Phil Gramm 1996
Elected originally in 1978 as a Democrat to a sprawling Texas congressional district that ran from Fort Worth to College Station, where he was a Texas A&M economics professor, by the time he declared for president in 1995 Phil Gramm had been a Republican for four years—and a U.S. Senator for a decade. He was the first declared Republican candidate in the 1996 cycle, and immediately demonstrated amazing fundraising potential. At a single Dallas fundraising dinner Gramm raised $4.1 million, a huge sum at the time.
The question was whether his fiscal frugality, lack of natural charisma, and “off-beat charm,” to use a phrase employed by the New York Times, would play outside the Lone Star state. Throughout 1995, it was an open question. A Times reporter following Gramm on the campaign trail detailed how in Flagstaff, Arizona, young parents at his rally introduced the candidate to their 2 ½ year old Leah Clark. “I had a girlfriend once named Leah,” the candidate drawled, while tickling the toddler under her chin. “She dumped me!”
In time, voters did the same thing. Despite his fundraising prowess, his national profile, and solid early poll numbers, he peaked too early. Vast sums of money were raised, but vast sums were spent, too, and on dubious goals, such as winning non-binding straw votes in states of little strategic importance.
The first contest in 1996 came February 6 in Louisiana, which sought to usurp Iowa and New Hampshire that year. His mere participation in Louisiana hurt Gramm among the Republican establishment in Iowa, which jealously guards its first-in-the-nation primary status. For Gramm, it was a one-two punch that knocked him out of the race. First, after boasting he’d win Louisiana and win it big, Gramm came in second to Patrick Buchanan. A week later, he finished fifth in the Iowa caucuses. Having peaked too soon, he quit the race two days later on Valentine’s Day.