Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > Fate and Fortune in Presidential Elections

Mar 17, 2021

Fate and Fortune in Presidential Elections

tags: elections,presidential history

Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations,  Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015).  A paperback edition is now available.


Fate and fortune play a major role in the American presidency, as so many of those who have become president were not perceived, even a year before their elections, as likely to reach the Oval Office.

The effort to project “frontrunners” in presidential races has not worked very well, when one looks back at the year before many elections, as will be outlined below.

In the year 1843, it was clear that the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1844 was former President Martin Van Buren.  Former Speaker of the House James K. Polk was not in public office in 1843, and it seemed clear that Van Buren was the likely choice of his party against Whig nominee Henry Clay.  But Van Buren was unable to achieve the Democratic Party requirement of support from two thirds of the delegates at the National Convention. On the 9th ballot Polk, seen as the first “dark horse” presidential nominee, triumphed. He then overcame the much better known Henry Clay, with the assistance of a small third party, the Liberty Party, to become the 11th president of the United States. Polk would gain, through war with Mexico and treaty with Great Britain, more territory for the nation than anyone since Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

In the year 1859, former one term Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln, fresh off a losing Senate race against Stephen A. Douglas, had gained notice, but New York Senator William Henry Seward was seen as the likely choice for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, and Douglas was clearly the leading Democratic candidate.  But Lincoln went on to win the Republican nomination, and while Douglas was the Democratic nominee, that party would become divided between Douglas and outgoing Vice President John C. Breckinridge, who became the Southern Democratic nominee for the presidency.  John Bell also ran as the nominee of a one-time third party, the Constitutional Union Party.  Lincoln ended up winning the presidency, despite having less than 40 percent of the total national vote, and then led the Union in the Civil War.  While highly controversial in office, Lincoln brought about the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, preserved the Union over the secessionist movement, and is widely regarded as the greatest American president.

In the year 1911, Woodrow Wilson had just become the new Democratic Governor of New Jersey, after a career as an educator, scholar, and nationally noticed president of Princeton University. Speaker of the House Champ Clark of Missouri was seen as the front runner for his party’s nomination in 1912, but the Democratic National Convention was in a stalemate due to the thirds rule that was required, just as it was in 1844 when Polk won the nomination on the 9th ballot.  This time, the convention went through 46 ballots, before Wilson, seen like Polk as a “dark horse,” with only a year and a half as an elected politician, became the nominee.  Wilson was fortunate that the opposition Republicans split between incumbent President William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt, giving Wilson and his party the advantage.  Despite only winning 42 percent of all votes cast, Wilson won a landslide victory in the Electoral College, and went on to promote extensive domestic reform in his first term, and become a wartime leader in the First World War in his second term.

In the year 1931, Franklin D. Roosevelt had recovered enough from polio, although still in a wheelchair, to be in his second term as New York Governor, promoting the “Little New Deal.”  He was well aware that the major barriers to winning the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932 were the 1928 nominee Alfred E. Smith and Speaker of the House John Nance Garner of Texas.  Famed journalist Walter Lippman was skeptical of FDR, saying while he thought Roosevelt was a pleasant man, that he lacked any important qualifications, but clearly would like to be president.  FDR won the nomination, surpassing the two-thirds rule on the 4th ballot, selected Garner as his vice presidential running mate, and went on to a landslide victory over President Herbert Hoover. He would promote the New Deal, take America through World War II, and be regarded as one of the top three presidents of all time.

In the year 1959, Senator John F. Kennedy seemed ready to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, but his reputation in the Senate was of a “lightweight” compared to his rivals, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, and Stuart Symington of Missouri.  Kennedy also had the negative factor of being the first serious Catholic contender for the White House since the failed candidacy of Alfred E. Smith in 1928.  JFK needed to overcome the “Catholic issue” by showing strength and victory in two states with small Catholic communities, and a large Protestant majority, and he did so by defeating Humphrey in the Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries.  But even then, he still faced the challenge of Johnson, who had Southern backing and a strong image as a challenger, and only at the end of the roll call of the states on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention, when Wyoming swung to him, did JFK win the nomination.  Similar to FDR selecting Garner in 1932, Kennedy now chose Johnson as his running mate, and they would win the hotly contested election of 1960 over Richard Nixon.  Kennedy would go on to promote change as the youngest elected president, and though his time in office was cut short by assassination near the end of the third year, he would be seen as one of the more popular and admired presidents of modern times.

