Do You Win or Lose? Surprises Loom Large Over Elections – Part 1

Greg Markley



As a political writer or as a student of politics, I have observed political candidates in the last few weeks of a campaign, and especially on election days. The excitement and self-doubt is best explained by a quote of Yogi Berra, former catcher and manager for the New York Yankees. Yogi once said: “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.”

In a prelude to Election Days 2022, politicians should try to be optimistic. Pay attention to the physical side: diligently checking your “ground game,” arranging cars and drivers to the polls, etc. In part one of a two-part series, I show where elections were impacted by surprises such as the sudden death of a family member, an “under the radar” write-in campaign, a terrorist attack and a funeral that was more partisan pep rally than a solemn occasion.

In 1968 in Rhode Island, Republican Gov. John Chafee was in a tough battle for reelection but was expected to win a fourth two-year term. In October, his 14-year-old daughter Tribbie died in a horse riding accident. Chafee, as anyone would, halted his campaign for two or three weeks, to mourn. His opponent took a week off from campaigning but spent the last week or 10-days on the hustings.

Chafee’s halting his campaign for a few weeks contributed to his narrow loss of the governorship. Another cause was that after having an anti-(state) income tax platform, he admitted that Rhode Island’s finances were so awry that this tax was truly needed. But the popular moderate Chafee resurrected his career in 1976, winning a U.S. Senate seat that he would keep until he died 23 years later.

Steve Flowers, Alabama’s preeminent political columnist, recalls a “hidden” write-in campaign for state Sen. Lowell Barron in 1983 that was indeed a “November surprise” to almost everyone. It is included in the 2018 book, “Of Goats and Governors: Six Decades of Colorful Alabama Political Stories.”

 A federal court ruled that a reapportionment was necessary because the current one discriminated against black voters. The State Democratic Executive Committee skipped primaries and appointed its own candidates for the General Election. Barron’s name was not listed as a Democratic nominee. He was furious, soon focusing like a laser on winning reelection by write-ins.

 “A fire started in voters,” Barron explains. “It was one of those uprisings by people who thought their votes had been taken away from them and our job was to remind them their vote had been snatched away by an undemocratic Democratic Party. At meetings, I would look dejected: The election couldn’t be about me … it had to be about them having their votes stolen.”

 To prevent Democratic leaders from learning about Barron’s plans and thus reacting, the write-in effort was announced just three weeks before the General Election. Television spots promoting it began eight days before the election. Emphasis was put on voters’ learning how to spell “Lowell Barron” as write-ins correctly. Barron won approximately 7,500 votes to 5,100 and this amazing victory remains part of Alabama’s political lore.

Natural and man-made disasters are crises that lead to postponed elections. On Sept. 11, 2001, six hours after the first airplane crashed into a tower at the World Trade Center, reported that “New York City’s primary election was called off today after the terrorist attack at the Twin Towers.” A judge charged with overseeing the election called it off because of the “massive confusion” it caused.

Primaries for mayor and city council were held on September 24.  In November, billionaire Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor. He was behind Democrat Mark Green in the polls on 9/11, but a strong endorsement from Rudy Giuliani pulled him to victory. Giuliani’s admirable leadership of the city during 9/11 likely helped elect Bloomberg.

In 2002, less than two weeks before the U.S. Senate election, incumbent Democrat Paul Wellstone, 58, was among eight people killed in a plane crash in northeastern Minnesota. Wellstone had a small lead in polls when he died. Former Vice President Walter Mondale replaced Wellstone on the Democratic ticket, and was ahead by 6% in polls days before the election.

Norm Coleman, the former mayor of Saint Paul, was the Republican candidate. He took a surprise victory, by 2.2%. It was widely believed that Mondale lost at the last juncture because Democratic leaders who spoke at Wellstone’s funeral presented purely “political” speeches and direct advocacy of issues that was better off withheld.

In part two, I look at how the Chicago Blizzard of 1978 got underdog Jane Byrne elected as mayor. Also, how George Wallace engineered his wife Lurleen’s gubernatorial victory in 1966. Plus, how Confederate flag zeal defeated Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes in 2002. Yogi Berra, the famous baseball manager, had another quote which fits well here: “It’s not over until it’s over.”

Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has Masters’ in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 13 years. 


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