I dimly recall being rousted out of my bunk bed as a young child before sunrise on Oct. 27, 1948, so I could stand at an intersection in my hometown of Weymouth, Mass., to catch a brief glimpse of President Harry Truman as he drove by on his way to a campaign event in the more populous Brockton some 10 miles away. I later learned there were no prominent Massachusetts Democrats traveling with Truman that day — the candidates for governor and U.S. senator were otherwise committed — because in just six days, as all the smart money knew, Truman was going to lose big-time to Republican Tom Dewey.
“Politics,” as a wise man noted, “ain’t beanbag.”
If, as a candidate, you have the aura and aroma of impending defeat about you, then your fate is to hear the most counterfeit of excuses about why people you believed were friends and allies suddenly have conflicts that prevent them from appearing next to you at a public event. How about, “Sorry, but my goddaughter is graduating from yoga class” or “That’s the day we’re scattering the ashes of our family gerbil”?
Traveling the country in the fall of 1972 with the totally admirable Sargent Shriver, the Democratic nominee for vice president, serving as his political director, I experienced this firsthand. That was the year President Richard Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, crushing George McGovern and Shriver, carried 49 states. You never forget, and you forever cherish, those brave souls who, knowing you’re going to lose, still do show up to share the stage, and offer a public endorsement and a friendly face.
I’ll always remember a rally on the statehouse steps in Columbia, S.C., a state the Democratic ticket would lose by 43 percent, when Sen. “Fritz” Hollings, D-S.C., a former governor, to his own political disadvantage, dared to stand tall for Shriver.
Everything in politics is, in fact, a poll. This is clear in the 2014 Senate races, where endangered Democrats struggle uphill to retain seats the party now holds in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia — all states that President Barack Obama lost to Mitt Romney by at least 13 percent. This helps explain why Mark Begich, who won his Alaska Senate seat in 2008 by just a 1 percent lead, while Republican John McCain was beating Obama by 21 points, when asked if he would accept an offer from Obama to campaign for him, answered, “If he wants to come and see what I want to show him, what he needs to change his position on, I’m happy to do it.”
In many red states, Obama has become the political equivalent of Typhoid Mary. Romney carried Arkansas by 24 percent, so Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., is very much running emphasizing his own record and his independence from the White House, as is Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., whose state Obama lost by 17 percent. When Obama visited Raleigh, N.C., Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., did not make the trip.
Remember: When Democratic senators last won these states in 2008, Republican George W. Bush was president.
The latest, most reliable poll came from Colorado, where Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., did not show at a Denver fundraiser for his candidacy, which featured Obama. The reason given: He had to be in Washington to vote on the nomination of Julian Castro as Housing and Urban Development secretary. It was a real cliffhanger; Castro was confirmed by a Senate vote of 71-27.
In 2014, for Democrats, all politics really are local.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.