Gleefully watching the rolling calamity that is the presidential campaign of Mr. Willard Mitt Romney navigate the distance between Swiftian satire and flat-out Three Stooges slapstick, I have more than once stopped to wonder…is he the worst nominee ever?
It’s tempting to think so. He can’t hold a consistent position on a major issue for a week…and sometimes not for an afternoon. His self-inflicted immolations of the recent past, like the Libya statements and the secret fundraiser video have cemented an impression of the candidate and his campaign as a gang that couldn’t shoot straight.
But the truth is we really don’t know yet. In five weeks the historical judgment will begin. If Mitt goes down in flaming defeat, wrecking GOP hopes of reclaiming the Senate and even managing the once insurmountable feat of costing them control of the House, he’ll have sealed his place on the Mount Rushmore of losers.
But for now, Mitt’s grade remains an Incomplete…much like the job he pledged to do as Governor and his development as a fully-rounded human being. Which begs the question…just who is the worst major party candidate for the Presidency ever and Mitt’s top competition for the White House version of the biggest loser?
To even attempt this task we need to set some ground rules. First and foremost: you have to be a major party nominee. If that seems arbitrary…well, it is. I realize it leaves out some really awful candidacies. Strom Thurmond and George Wallace immediately spring to mind. But no matter how awful they were theirs were self-appointed and rump candidacies. They were never a serious threat to become President. No real national political organization stood behind them. Besides, if I start discussing them then I have to expend at least some of my energy considering the awfulness of Lyndon Larouche.
Second: if you won, you’re not the worst. Not the worst nominee, anyway. Worst president is another topic entirely. Also, if you won ever, you’re not the worst nominee. I realize this excludes delightfully thumping on Richard Nixon for 1960…but then that election was close enough that his beating probably doesn’t place him all that high on the list of worst nominees. I realize it also excludes dumping on Herbert Hoover and the sadly spectacular whipping of William Howard Taft in 1912. But those are reflections for another day.
Third: worst. Well, it’s kind of a subjective term. In my mind, it takes into account a variety of factors. Margin of defeat, certainly. But it is more than that. How viable a candidate were you in the first place? Political parties do crazy things sometimes and some candidates just never had a prayer…and was that lack of viability the fault of the candidate or a badly disadvantaged party? Did you blow an election that was yours to win? Did you make crazy decisions on the campaign trail…like selecting a crazy person with 90 or so minutes of experience in the Governor’s mansion, thus putting the entire country at risk if you happen to win? Worst, unlike first, isn’t always easily definable. So if you will, join me for a walk along the trail of broken Presidential dreams…
John McCain, Republican, 2008:
Senator McCain lost pretty handily though it wasn't an historic landslide. His 20 years in the Senate and previous national campaign certainly made him a viable enough candidate and though bucking an anti-Republican tide his election was a legitimate possibility. He damaged himself greatly with his panicked reaction to the economic crisis and that probably sunk McCain's chances for election, but his nomination of the unqualified one-half-term Governor of Alaska is the unquestioned low point of his campaign.
John Kerry, Democrat, 2004:
He narrowly lost a tough election to a struggling incumbent who had not yet approached his later floor (basement?) of unfavorability. A genuine war hero, a long-time senator with credibility on national security issues, he was a safe and sane choice and capable of governing if elected. His primary failure was his slow response to the swiftboat attacks…but then who could predicts the depths to which the re-election campaign of the draft-dodging Commander In Chief would sink?
Al Gore, Democrat, 2000:
He won the election, in fact if not in law. That his election would have been secured beyond theft if he carried his home state…often cited by Republicans as though that somehow undoes the chicanery that anointed Bush…makes this doubly depressing. His biggest error though was minimizing the role of Bill Clinton because he feared damage from the Lewinsky scandal.
Bob Dole, Republican, 1996:
His path to the nomination was quickly cleared when panicky party pros rallied around him because they feared the crazies led by Pat Buchanan would hijack the party. This of course was ancient times when professional Republicans still controlled their party. Despite some genuinely strong qualifications, a war hero with a long Senate career and previous national campaign experience, Dole was a weak candidate running against a deceptively strong incumbent and was badly hurt when the House GOP led by Newt Gingrich wrong-headedly forced a government shutdown. A panicky gamble, resigning his Senate seat to concentrate on the White House raise, proved once again that panic in a presidential race performs badly.
Michael Dukakis, Democrat, 1988:
A solid record as Governor of Massachusetts who had learned to rebound from failure, having been denied re-nomination for a second term but four years later coming back to retake the office. Better known candidates like Mario Cuomo and Ted Kennedy chose not to run. Early front-runner Gary Hart imploded, suffering from a sex scandal and his own waffling response to it.
It took Dukakis a long time to secure the nomination against a large and fractured field. No fewer than seven candidates won primaries and relatively late in the process Jesse Jackson led the delegate race.
Dukakis, a smart and decent man, proved ill-equipped for the GOP dirty trick machine led by Lee Atwater which included the infamous Willie Horton ad. When the highlight of your campaign comes in the Vice-Presidential debate, Lloyd Bentsen’s memorable smackdown of Dan Quayle…”Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy…” you’re not a very good candidate.
Walter Mondale, Democrat, 1984:
An incumbent president loses the White House in a veritable landslide and the Democratic response is to nominate the losing candidate for Vice-President the next time around…brilliant! Walter Mondale was a fine Senator, a good man, a real New Deal progressive. Mondale was the choice of the party establishment and a clear front-runner when Ted Kennedy declined to run. He deserves credit for being the first nominee to name a woman for the second spot on the national ticket. Reagan’s doddering appearance in the first Presidential debate gave the Mondale candidacy its one opening, but when the Gipper was back on his game in the next debate it was over.
