There’s just one problem with winning the ideas primary: There have been a lot of “ideas” candidates over the years, staking out high-profile policies and charting new territory for their parties. And they tend to lose.
Sometimes their ideas simply get lifted by the front-runners. In 2008, John Edwards briefly stood out by proposing a government-run public health insurance option, but Barack Obama, the eventual nominee, and Hillary Clinton quickly followed suit. In 2016, Sanders drew a stark distinction with the global-minded Clinton by opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, only to watch her decide to oppose it as well.
Other times the ideas garner sympathy from the party’s voters, but not from enough of them—or the ideas are deemed too big an electoral risk. Howard Dean spent months as the front-runner beginning in the summer of 2003, largely because of his blunt opposition to the war in Iraq. But Democratic voters flinched right before the Iowa caucuses, when the capture of Saddam Hussein briefly put the war in a positive light. Steve Forbes wasted $69 million of his own money in two presidential runs in an unsuccessful attempt to sell the Republican Party on a flat tax.