Even Grover Cleveland, who won the presidency in 1884, and then lost it in 1888, wasn’t in as commanding a position as Clinton when he sought (and won) another term in 1892. His views on the free coinage of silver, the signature issue of the party and the time, were out of sync with many Democrats, and he had the enmity of the Tammany forces in his own state. He won re-nomination on the first ballot by only a handful of delegates in a raucous, fractured convention.
The only political figure since the Civil War to have anything remotely resembling the Clinton effect was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who as victorious general in Europe could have had the presidential nomination of the Republican Party and very likely the Democratic Party in 1948, and who would have breezed to the nomination of either party four years later.
So alluring a candidate was he that President Harry Truman suggested he would stand down in 1948 if Eisenhower wanted to run as a Democrat. As late as July 5, 1948, just 120 days before the election, Eisenhower issued this statement: “I will not, at this time, identify myself with any political party and could not accept nomination for any public office or participate in a partisan political contest.”
Naturally, politicos being politicos, the phrase “at this time” attracted inordinate attention and, according to Jean Edward Smith in the most recent Eisenhower biography, “few doubted that the (Democratic) nomination would have been his if he wanted it.”
But even in 1948 and 1952, Eisenhower’s indecision, whether real or calculated, didn’t make as much of a difference as Clinton’s refusal, whether real or calculated, to make an early decision. Those races went on anyway.
Eventually Eisenhower declared himself a Republican and powered past Sen. Robert Taft to win the 1952 Republican presidential nomination. But he didn’t stop Taft from running hard — far from it, for the Ohio senator won several important primaries, including Wisconsin and Illinois, and then engaged in a bitter convention battle that featured a now-forgotten contretemps over “stolen delegates.”