Mondale lost the popular vote by almost 20 points and received the worst electoral drubbing in history at 525 to 13.
Gerald Ford, Republican, 1976:
I debated President Ford’s inclusion here. He was the President after all, but hadn’t even faced the voters as a vice-presidential nominee. In fact, before 1976 he had never run in anything larger than a congressional district. I ultimately decided that my construction of “if you won you’re not the worst” doesn’t apply to him.
Ford ran against tough headwinds with a beleaguered economy and his pardon of Richard Nixon against him. A tough primary campaign took its toll as did the refusal of his vanquished opponent, St Ronnie of Reagan, to actively campaign for him. Despite all that, he may ultimately have lost the election with a bad flub on foreign affairs in the second Presidential debate, denying the existence of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.
Ford was down 33 points nationally after the Democratic Convention. He closed strongly and lost on Election Day by two points. A handful of vote switches in a couple of states would have won his election. (One of history’s tantalizing “what ifs”…does a Ford victory head off the “Reagan Revolution?” Or is he nominated when Ford steps down in 1980 and the whole damn thing happens anyway?)
George McGovern, Democrat, 1972:
I love George McGovern. Really, I do. I genuine war hero whose fight against poverty and hunger was inspired by the suffering he witnessed in WW2. A liberal icon with 20 years of service in the Senate and a beloved elder statesman of the party to this day…but oh god, the campaign.
A disastrous convention, the 2 a.m. acceptance speech, the VP nomination of Senator Thomas Eagleton, who was then forced to withdraw when his history of mental illness became public…
I could go on and on…but it just gets depressing. When you lose the popular vote by 22 points and carry only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia…there's not much more to say.
Hubert Humphrey, Democrat, 1968:
Vice-President Hubert H Humphrey lost the popular vote by a mere half a point in one of the most tumultuous elections ever. Former and future Democrat George Wallace, the segregationist Governor of Alabama, ran a breakaway candidacy that took in nearly 10 million votes and actually carried several southern states, the last third party candidate to do so.
This against a backdrop that included the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Mayor Richard Daley’s goon cops mugging protesters at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and a GOP candidate who colluded with the South Vietnamese to sabotage the Paris peace talks. The ultimate result, Richard Nixon, left for dead after his 1960 loss to JFK and a subsequent loss in the race for Governor of California, completed an improbable political comeback to claim the White House. God help us all.
HHH probably wasn’t the strongest possible Democratic candidate that year. Certainly the late RFK had a stronger hold on the public imagination but was hardly a shoe-in for the nomination if he had survived as LBJ still controlled much of the party apparatus. Despite the Vietnam War’s growing unpopularity LBJ himself might have had a better shot than Humphrey. Still, Humphrey hung tough and closed hard.
Barry Goldwater, Republican, 1964:By any standard of electoral success Barry Goldwater was a disaster. Defeated by 16 million votes, a popular margin of over 20%. A nearly 10 to 1 defeat in the Electoral College. He was unable to unite his party behind him and offended popular party leaders, most particularly former President Dwight Eisenhower. He was a veritable gaffe machine, calling for sawing off the eastern seaboard and lobbing a nuke at the Kremlin…specifically, the men’s room. He called for the privatization of Social Security.
It’s very hard to lightly dismiss Goldwater. His strength in the South, in large part from his opposition to national civil rights legislation, led to the southern strategy that elected Richard Nixon four years later and helped the GOP hold it for most of a generation…20 of 24 years, with that lone break largely attributable to Nixon’s Watergate scandal. It recast the national political dynamic, leading to the ideological polarization of the parties. Indeed, St Ronnie of Reagan rose to national political prominence speaking for Goldwater, which led to his election as Governor of California.
Despite Goldwater’s drubbing, his candidacy still reverberates nearly half a century later.
Adlai Stevenson, Democrat, 1952 & 1956:
On the one hand, Senator Stevenson lost twice, each team rather handily, and by a larger margin the second time than the first. On the other hand, he lost to the popular general widely credited with winning the Second World War. Nobody could have beaten Ike, and that second nomination speaks volumes of the Democratic Party’s great respect and affection for him.
Thomas Dewey, Republican, 1944 & 1948:Now, on that other hand…These are the men who might have been President. Some carried seeds of greatness. Some we give thanks they never claimed Oval Office. But each had his chance and each helped shape history for better or for worse. Today we salute them all...but some of them with just one finger.
Nobody was going to defeat Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the middle of WW2…or quite possibly any other time if he had lived to be 100. He was the only President an entire generation had ever known…and for the generation preceding them he may have meant even more. Not to be harsh, but had he died six months sooner his dead body might have beaten Tom Dewey. All in all, Dewey, cold and mechanical though he was, ran a respectable race.
In 1948, Dewey had to fight hard to win a second nomination. After that, he thought he had the election won. And why not? The Democratic Party had splintered into three pieces. The liberals had run off with Henry Wallace, FDR’s second VP and to many his anointed heir. The South had walked out with Strom Thurmond, in defense of segregation. Nobody loved Harry Truman but his wife, and even that was questionable.
