Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > What do Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, Michael Bloomberg, and Bernie Sanders have in common?

Feb 27, 2020

What do Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, Michael Bloomberg, and Bernie Sanders have in common?

tags: presidential history,2020 Election

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.

What do Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, Michael Bloomberg, and Bernie Sanders have in common? All have switched parties at some point during their lives. There are numerous other examples of famous politicians who changed political parties. 

Perhaps the three best known include two who ran as “Progressives" in the early part of the 20th century and set a standard for third-party reform candidates, and a controversial segregationist in 1968, who in many ways foreshadowed Donald Trump’s campaign.

Theodore Roosevelt, former Republican President, ran in 1912 as the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party nominee, and won 27.5 percent of the popular vote, 4.1 million votes, 88 electoral votes, and six states. This was the best all time performance by a third party nominee.

Republican Senator Robert M. LaFollette, Sr. of Wisconsin ran for President in 1924 as the Progressive Party nominee, similar to the Progressive Party of 1912. He won 16.6 percent of the popular vote and the 13 electoral votes from his home state. 4.8 million citizens voted for him, and Franklin D. Roosevelt later gave LaFollette credit as a forerunner of the next decade’s New Deal programs.

Democratic Governor George C. Wallace of Alabama, a infamous segregationist, ran in 1968 as the American Independent Party nominee, and won 13.5 percent of the popular vote, 9.9 million votes, 46 electoral votes and five states, the second best performance in electoral votes and states behind Theodore Roosevelt.

Beyond these three well known cases, there are 14 others worthy of attention.

Herbert Hoover worked in the Woodrow Wilson administration and was at Versailles with the President in 1919.  He was seen as a potential Democratic Presidential contender in 1920, and was even endorsed by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.  However, he served as Secretary of Commerce under Republican Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, before being the Republican Presidential nominee in 1928, serving one term as President, then losing to FDR in 1932.  The old friendship was gone; Hoover became a vehement critic of FDR in both domestic and foreign policy, and was never invited to the White House by his successor during the more than twelve years of Roosevelt’s time in the Oval Office.

When FDR ran for his third term in 1940, he chose Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace as his Vice President. Wallace was a former Republican, who converted to the Democratic Party when he served in the Roosevelt cabinet. Later, Wallace would run as a third party nominee of the Progressive Party in 1948 against President Harry Truman, but having far less impact than earlier “Progressives”, Theodore Roosevelt and Robert M. LaFollette, Sr., as Wallace gained no electoral votes, and only won 2.4 percent of the popular vote.

Also in 1940, FDR’s Republican opponent was a former Democrat, businessman Wendell Willkie, who was critical of the spending and federal intervention of the New Deal programs, and while he performed better than FDR opponents Herbert Hoover and Alf Landon in previous campaigns in 1932 and 1936, he still was unable to triumph over FDR in his third term bid.

In 1947-1948, when Truman’s public opinion ratings were at a low point, Truman proposed that World War II General and D-Day national hero Dwight D. Eisenhower should consider running for President as a Democrat with Truman as his Vice President. Eisenhower, then a publicly non partisan figure, chose not to take up the unprecedented offer. In 1952, Eisenhower abandoned his political neutrality, ran for president as a Republican, and was Truman’s successor. 

South Carolina Democratic Governor Strom Thurmond opposed Truman in 1948, running as a segregationist candidate with the States Rights Party. Thurmond won four states and 39 electoral votes, at the time the second best third party performance, but later surpassed by George C. Wallace in 1968.  In 1964, Thurmond, then a US Senator, switched to the Republican Party in support of Republican Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. In the following years, many Southern Democrats switched to the Republican Party.

In 1980, John Anderson of Illinois, the third ranking Republican in the House of Representatives and Chairman of the House Republican Conference,  announced his retirement. He then ran for President as an Independent against Republican nominee Ronald Reagan and Democratic President Jimmy Carter. Anderson won no states, but did win nearly seven percent of the vote, attracting primarily liberal Republicans, some independents, and some disgruntled Democrats including historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.  He also was able to have one debate with Ronald Reagan, but President Carter refused to participate in a similar debate with Anderson.

His Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan, was a Democrat while he was an actor in Hollywood. Reagan supported FDR and Truman, but switched to the Republican Party due to the influence of his wife, Nancy Davis, and her father.  He became nationally recognized as a political figure after his speech supporting Barry Goldwater in 1964. 

In 2004, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean seemed the front-runner in the early Democratic Primary season before his fall from grace.  After finishing third in the Iowa Presidential caucuses, he became infamous for a screaming declaration that he would succeed in future primaries and caucuses, ironically leading to his rapid decline. Dean came from a wealthy Republican family and was a Republican as a young man. He switched to the Democratic Party while at Yale University.

Hillary Rodham Clinton was a Republican while in high school in Illinois and during her early years in college. She supported Barry Goldwater in 1964 due to the influence of a high school history teacher, but she converted to the Democratic Party while a student at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. After first serving as First Lady under her husband, Bill Clinton, she served eight years in the US Senate, lost the Presidential nomination in 2008, and then served as Secretary of State, and became the Democratic nominee in 2016, losing the electoral college but winning the national popular vote by 2.85 million votes over Donald Trump.

Donald Trump also switched parties a number of times. He started as a Democrat, switching  in 1987 to the Republican Party, then becoming a member of the Reform Party in 1999, back to the Democratic Party in 2001, and then back to the Republicans in 2009.  Along the way, he contributed to many Democratic and Republican politicians, and flirted with running for President in 1988 and 2000, but was not taken seriously until 2015, when he announced his campaign for President.

Ironically, his Vice President, Mike Pence, started off as a Democrat and voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980. Pence was inspired by fellow Catholic John F. Kennedy. In college, he became an evangelical Christian and a supporter of Ronald Reagan.

The 2020 primary features two Democratic contenders who have notably changed their affiliation. Elizabeth Warren was very conservative and a registered member of the Republican Party from 1991-1996. While teaching law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School as a tenured professor, her colleagues described her as a “die hard” conservative and a believer in laissez faire economics. After 1996, her views changed and she joined the Democratic Party.

Michael Bloomberg was a lifelong Democrat until he switched registration to the Republican Party to run for New York City Mayor in 2001. Then, he became an Independent in the middle of his second mayoral term, and ran as an Independent for his third term in 2009. He remained an independent until  2018, when he again became a Democrat and announced for his candidacy for President in November 2019. Bloomberg had considered a Presidential run in 2012 and 2016, but passed on both possibilities until finally becoming a major factor in the present 2020 campaign.

And the ultimate Independent, Bernie Sanders, was never a Democrat until he decided to run for President in 2016, having the longest career of any Independent in Congress in both chambers in American history.  Sanders switched back to Independent status in 2017, and again became a Democrat when he decided to run for President again in 2019.  While avoiding party identification throughout his career, except recently, he always caucused with the Democratic Party and voted with the caucus most of the time over his long career in Congress since 1991.

So party loyalties have changed in these notable 14 instances in the past one hundred years, beyond the better known cases of Theodore Roosevelt, Robert M. LaFollette, Sr., and George C. Wallace.

Party changes can reflect the will of individual candidates. Sometimes a person’s world view changes, or they sense a political opportunity by changing parties. In other cases, party switching might indicate, in hindsight, a deeper change in the party system. Though a third party candidate has never won the Presidency, they have influenced outcomes and often pushed ideas into the mainstream of one of the major parties (like with the incorporation of aspects of Progressivism into the New Deal or of Thurmond and Wallace’s racial conservatism to the Republican Party).

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