ll use a five-star system, with five stars representing a theoretically great campaign (think 1860) and one being totally horrific. Of course, none of the campaigns here will get five stars.
Let’s start with 1908, a non-epic showdown between one candidate somewhat forced on his party by his eminently popular predecessor (William Howard Taft, with TR behind the strings) vs. the man who would become just the second three-time loser as a major presidential nominee (William Jennings Bryan following in the wings of Henry Clay). It had a presumed progressive later exposed as somewhat of a fake (Taft) vs. a faux populist already exposed as one to more knowledgeable voters (Bryan). I give this race two stars for its relative blandness.
Next, we go to 1920, truly a doorknob-awful election. It pitted a man who knew he wasn’t qualified for the White House, in Warren G. Harding, vs. a man saddled with Woodrow Wilson, Ohio Gov. James Cox. Cox sadly never had a chance, with Harding ringing up the largest popular vote percentage until LBJ in 1964. Even the strong performance of Socialist Eugene Debs, running from prison, couldn’t boost this above one star, or even one-half star.
The 1924 campaign approaches 1912 in blandness or goes beyond. “Silent Cal” Coolidge faced relative unknown Congressman John W. Davis in what has been called the high tide of conservativism. “Battling Bob” LaFollette gave progressivism a voice, keeping this at two stars, but no more. The Democrats’ own conservative angle helped set up the Great Depression.
For more campaign ratings, look below the fold.
The 1928 campaign gets three stars, and a mention, because it showed the degree of anti-Catholic bigotry due to Al Smith’s run.
Next, we jump to 1956, which gets two stars from me simply for offering blandness from a repeat match of 1952.
Now, on to 1968. While Barry Goldwater may have offered “a choice, not an echo,” four years earlier, no such thing was true in 1968 on the Vietnam War. Hubert Humphrey, self-emasculated of his true liberalism years earlier, remained shackled to LBJ’s Vietnam policy. Dick Nixon offered a secret plan for “victory with honor.” And George Wallace’s Veep wanted to nuke North Vietnam back to the Stone Age. Despite interesting chess game dynamics, this falls to 1.5 stars.
1984 has a bit of a parallel to 1956, in that some saw Mondale as a sacrificial lamb, like Stevenson. Given that he couldn’t see old New Deal liberalism better, this is a two-star.
1988 gets two stars because Mike Dukakis couldn’t sell his version of neoliberalism any better than Mondale trying to sell the aging New Deal.
Onward to the George W. Bush era.
The 2000 campaign between him and Al Gore gets two stars for the campaign itself. Gore found himself worried about being shackled to the moral legacy of Bill Clinton, while Bush benefited from the soft bigotry of low expectations. It falls to one star with the exposure of the creakiness of the American electoral system. It falls to one-half star with the infamous Supreme Court ruling.
And, 2004? It gets 1.5 stars, for the flooding of campaign money into the race, the microtargeting of issue ads, and John Kerry making himself into a warmonger, which spilled into 2012.
2008? Two starts, for two words: “Sara Palin.”
And 2012? It belongs on this list. I’m not going to give you a rating yet, but it belongs here.
As for great campaigns, on issues, personalities, or both, it's arguably that only 1948 truly approaches any 19th century campaign, notably 1860, followed by 1824 and 1844.