The art of polling was in its relative infancy then but virtually every poll showed Dewey the winner and he believed him. Dewey tried to run out the clock, speaking in empty platitudes, while the fiery Harry S Truman barnstormed the country delivering body blows to Dewey and the do nothing Republican Congress. (Hmm…does any of this sound familiar?)
This was the iconic upset to end all upsets, the iconic image of a beaming Harry Truman holding up a newspaper with the mistaken headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN remains in the national consciousness to this day.
Though the vote totals were relatively close, the shocking nature of the defeat and Dewey’s almost willful blindness as he ignored the swelling crowds coming out to hear Truman speak make Tom Dewey an odds-on favorites for the electoral hall of shame.
Wendell Willkie, Republican, 1940:
When someone says dark horse candidate this is what they’re talking about. A business executive with no prior experience running for office, a former Democrat and an FDR delegate at the nominating convention just eight years earlier, an internationalist in a party of isolationists, Willkie rose from 3% in polling not long before the convention to win the GOP nod on the conventions sixth ballot, besting future nominee Tom Dewey and Senator Robert Taft, the leader of the party’s conservative wing.
His split with Roosevelt came when FDR created the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was in direct completion with Willkie’s own Commonwealth & Southern power company. Despite this split Dewey endorsed much of the New Deal.
His defeat was predictable. FDR was a master politician; Willkie a likeable amateur. Despite unease over an unprecedented third term for Roosevelt the country was not ready to swap him for a man with no foreign policy experience as the Nazis ran roughshod over Europe on the eve of WW2.
Willkie ran a respectable race and even worked as an overseas envoy for Roosevelt during the war. His hopes of a second run were derailed by his cooperation with Roosevelt. Despite being 10 years Roosevelt’s junior Willkie died first, about a month before the 1944 election.
Alf Landon, Republican, 1936:
“As Maine goes so goes Vermont.” That pretty much sums it up for Alf Landon. The Kansas Governor carried only two states as FDR cruised to reelection. Perhaps no one could have done any better against a man many saw as the country’s savior, but when you are crushed by a 25% popular vote margin it’s pretty hard to define you as anything but a terrible candidate. So bad was Landon’s race that it even killed the venerable Literary Digest when its poll predicting Landon a landslide missed the mark so badly. Despite a history dating to 1890 the magazine was dead within two years.
1928 Al Smith, Democrat, 1928:
Though once saluted by no less than FDR as “the Happy Warrior of the political battlefield” Smith’s race was an unhappy one. The three-time New York Governor was the first Roman Catholic nominee of a major party at a time when anti-Catholic prejudice remained virulent in the USA. (In fact, the 1920s version of the Ku Klux Klan was probably more anti-Catholic than anti-Black.) He was a public wet, perhaps the most prominent political opponent of prohibition, at a time when groups like the Anti-Saloon League still held great sway in much of the country. Republican and Dry groups had also blocked congressional reapportionment for nearly a decade, denying urban areas where Smith was strong their fair share of representation.
Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce for retiring President Calvin Coolidge, beat Smith handily. Not till the election of 1960 would another Catholic run on a national ticket. Only the Great Depression would finally bring an end to the Republican domination of the White House from the dawn of the Civil War.
Though Smith was beaten badly his trailblazing candidacy helped open the civil rights door not only for Catholics but for every other group that would walk through it. He brought to an end the KKK domination of Democrat politics that had endured since the days of Reconstruction.
John Davis, Democrat, 1924:
Pity poor John Davis. The 1924 Democratic nominee emerged from possibly the worst convention ever in an impossibly weak position, embarking on his race as the candidate of one of the most divided parties in American history.
The two leading candidates, progressive Al Smith of New York and conservative William McAdoo of Georgia (incidentally, the son-in-law of the late President Woodrow Wilson) fought to a draw across 103 ballots, neither able to clinch the deal.
(Party rules at the time required a 2/3 majority for nomination. Talk about a filibuster!)
The two candidates could hardly have been more different. In contrast to Smith, McAdoo, a former Treasury Secretary and future Senator, a committed dry on the issue of Prohibition. In addition McAdoo had received an endorsement from the Ku Klux Klan…an endorsement he declined to publicly accept or reject.
(The Klan was at the height of its power. A motion condemning the Klan failed by a single vote, largely a the urging of the venerable William Jennings Bryan, a fabled orator and three time loser as presidential nominee, who feared the condemnation would cost the party votes.)
Finally, the frustrated, exhausted, and by now broke delegates ultimately turned to Davis, a relatively obscure former Congressman from West Virginia and most recently Ambassador to the United Kingdom, as a compromise candidate when the frontrunners withdrew.
But the compromise failed to satisfy progressive elements in the party, who bolted and ran former Governor and current Senator Robert La Follette on a separate ticket.
Unable to unite his own party Davis received less than 30% of the popular vote while La Follette ran a strong third. A united Democratic party would have lost badly to the popular incumbent Coolidge, but Davis was an almost unbelievably weak nominee. Coolidge drew twice as many votes as Davis, who returned to a successful practice as a lawyer, arguing more cases before the Supreme Court than almost anyone in U.S. jurisprudence. His last case found him arguing against history, as he defended school segregation in South Carolina in the face the decision in Brown vs Board of Education.
James Cox, Democrat, 1920:
Governor James Cox of Ohio may have been the nominee but the Republicans led by Senator Warren Harding, also of Ohio, ran their campaign against outgoing President Woodrow Wilson. Rapid demobilization following the end of the First World War left the economy a shambles just as millions of American boys returned home. Wilson’s internationalist foreign policy and particularly support for the League of Nations were also unpopular.
