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How to Get Elected
The American system of choosing a President has not worked out badly, far as it may be from the Founding Fathers’ vision of a natural aristocracy
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
For one thing, there is the sectional test—more important before the Civil War than since, but still not entirely without significance. A candidate must have at least minimum acceptability in both the North and the South. From 1832 to 1936, a Democratic candidate had to have more than the minimum, since the Democrats operated under a rule that denied the nomination to anyone failing to muster two-thirds of the delegate vote. This gave southerners a veto at the very least, and they used it in 1844 to block the renomination of Martin Van Buren, who had offended them in a number of ways. The ensuing deadlock resulted in the choice of the first “dark horse,” or relatively unknown compromise candidate. He was James K. Polk, a Tennessee slaveholder but a loyal congressional follower of Jacksonian policies, and as Speaker of the House during part of Van Buren’s administration, a most important Democrat. During the campaign, which the Democrats won, the Whigs sneeringly asked, “Who is James K. Polk?” thus fostering the common impression that a dark-horse candidate is inevitably a nonentity.
In point of fact, though Polk was not much of a public personality, his performance was amazing. He went into office intending to acquire California and New Mexico, settle the Oregon boundary dispute, reduce the tariff, and set up an independent Treasury. He achieved every one of these objectives, while conducting the Mexican War—a record that ranks him among the most effective of the Presidents, and indicates how curiously successful the convention mechanism can be. On the other hand, a deadlocked convention does not invariably produce great leaders. In 1924 the Democrats perspired through an appalling 103 ballots while southerners and westerners fought off the challenge of the urban supporters of Alfred E. Smith. The compromise choice was West Virginia’s John W. Davis, who, arrayed against Calvin Coolidge, helped to make that year’s campaign one of the most forgettable in our history.
Sectionalism has been less potent in national lue of late than it used to be, but our furious rate of urbanization has increased the irresistible force of another geographical factor. The would-be candidate had better come from, or be tightly associated with, one of the populous states with a big electoral vote, which automatically means one of the states with major cities.
The rule is not inflexible. It can be broken by a man who, like Herbert Hoover or Wendell Willkie, has achieved a national reputation without going through the mill of a state election; but this feat has usually been reserved for successful generals, who rarely live long in one place. As one orator, putting the name of Ulysses S. Grant in nomination, rhythmically announced:
The poetry was bad but the political insight was shrewd (see “The Man on Horseback,” page 10). If a boy aspires to the highest office in the land, and does not care to be a professional soldier, his prospects will be improved if he does not serve his political apprenticeship in some state like Nevada or North Dakota.
Other considerations of “availability” further narrow the range of choices. In general, it is best for a would-be candidate not to have played too active a role on the national scene, for his very success in the leadership of his party may have made him enemies. Stephen A. Douglas was clearly the outstanding figure in the Democratic party from 1850 to 1860, but the conventions of 1852 and 1856 passed him by in favor of much less famous—and less controversial—men: Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. (Douglas won nomination in 1860 only after southern Democrats had walked out of the convention at Charleston, in a grim prelude to secession.) James G. Blaine was the outstanding national political figure for the post-Civil War Republican generation, in an admittedly lackluster field. Yet he was skipped in 1876 and 1880 for the Ohio war veterans Hayes and Garfield, though he finally got his chance to run in 1884. (Part of Blaine’s difficulty lay, however, in the fact that he had a reputation for what we would currently call “influence-peddling” on behalf of large corporations, especially railroads.) Closer to our own time, while Robert A. Taft was “Mr. Republican” to the press and the public, the conventions turned from him to political outsiders like Willkie and Eisenhower, or to Thomas E. Dewey, who had been less outspoken. Party loyalty is all very well, but conventions meet to pick a winner, and a long list of ritual taboos eliminates those might-be nominees who are thought to lack the right magic, or to have offended the tribal gods in some way.