In the year 1967 Richard Nixon, who had lost the close presidential race of 1960 and then been soundly defeated in his run for California Governor in 1962, decided he was going to try again for the Republican presidential nomination, against the challenge of Michigan Governor George Romney, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and California Governor Ronald Reagan.  Nixon was seen as a long shot, with the thought that a comeback from his loss eight years earlier was highly unlikely. Nixon triumphed at the Republican National Convention in 1968, and surprised many observers when he overcame incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who led a Democratic party divided over the war in Vietnam and facing a defection of southern conservatives after Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  The civil rights issue led to Alabama Governor George Wallace running on the American Independent Party line as one of the most serious third party challengers in American history.  Nixon won with only 43.4 percent of the total national vote, but went on to accomplish significant goals in American foreign policy and cooperate with the Democratic controlled Congress in promoting some major domestic reforms.  But his insecurity, perceived paranoia, and inability to accept criticism led to illegal actions, culminating in the Watergate scandal, movement toward impeachment and his resignation in 1974.

In 1975, Jimmy Carter had finished his one term as Georgia Governor, and announced his plans to run for president in 1976. This evoked laughter and cynicism, as he was seen as a quite obscure political leader, despite a successful term in office.  Carter had far better known rivals, including Arizona Congressman Morris Udall, California Governor Jerry Brown, Idaho Senator Frank Church, Indiana Senator Birch Bayh, and Washington Senator Henry Jackson. Carter was clearly seen as a dark horse.  But Carter organized early and efficiently, and surprised political observers by winning a majority of the newly expanded state primaries and caucuses, portraying himself as an outsider, political centrist, and moderate reformer.  In choosing Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale, a Hubert Humphrey protégé, as his running mate, Carter united the party, and went on to defeat President Gerald Ford.  Carter would go on to be perceived as a champion of human rights, but had difficulties uniting the nation in his time in office and lost reelection. He is now seen as an elder statesman with a positive public image, more than 40 years after leaving office, and is the longest-lived president.

In 1979 Ronald Reagan had been retired from public office after two four-year terms as California Governor from 1967-1975, and two failed bids for the presidency in 1968 and 1976, the latter against President Gerald Ford.  He was nearing the age of 70, and most observers thought the fact that, if elected, he would surpass Dwight Eisenhower to become the oldest president in American history, made Reagan seem like an unlikely long shot.  But Reagan overcame his chief rival George H. W. Bush, then chose him as his running mate, before going on to be elected over President Carter and Independent third party candidate Congressman John Anderson of Illinois, winning a landslide in the Electoral College.  Reagan would go on to promote a transition in American government from New Deal-Great Society Liberalism to Reagan Conservatism, which would be a dominant force in the Republican Party for the next forty years. He would transform the presidency and become a very popular president.

In the year 2007, after only two years as an Illinois Senator, Barack Obama would start a long-shot campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, with the chief rival being former First Lady and New York Senator Hillary Clinton.  The idea that a mixed-race candidate with a Muslim sounding last name could beat Clinton seemed like a real long shot, but Obama triumphed after a long, heated contest, chose establishment Democratic Senator Joe Biden as his running mate, and overcame Republican nominee John McCain.  He chose Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State, following the example of Abraham Lincoln with William Henry Seward a century and a half earlier.  Obama would accomplish a major change in health care, promote new initiatives in many other areas of domestic and foreign policy, and be very popular and highly regarded when he left office in 2017, seen as having impacted America in many positive ways.

And finally, in 2019, Joe Biden, while highly respected for his 36 year career in the US Senate and his productive eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president, seemed an unlikely successor to the White House in 2020, as he would become the oldest president. With an extensive list of prominent contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, and his own early terrible performance in Iowa and New Hampshire, Biden seemed like a lost cause until the South Carolina Primary. But then Biden had an amazing revival. With the COVID-19 pandemic raging and President Donald Trump being incapable of dealing with it while dividing the nation for four years, Biden triumphed in November 2020, and has given many observers the impression of a presidency starting off strong.  Some are comparing him to the crisis times of FDR and the New Deal, nine decades ago.

So the cases of James K. Polk, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden are joined together as examples of how fate and fortune have so often determined the history of the American presidency!

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