Cox himself was a compromise candidate, the 2/3 rule preventing the nomination of early favorites James McAdoo and Attorney General Mitchell Palmer. President Wilson, despite serious incapacity from the stroke he’d suffered the year before, also worked behind the scenes against the nomination of his son-in-law McAdoo in the hopes a deadlocked convention might turn back to him.
Cox was unable to make any headway against these hardships and lost in a landslide, garnering less then 35% of the vote. However his running mate, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt, went on to make quite a name for himself a few years later. The election is also notable for being the first since ratification of Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote. It was also the first time election returns were broadcast live over the radio, by station KDKA in Pittsburgh.
Charles Evan Hughes, Republican, 1916:
Supreme Court Justice Charles Evan Hughes resigned his lifetime appointment in 1916 to run for the Republican nomination for President.
Hughes was a compromise candidate four years too late. In 1912 a split between President William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt had fractured the party. Roosevelt, running on an independent ticket, attracted 4 million votes and carried 8 states. Taft, the official nominee, ran behind Roosevelt and carried only two states. As a result, Democrat Woodrow Wilson had been elected with less than 42% of the popular vote but an Electoral College landslide.
Hughes was able to attract the support of both Taft and Roosevelt and reunite the party. With Republican peace restored Hughes was nearly able to reclaim the White House. Though the result was in doubt for days, in the end Wilson carried California by less than 4000 votes and with it a second term.
A decade later Herbert Hoover would return Hughes to the Supreme Court, this time as Chief Justice. There, Hughes voted with the court’s liberal block and would eventually be successful in both sustaining much of FDR’s New Deal legislation and blocking his scheme to restructure the court.
William Jennings Bryan, Democrat, 1908, 1900 & 1896:
Don’t let his three defeats fool you. William Jennings Bryan was a towering figure in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1890 he was the first Democrat ever elected to the House of Representatives from Nebraska. Since years later at 36 he was the youngest major party nominee for President in American history, winning the nomination largely on the strength his fiery “Cross of Gold” speech to the convention. (At the time many farmers, suffering an ongoing economic depression, believed that America’s reliance on gold only for coinage helped hold their prices down.)
He ran a strong race although, as the representative of the party in power (incumbent President Grover Cleveland was the only Democrat to win the White House between since 1856 and the last till 1912) he was at a disadvantage due to the troubled economy.
In a time when active campaigning for the Presidency was still uncommon Bryan, a gifted orator gave over 500 speeches and appeared before an estimated 5 million people. Though the race was close the defection of pro-gold Democrats helped give the election to Republican William McKinley.
The election of 1900 was a rematch between Bryan and McKinley, with nearly identical results despite the return to the fold of the gold standard Democrats. In the second race McKinley replaced deceased Vice-President Garret Hobart with New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, who himself within a year would replace assassination victim McKinley.
After losing badly to Roosevelt in 1904, the Democrat Party returned to Bryan one last time in 1908. Bryan lost again, by a slightly larger margin, to Roosevelt’s handpicked successor William Howard Taft…who Roosevelt himself would turn on four years later.
Bryan remained a force in Democratic politics and a perennial contender till his death in 1925. He served as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson till he resigned following the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. A devoted pacifist, Bryan felt Wilson’s demands upon Germany were pushing the country to the brink of war.
Bryan was perhaps the most religious man ever nominated for high office in the United States. His last appearance on the public stage, just days before his death, was as prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial, where he argued in favor of banning from classrooms the teaching of evolution. Scopes was represented by famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow, and though found guilty his conviction was quickly overturned. The case was immortalized in a fictional retelling in the classic film “Inherit the Wind,” with actor Fredrick March playing a character based on Bryan.
Alton Parker, Democrat, 1904:
The Democrats may not have been able to win with Bryan, but without him they couldn’t even make a race of it. After Bryan’s first two defeats the party turned to Parker, a conservative judge with appeal to the factions that favored former President Grover Cleveland. While that may have been true Parker had no appeal to the Bryan faction and against the vigorous Teddy Roosevelt earned less than 40% of the popular vote. Roosevelt’s victory marked the first time in American history that a Vice-President elevated by the death of the President won election in his own right. The previous four, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson and Chester Arthur all failed to win nomination and Johnson was nearly kicked out of office, surviving an impeachment trial by just a single vote. Many of those on this list have remained in the public mind despite their defeats. Not so for Parker; he remains obscure enough that to this day not a single full-length biography of him was ever written, probably the only major presidential candidate of whom this can be said.
James G Blaine, Republican, 1884:
Shades of 2004; the election of 1884 was decided by just a handful of votes in Ohio, sending New York Governor Grover Cleveland to the White House instead of Maine Senator Blaine. The two were separated in the popular vote by only 3/10s of a point.
Much like Democrat William Jennings Bryan and Whig Henry Clay, Blaine was the leading light of his party for a generation but never won the White House. He was, in fact, the only Republican nominee between 1860 and 1916 who failed to do so. (Republicans Benjamin Harrison and Taft lost re-election bids.)
Besides serving in the Senate Blaine spent six years as Speaker of the House and twice served as Secretary of State. He likely could have been nominated again in 1888 or 1892 but each time declined to run.
Blaine was implicated in a bribery scandal involving the Union Pacific Railroad. Damaging letters were made public, including one on which Blaine had scribbled instructions to “Burn this letter!” Much like the Dean scream over a century later, the phrase “burn this letter” was heard endlessly across the country. Blaine was also savaged by Thomas Nast, the most influential political cartoonist in American history for his ethical weakness.
