Loser has been used as a pejorative long before we learned it was one of many common disses in the Donald Trump arsenal, and losers have been on Gloria Borger‘s mind for years. “Ever since the 2012 elections I’ve been thinking about the people who lose the presidency,” says Borger, chief political analyst at CNN, who has been working on this “hobby” of hers since then, “sit[ting] down with some folks and so when I have a spare minute,” she says.
Those folks are the presidential candidates who almost made it, and they are the subject of Almost President: The Agony of Defeat, Borger’s doc that examines the failed presidential bids of Mitt Romney, John McCain, Al Gore, Michael Dukakis, and Walter Mondale.
Borger found the former candidates she interviewed for the doc to be surprisingly open and introspective. “Politicians are generally not known to be the most self-reflective people in the world.” says Borger. “But I think what’s interesting, in particular about people who have been through this kind of a process, is that they are reflective about it, and they were all very candid about their mistakes, about letting people down, about what they could have done better in their race.”
One of those pivotal moments the former candidates all shared was the presidential debate, an interesting piece of context considering this cycle’s first presidential debate is less than two weeks away. It makes sense to Borger. “I think that it’s your one moment where the public is focused on you and your opponent in an unfiltered way,” she says. “The momentum of the race shifts by the debate and I think that it’s hard to come back from a bad debate.” Hard, but not impossible. “You could do it, people do it,” she says.
In an ideal world, it would be matters of substance that are the major determinants of a candidate’s ultimate fate at the polls, but we see how often side shows take center stage: a much-ridiculed image of Dukakis riding a tank, a clever retort from Ronald Reagan that takes an issue out of play, and the evergreen quality of appearing to appear authentic.
The latter gets harder with each cycle’s more sophisticated polling capabilities, according to Borger. “The more we are scientific about what people like and don’t like about you–if you’re advising a candidate, the more you want to say ‘do more of this and less of that,'” she says. “What happens in the process is that you get fine-tuned along the way, and as you get fine-tuned, with each little twist you tend to lose a little bit more of who you think you are.”
“I think it’s a struggle that every candidate goes through,” she adds, “which is, how much of yourself can you reveal–balancing the candor you want to have with the fear that if you’re too candid you might make a mistake and mess up, because nobody wants to do that.”
But even with mistakes made, and then analyzed and discussed with Borger, none of the former candidates she spoke to felt like running for president itself was a mistake. “What was interesting to me was that all of these people, who lost, came out the other end and said they would do it all over again, each and every one of them.”
Almost President: The Agony of Defeat airs tonight at 9 p.m. ET on CNN.