A “captive candidate” is one who is allegedly “owned” by special interests or political groups. Calling someone a “captive candidate” is similar to saying that they are the puppet or the pawn of an interest group.
As William Safire has pointed out, the phrase is often associated with Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1952. Stevenson ran against the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower’s campaign accused Stevenson of being in the pocket of the Democratic political bosses and the labor unions. Republicans had been making similar charges against Democrats for decades, but by 1952 they were beginning to stick.
Stevenson, though, fought back by reclaiming the word. At first he was content to laugh off the Republican allegations. Soon, he turned the expression around and used it to attack Eisenhower. He argued that Republicans in general were beholden to big business and that their voting record proved it. In a Labor Day speech to his supporters, Stevenson depicted Eisenhower as the pleasant, slightly vacant face of the Republican party:
It’s a good thing the people have the Democratic Party to count on. For it’s a sure thing they cannot count on the Republican Party. The Republicans are still the party of the special interests, still the errand boys of the big lobbies, still the ones who want to exploit labor and the farmers and the consumers. The only thing different about them this year is that they are trying to hide behind a new face–their lonely, captive candidate.
They have tried disguises before. They always try to put a new face on the elephant at election time. But the disguise never works because the rest of the elephant is too big to hide–and the rest of the elephant has the record of Republican reaction written all over him.
We might not use the phrase “captive candidate” very often these days, but similar allegations get thrown around in every election cycle. One of the most common threads in political attack ads is the claim that one candidate or another is the tool of a special interest group.
In politics, the opposite of a “captive candidate” is probably a “grassroots-funded” candidate. During the 2020 primary season, both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders claimed that their campaigns were “100% grassroots funded.” The implication is that they weren’t beholden to special interests or lobbyists, since they were funding themselves through small donations from ordinary voters. As the Washington Post reported, this claim was a mixture of fact and omission.
Donald Trump put an interesting twist on all of this back in 2015, when he was running for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump repeatedly argued that his opponents were being bought by the special interests who contributed to their campaign funds. By contrast, Trump asserted, he was unbuyable – because he was so rich already that nobody could tempt him with cash.
As Politico reported, Trump imagined a scenario in which all of his rivals were beholden to their donors and would have to do the donors’ bidding down the line:
So their lobbyists, their special interests and their donors will start calling President Bush, President Clinton, President Walker. Pretty much whoever is president other than me. Other than me. And they’ll say: ‘You have to do it. They gave you a million dollars to your campaign.