For all that, Blaine might have won election if not for the fatal day of October 29. It began with a clergyman’s uncorrected slur against Irish-Americans at a rally with Blaine and ended with his swanky dinner at Delmonico’s in the company of New York with robber baron Jay Gould and other assorted Wall Street big shots. This reinforced the existing perception of Blaine’s corruption and tilted the result in Cleveland’s favor.
Winfield Scott Hancock, Democrat, 1880:
Major General Winfield Scott Hancock was one of the great heroes of the Civil War. He actually lived up to his nickname of “Hancock the Superb.” He was credited with turning the tide at the Battle of Gettysburg and also served with distinction in the Mexican War.
As such, he was untainted by Civil War era politics and free of the suspicions of disloyalty attached to many Democratic politicians of his era. As military governor of Texas and Louisiana after the war he had won widespread praise.
Unable to attack Hancock personally the Republicans instead insisted he would be a mere figurehead for corrupt and disloyal Democrats.
Hancock’s opponent, James Garfield of Ohio, had likewise been a Major General in the Civil War. He served with distinction, and though his record was not the equal of Hancock’s in fairness few could match him. Garfield had just been elected Senator by the Ohio legislature but with his election as President never took the seat.
The popular tally was very close; Garfield and Hancock were separated by 1/10th of a percent. However, Garfield won a healthy electoral vote majority. His presidency was the second shortest in history. Inaugurated on March 4, 1881, on July 2 he was shot by disappointed office seeker Charles Guiteau and died on September 19.
Hancock continued in the military till his death in 1886. He also served as President of the National Rifle Association.
Samuel Tilden, Democrat, 1876:
A tightly contested election, contested amid a swirl of fraud and intimidation, in the end comes down to the state of Florida. (Hmm...does that sound familiar?)
As the scandal wracked second term of President Ulysses Grant drew to a close the reformist New York Governor Samuel Tilden seemed a natural choice as the Democratic nominee for President.
Tilden had been instrumental in breaking the corrupt power of the political bosses at Tammany Hall and followed that up by successfully busting the Canal Ring, which had siphoned millions of dollars from the state by overcharging for repairs and improvements to the canal system.
His opponent was Republican Ohio Governor Rutherford Hayes, a decorated Civil War general wounded five times in combat.
The election was contested on a puzzling and rapidly changing political landscape. Southern states were slowly emerging from military control under post-Civil War Reconstruction. Southern whites, stripped of much of their power for a decade, were willing to use violence to reassert it. Where they still held sway in the South Republicans were willing to use fraud to keep it.
Though votes count were disputed…and votes suppressed…Tilden received a clear majority of the official count with 51% while Hayes was held to just 48%.
Three Southern states, South Carolina, Louisiana, and…sigh…Florida, reported two separate sets of returns, favoring each of the opposing candidates. Tilden stood 184 electoral votes, one short of election. Hayes would need the disputed votes of all three states to win.
A special committee of 15 was created to adjudicate the dispute. Five Senators, five Representatives, and five Supreme Court Justices were to be named. The Senate was represented by three Republicans and two Democrats; the House by the reverse. Four Justices, two Democrats and two Republicans were appointed and those Justices would select the final member from the Court.
That final member of the panel was to be Justice David Davis, a close associate of Abraham Lincoln who was none the less considered a political independent. However, he resigned when elected to the Senate from the state of Illinois. The remaining four Justices were all Republicans, guaranteeing them a majority on the committee. Ultimately all the Republican returns were accepted.
Threats to filibuster the vote count in the Senate ended when Hayes agreed to withdraw all remaining Federal troops from the South, abandoning the freedmen to their fate. (Though in all fairness a Democratic victory would have had the same result.)
Threats of violence filled the air and a renewal of sectional hostilities seemed a real possibility. Throughout the crisis Tilden frustrated his supporters by declining to take an active part. Unwilling to fan the fires of a potential second Civil War, in response to Hayes selection he wrote "I can retire to public life with the consciousness that I shall receive from posterity the credit of having been elected to the highest position in the gift of the people, without any of the cares and responsibilities of the office."
Horace Greeley, Democrat, 1872
There are occasionally in history moments so inexplicably odd, ideas so unimaginably bad, that all you can do is smack yourself in the head and shout “Doh!” One such moment is the Presidential run of Horace Greeley; it is by turns by tragically comic and comically tragic. And there is no happy ending.
Greeley was a newspaperman, the most celebrated of his age, not a politician. Not that the line between the two was clear cut then; parties and politicians financed their own papers, government printing contracts were used to award supporters and punish opposition. By and large, the newspaper business was hundred upon hundreds of mini Fox Newses, most supporting a favored party or agenda.
Though Greeley’s New York Tribune played it straighter than most he was a lifelong opponent of the Democratic Party, first as a Whig and then as a Republican. In fact, he could be considered one of the founding fathers of the Republican Party.
So how did he come in 1872 to be the standard bearer of the Democratic Party?
The Democratic Party had barely survived the Civil War. In the minds of many their opposition to the war tied them inextricably to treason and rebellion. Under Reconstruction their electoral stronghold in the South had fallen into Republican hands. With their right to vote protected the former slave vote was reliably and overwhelming Republican; many Democratic voters were former Confederates and had not yet had their voting rights restored. The 1872 Republican candidate, former commander of the Army and current President Ulysses Grant was a national hero on a par with Washington and Lincoln; so beloved was he that even a Washington/Lincoln ticket might not have been able to beat him.
