Ted Kennedy entered the 1980 Democratic primaries as the favourite to clinch the presidential nomination. Amongst Democrats, he held a 25-point advantage over the sitting president, Jimmy Carter (whose national approval ratings were in the low-20s to high-teens at the time) before the race began. Ted had long been the almost man of Democrat politics – his time now seemed to be at hand. But actually, it didn’t work out like that in the end.
Events from his colourful past came back to haunt him – the Chappaquiddick incident most prominently. Reality hit hard and fast as well: Carter won the Iowa primary by a comfortable 59-41. From there, Carter rolled on to the nomination with little fear of upset. The presumptive candidate at the start turned out not to have even come close; Democrats voting in the primaries changed their minds for whatever reasons. I thought of Ted Kennedy and the 1980 campaign this week in relation to the race Boris may soon run in to be the leader of the Conservative Party.
Slavoj Zizek – who may be an odd person to cite in an article about a Tory leadership contender but here’s goes – once described a phenomena around the way polling can sometimes work: the people may think they want to vote for someone prior to said individual entering the race, but once they do – once the possible becomes concrete reality, in other words – people’s minds almost immediately change. It doesn’t just work with single candidates, but with anything within the electoral sphere (so whole political parties, for instance). It’s one of the reasons that I think led to the polls being wrong in the run-in to the general election. People felt less sure about Ed Miliband being prime minister once the possibility of it hovered into sight, in other words.
This could happen to Boris in much the same way it happened to Ted Kennedy. A lot of Tory members may now think he’d be a great leader – but once he is actually in the running, once he is one step away from Number 10, they could change their minds radically. Particularly when Boris’ past is raked over, along with his lack of ministerial experience (although the last point rests on whom he would have to face, of course). A lot of Tories like Boris in other words, and are happy to tell pollsters this piece of information, but will they make him prime minister when they have the power to do so?
Tory leadership campaigns usually take on a familiar pattern: a frontrunner is established and is then sidelined by an effective “anyone but them” campaign. A relative outsider then emerges to take the glory. So could Boris have peaked too early? We may find out relatively quickly if certain things go a certain way.