Into this void stepped a group of disaffected members of Grant’s own party who dubbed themselves the Liberal Republicans.
The Liberal Republican platform called for an immediate end to Reconstruction and a moratorium on land grants to railroads, which had been quite generous to speed along construction of the Continental Railroad. It also called for continuing protection of the rights of freedmen, though how they would accomplish that while withdrawing from the South remained unaddressed.
Their convention, to the surprise of all, bypassed a number of experienced politicians to settle on the brilliant but erratic Greely. His sole experience in public office was a single term in the House of Representatives a quarter century before. Greeley had opposed slavery and secession but opposed war to preserve the Union. He had agitated for a negotiated peace and after the war initially favored a harsh Reconstruction, before changing his mind.
Or, in modern terms, he was a consistent as Mitt Romney.
The Democrats, desperate to beat Grant, instead of nominating their own candidate endorsed Greeley to unite the anti-Grant vote.
They shouldn’t have bothered. On election day that united anti-Grant vote came to a scant 43% of the vote. Many Democrats couldn’t bring themselves to vote for their longtime mortal foe. Though Greeley attracted large crowds when he spoke they were mostly longtime Republican admirers who had no intention of voting against Grant.
The election was only one of the misfortunes to beset Greeley in 1872. Much of his fortune wiped out by fraud, he lost control of his paper. His wife died just days after the election and Greeley followed her before the month was out. In his final illness he descended into madness.
Never was a man so crushed by a race for the Presidency. Pity poor Horace Greeley.
Horatio Seymour, Democrat, 1868:
Some men spend their life chasing after the Presidency. Horatio Seymour ran from it.
Seymour, a conservative Democrat and two-time Governor of New York, was first mentioned for the Presidency in 1856 until he wrote a letter ruling himself out. The same occurred in 1860, when he also declared he would not take the second spot on the ticket. When the party convention turned to him in 1868 his supporters reportedly had Seymour dragged bodily from the floor in tears, in fear he would say something to render his nomination impossible, as he begged them not to do so.
The reluctant candidate made a better race of it than you might expect, especially against General Ulysses Grant, the commander of the victorious Union Army in the Civil War. He ran only five points behind Grant among voters, though the electoral margin was much greater.
Seymour may have been a statesman but he was a reluctant office holder. Six years later he also refused election to the Senate and in 1880 for a final time declined to run for President.
George McClellan, Democrat, 1864:
It was the strangest election in American history. An embattled war-time President faced the popular former commander of his country’s armies; a commander the President himself had dismissed.
George McClellan seemed the beau ideal of a solider. One of the first Union commanders to win a victory in the Civil War’s muddled early days he was quickly promoted to command of the Army. Perhaps rapid advancement went to his head. Perhaps he’d always been an arrogant prick. In any event, he failed to show proper respect for both the Presidency and the President personally. For a time Lincoln tolerated him because there seemed to be nobody else.
McClellan was a fine organizer but a poor battlefield commander. In both his Peninsula Campaign and at Antietam he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory while facing badly outnumbered Confederates. In between he sacrificed John Pope’s Army at Second Manassas by failing to swiftly reinforce him as ordered.
As Lincoln’s best known and most popular opponent his nomination seemed natural to the Democrats, despite the fact he technically remained in the Army, not resigning till Election Day. (General Winfield Scott had similarly run while in the service 12 years early and retained his commission throughout.)
McClellan was nominated despite his opposition to the Democrat platform, which called for an immediate end to the war. He repudiated the platform immediately and instead promised to prosecute the war with more skill and energy than Lincoln. However, McClellan had always opposed emancipation and was willing to accept the preservation of slavery alongside reunion. Lincoln, after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, refused to turn back considering it a betrayal of the blacks who had enlisted to fight for the Union.
As long as the war went badly McClellan’s prospects remained good. As the tide turned in favor of the North his chances slipped away. Most consider Sherman’s March and the fall of Atlanta as the turning point in the election.
McClellan lost the popular tall by ten points but was wiped out by a ten to one margin in electoral votes. Democratic chances all along were bound to the progress of the war far more than the selection of a particular nominee.
Stephen Douglas, Democrat, 1860:
When you hear claims an election is the most important ever…remind them of this one.
Stephen Douglas was the principal challenger to Abraham Lincoln in 1860. They had long been rivals and Douglas had gotten the best of it, twice outpacing Lincoln for a seat in the Senate. Lincoln’s sole election to national office was a single term in the House of Representatives during the Mexican War. Douglas, who stood 5’4”, was known across the nation as the “Little Giant.” Lincoln, though well known in Illinois and Republican circles, had little of a previous national reputation.
Douglas had, quite unintentionally, done as much as anyone to push the nation to the brink of Civil War. An ambitious man, he was open to any compromise he found politically advantageous. When the admission of territories acquired in the war with Mexico threat the uneasy peace over slavery which had held since the Missouri Compromise 30 years earlier, Douglas and the great Whig Henry Clay had been instrumental in forging a compromise.
However, that compromise was unpopular in the South and threatened to block his ascension to the Presidency.
Thus Douglas came to propose solving the slavery question via “popular sovereignty,” allowing the voters of a territory to determine at the ballot box whether to allow slavery or not. Though the idea was not original with Douglas he became the politician most closely associated with it.
It was this procedure that led to small-scale civil war in Kansas. Although intended to boost Douglas in the South it ultimately had the opposite effect. If a territory could vote slavery in it could also vote it out and by this time Southern extremists insisted on the right to carry slaves into all the territories, regardless of popular opinion.
The turmoil led to the disintegration of the Whig Party, its Northern and Southern wings unable to paper over their differences on slavery any longer.
Northern Whigs fused with various anti-slavery elements, including disaffected Democrats, to form the new Republican Party, which supplanted the Whigs on the national level by 1856. Though it included slavery abolitionists its actual position was simply to confine slavery to the areas where it already existed, thus setting it on the path toward eventual…very eventual…extinction.
As the Republicans had no organization in the South (since their natural constituency, the slaves, were of course not allowed to vote) this left the Democrats as the only truly national political party.
Douglas was the strongest possible Democratic candidate in 1860, but finally even his willingness to compromise was finally exhausted when the South insisted the platform explicitly endorse the right to take slaves into all the territories. When they were refused Southern delegates walked out and those remaining at last endorsed Douglas.
The Southern Democrats nominated John Breckenridge of Kentucky. Despite a strong base of support in the South he had no hope of national election. At most he could hope to toss the election into the House of Representatives, where the desire to negotiate a settlement might benefit the South.
Yet another candidate, John Bell of Tennessee, ran on a peace ticket with Edward Everett of Massachusetts, who three years later would be the featured speaker at Gettysburg.
Douglas was the only candidate with a chance to defeat Lincoln. He campaigned furiously across the North, believing only he could avert the election of Lincoln and avert war, but to no avail.
Douglas finished second in the popular voting but fourth in the electoral tally as Lincoln, with less the 40% of the popular vote won a clear majority of electoral votes. (Lincoln was completely omitted from the Southern ballots, though he would have gotten few votes there. Unless, of course, the seven million slaves had been allowed to vote.)
Douglas continued to work for compromise after the election but with the coming of secession and war threw his full support behind his old rival. At Lincoln’s request he undertook a speaking tour of the Border States and Midwest to encourage Unionist sentiment. He could have been a powerful Democratic ally for Lincoln, but unfortunately contracted typhoid fever and died in June 1861.
John Fremont, 1856, Republican:
John Fremont, known in the penny press as the Pathfinder, was the first Presidential nominee of the newly formed Republican Party.
Fremont, a former explorer and military officer, had also served as military Governor of California and after statehood was one of the two original Senators to represent the new state in Congress.
At the party’s first national convention in Philadelphia Fremont easily won nomination on the first ballot. His military fame was appealingly apolitical to an anti-slavery party that feared appearing to anti-slavery. Also, the disaffected Whigs who made up the largest portion of the new party had only known Presidential victory when nominating Generals; Zachary Taylor in 1848 and William Henry Harrison in 1840. (It often seemed the Whig Party lived under a dark cloud; its strongest leaders could never win election, and when they did when they did twice Presidency both victors died in office.)
Second place in the Vice Presidential balloting went to a former Illinois Congressman named Abraham Lincoln, whose future prospects were improved by not winning a place on a losing ticket.
The Democratic nominee was James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, a northern man with southern sympathies who was a safe and uncontroversial choice. His greatest advantage was that he'd been out of the country as Ambassador to the United Kingdom during the recent sectional strife and was thus able to avoid taking a position. (He may also, by modern speculation, have been the country's first gay President...though I'd truly hate to saddle our already politically burdened friends with custody of Buchanan.)
The embryonic Republicans were still more a coalition than a national political party. Their candidates were barred from the ballot in the South. There was also a strong third party run by sitting President Millard Fillmore, who had assumed the office on the death of Taylor.
Though Fremont was able to attract only a third of the popular vote a closer look at the results suggested a bright future for the new party. Fremont ran a respectable race in the Electoral College and the movement of just a couple more states to the Republican column would be enough for them to win the Presidency.
Fremont returned to the military but his penchant for mixing politics with his duties found him exiled to California, far from the seat of the action.
Winfield Scott, Whig, 1852:
It’s not often that a Presidential candidacy is so bad it literally helps to kill his political party. Meet General Winfield Scott.
Scott was genuine military hero, perhaps the greatest since Washington. He had served with distinction in the War of 1812 and in the Mexican War he conquered that nation’s capital with a campaign that set the blueprint for Sherman’s march across the South in the Civil War. Still in the service at the start of that war he designed much of the grand strategy that led the Union to victory.
Scott’s nickname was Old Fuss and Feathers, an indication that his temperament might not be the best for a successful political campaign. He was brilliant, but also egotistical and vainglorious. As a military commander such flaws were survivable; as a political candidate…not so much.
The Whigs, wracked with sectional strife between their northern and southern wings, needed 53 ballots at their convention before finally settling on Scott.
Already at a political disadvantage with his party in disarray, Scott did himself no favors with clumsy statements, for instance referring to disagreement over tariff rates on imports as a “local issue.”
His Democratic opponent, former Maine Senator Franklin Pierce, had also been a Mexican War General, weakening Scott's advantage there. He was also a raging alcoholic who would eventually die of cirrhosis, but that went unnoticed at the time.
Scott lost the popular vote by only seven points but absorbed a six to one beating in the Electoral College. Scott was particularly unpopular in the South despite being a Virginian because he was seen as anti-slavery. It was the end of the Whigs as a national force. Fillmore would likely have run a better race and had a better chance of holding the party together.
Lewis Cass, Democrat, 1848:
Like Winfield Scott, Lewis Cass was a military man with service in the War of 1812. He was a former and future Senator from Michigan and had also been territorial governor there before statehood. He was a former Secretary of War and future Secretary of State, suggesting a political acumen that Scott lacked.
Also, his campaign was doomed before it started.
Former President Martin Van Buren, increasingly embittered since his defeat by William Henry Harrison eight years earlier, hungered for a return to the White House. Cass was considered pro-slavery for his support of popular sovereignty and at the Democratic Convention was unacceptable to many of the northern delegates. When Cass was nominated a number of them walked out. They quickly formed the Free Soil Party and selected the former President as their standard bearer.
With a divided party Cass stood little chance against the popular Whig nominee General Zachary Taylor, like Scott a hero of the Mexican War.
With Van Buren taking ten percent of the vote Cass lost his race by five points. Though Van Buren carried no states he siphoned off enough votes in critical states to hand the election to Taylor.
Cass ended his public career as Secretary of State under James Buchanan. He resigned in December 1860, in protest of Buchanan’s weak response to Southern secession after the election of Lincoln.
Henry Clay, Whig, 1824, 1832 & 1844:
"I'd rather be right than be president," said Henry Clay.
It was a lie. There was nothing Clay wanted more than the Presidency.
And why not? The Kentucky Whig was the dominant political force of his day. He was known as part of the Great Triumvirate, alongside Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and John Calhoun of South Carolina. They dominated their era as few Presidents ever did, and continually frustrated each other’s White House ambitions.
Clay’s first chance for the White House came in 1824. It was a four-way race fought in circumstances unrecognizable today. There was just one functioning political party, the Democratic-Republicans and popular balloting was in its infancy and not nationwide. Many electors were still selected by state legislatures.
Clay, at the time Speaker of the House, finished fourth in the electoral count in a race that also included Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, General Andrew Jackson and Treasury Secretary William Crawford. No candidate carried a majority, sending the election to the House.
Only the top three finishers were eligible for consideration, leaving Clay out. He threw his support to Adams, securing his election. Adams then named Clay his own Secretary of State, designating him his heir apparent for the Presidency.
Jackson, who’d led both the popular and electoral balloting, was outraged a charged a corrupt bargain between Adams and Clay had cost him the Presidency. The charge would haunt Clay to the end of his career.
The election split the Democratic Republicans and the new Democratic Party formed around Jackson. In 1828, Jackson and the Democrats defeated Adams and took the White House.
In 1832 Clay was the nominee of the remaining Democratic-Republicans, now called National Republicans but soon to become the Whigs. Jackson was wildly popular and Clay, tainted by the charge of the corrupt bargain, was crushed. Jackson took 54% of the popular vote to Clay’s 37% and an even larger margin in the Electoral College.
1844 was Clay’s best chance, running against Jackson protégée James Polk of Tennessee. Unfortunately for Clay, the defining issue of the election was the annexation of Texas, with Polk in favor and Clay opposed. The national fervor for expansion gave Polk a national victory.
The annexation of Texas under Polk led to war with Mexico. The new territories acquired led to new strife over slavery. New strife over slavery eventually led to Civil War.
Rarely has any election been so costly.
Rufus King, 1816, Federalist:
New York Senator Rufus King was the unfortunate standard bearer of the dying Federalist Party. On the wane since the defeat of John Adams in 1800 the party was ready to give up the ghost after the War of 1812.
King had a distinguished career. He’d served in the Revolutionary War. He was one of the signers of the United States Constitution and at the Constitutional Convention worked closely with Alexander Hamilton.
And he had no chance against the popular candidate of the Democratic-Republicans, Secretary of State James Monroe. Monroe had also served in the war, directly under General George Washington. He was wounded at the Battle of Trenton. He’d been Senator from and Governor of Virginian. He even served as Secretary of War for six months while holding office as Secretary of State.
King lost the popular vote by a whopping 38 points and carried only three states. King eventually joined the Democratic-Republicans and served in the Senate till 1825.
Dewitt Clinton, Federalist, 1812:
The Federalist Party never won a national election after 1796. They came closest with New York City Mayor DeWitt Clinton. Clinton was also a former Senator from and future Governor of New York State. He was a member of the Erie Canal Commission, to that time the most important infrastructure project ever undertaken in New York.
Though hardly remembered today Clinton was so highly regarded in his time that more than a dozen towns and half a dozen counties…as far away as Louisiana…are named in his honor.
In a tight race fueled by opposition to the War of 1812 and a weak economy Clinton finished 3 points behind incumbent President James Madison in the limited popular balloting. Madison’s Electoral Vote total was lower than in his first run.
Charles Pinckney, Federalist, 1804 & 1808:
Charles Pinckney of South Carolina holds the distinction of a pair of Presidential races to a pair of founding fathers, first Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, and then James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution.
Pinckney was an officer in the Continental Army during the Revolution and saw action in several major battles, including Germantown and Brandywine.
A Carolina planter, Pinckney advocated for the rights of slaveholders at the Constitutional Convention. He opposed outlawing the Atlantic slave trade and favored counting slaves when allocating electoral representation.
He opposed popular elections and paying a salary to Senators, believing they should be men of wealth.
He was beaten badly by both Jefferson and Madison. Castle Pinckney in Charleston Harbor, named in his honor, was the first Federal installation seized by the South at the start of the Civil War.
Which do you think was the worst nominee ever?