Blogs > Ronald L. Feinman > Three Ex-Presidents have Tried to Return to Office with Third-Party Runs. None Have Succeeded

Jan 6, 2023

Three Ex-Presidents have Tried to Return to Office with Third-Party Runs. None Have Succeeded

tags: Donald Trump,January 6

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.

As 2022 came to an end, former President Donald Trump issued a threat and warning that if he were not treated properly and with respect by the Republican Party, he would run for president in 2024 on a third party line, as a rebuke to the party, undermining its ability to win the presidency. This brings to mind three earlier presidents who chose to run as third-party candidates after their presidency, with two of the three being factors in the defeat of the party nominee, and helping the opposition party candidate to win the presidency.

President Martin Van Buren (1837-1841) had one term as the successor to Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), but, burdened by the Panic of 1837, was soundly defeated by Whig nominee William Henry Harrison in 1840.  Van Buren continued, however, to desire to return to the White House, and was the frontrunner in delegates at the Democratic National Convention in 1844. The issue of the annexation of Texas, which he opposed, undermined his ability to gain two thirds of the delegates (this was the established threshold to win the Democratic Party’s nomination from 1832 to 1936, and caused many long, drawn-out conventions with dark horse candidates emerging on late ballots).  In 1844, former Speaker of the House James K. Polk surged on late roll calls of the states, finally won the nomination on the 9th ballot, and went on to be elected president. 

In 1848 Van Buren again sought the nomination, opposing any expansion of slavery in territory taken in the Mexican War. Michigan Senator Lewis Cass, who supported “popular sovereignty” to determine the future expansion of slavery in new territories, won the nomination.  Van Buren had formed a faction (the “Barnburners”) in his home state New York Democratic Party, totally opposing the expansion of slavery and withdrawing from the convention proceedings when the rest of the New York Democrats were seated. Van Buren went ahead and formed a third party, the Free Soil Party, merging the “Barnburner” faction, the “Conscience Whigs” (an antislavery faction which opposed the nomination of slaveowner and Mexican War General Zachary Taylor), and remnants of the small Liberty Party, which had competed for the presidency in 1840 and 1844, seeing an elevenfold growth in its support from the first to the second election.

Van Buren secured as his running mate Charles Francis Adams, Sr., the son of John Quincy Adams and grandson of John Adams, who was often considered in later life as a potential presidential candidate on his own.  He would serve as Envoy to the United Kingdom during the Civil War presidency of Abraham Lincoln and also under Andrew Johnson, helping to ensure that the British would not recognize the Confederate States of America.  This was an attractive ticket of a former president and a son and grandson of former presidents. The ticket finished second in New York and Massachusetts. Those two states accounted for about 160,000 of the 290,000 votes that Free Soil won nationally (10 percent of the national popular vote). More importantly, these results helped decide the election in favor of Whig nominee Zachary Taylor, who won the national popular vote by only about 138,000 votes but, by capturing New York’s 36 and Massachusetts’s 12 electoral votes, secured a 167-123 electoral college victory. Van Buren would go on to support Abraham Lincoln at the time of the outbreak of the Civil War, before his passing in 1862.

Millard Fillmore (1850-1853) succeeded Zachary Taylor (1849-1850) as a Whig president, after only 16 months of Taylor’s term.  He finished out the remaining 32 months of the term, and faced a major crisis with the debate over the Compromise of 1850 regarding the status of slavery in territory taken from Mexico.  While it seemed clear, although not publicly known, that Taylor planned to veto the Compromise of 1850, Fillmore ultimately decided to sign the Compromise, which caused much upset in many quarters, but in retrospect, delayed the eventual Civil War by a decade, giving the Northern states the ability to industrialize and gain higher population growth than the future Southern Confederacy.  Fillmore also worked to enforce the highly unpopular Fugitive Slave Law, which gave him support in the South.  Fillmore sought to be elected to his own term as president in 1852, but at the Whig convention, he was defeated by Mexican War General Winfield Scott on the 53rd ballot, as what Fillmore had done since 1850 bitterly divided the nation and the party which had elected him vice president in 1848.

By 1856, the Whig Party had dissolved and been replaced by the Republican Party, which joined opponents of expanding slavery with outright abolitionist elements. So a vacuum had opened for a third party, the American (“Know Nothing”) Party, which was nativist, opposed to immigration by Catholics from Ireland and Germany.  Fillmore had never been a member of this party or attended any of its gatherings. However, seeking the prestige of a former president, the party convention nominated him while he was in Europe. Fillmore did not fully realize what the American Party stood for, and was clearly not a nativist or particularly anti-Catholic in his utterances.  He ran his campaign more on the prestige of seeking office once again.  Seen as a moderate alternative to the new Republican Party candidate John C. Fremont and Democrat James Buchanan, the former Whig president managed to win 873,000 popular votes, 21.6 percent of the national vote, and the 8 electoral votes of the state of Maryland, ironically the original Catholic haven in the colonial period under Lord Baltimore. 

Fillmore later opposed secession of the South and supported the use of force by President Abraham Lincoln, but was critical of his specific war policies, and later was a strong supporter of the besieged President Andrew Johnson, who faced impeachment in 1868.

Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) succeeded the assassinated President William McKinley (1897-1901), and was the first vice president to succeed to the presidency during a term and then go on to win election in 1904. At the time, this was seen as a ringing endorsement of his first three and a half years in office.  In a moment of exultation, however, Roosevelt made a blunder by proclaiming that he would not run again in 1908, following the tradition set by George Washington in the 1790s, that two terms in the presidency were enough.  Having put himself into a situation that he felt he could not reverse, he ended up promoting his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, a close friend and longtime colleague, to be his successor.  Taft ended up winning a clearcut victory over third-time presidential contender William Jennings Bryan in 1908, and Roosevelt went home to Oyster Bay, New York and Sagamore Hill, believing Taft would follow his path of “progressivism.” He soon set off on a grand tour of Europe, after visiting East and Central Africa and engaging in a safari on an expedition to gather specimens for the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  Roosevelt was wined and dined as he traveled through Europe, and was referred to by many as the greatest man in the world, after meeting many major European government leaders. 

While he was gone from America, however, President Taft was involved in many political disputes within his own divided Republican Party, as progressives in the party had emerged as major rivals of the traditionally conservative Congressional leadership.  So when Roosevelt came home, he was dismayed at the inability of Taft to manage the clashing wings of his party, which the former president had done with more success during his seven and a half years in the White House.  As a result, Roosevelt became disillusioned with Taft, and started to formulate, in his correspondence and contacts within the Republican Party, a plan to challenge Taft for the 1912 Republican presidential nomination. 

In August 1910, a few months after his return from his foreign travels, Roosevelt journeyed to the heartland of America, and gave an electrifying speech at Osawatomie, Kansas, enunciating his expanded ideas of progressivism beyond his earlier “Square Deal” to promote “The New Nationalism,” much of which would be adopted later by Democratic Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.  After the disappointing midterm elections of 1910, which progressives blamed on Taft, congressional progressives led by Senator Robert LaFollette, Sr. of Wisconsin and California Governor Hiram Johnson, moved to challenge Taft. LaFollette announced his candidacy for the White House when Roosevelt initially reneged on running against his own successor.  But once LaFollette became an announced presidential candidate, he was attacked by the conservative national media. Roosevelt saw an opening, and announced his run against Taft on February 24, 1912.

The battle for the Republican presidential nomination became heated, as Roosevelt was able to gain support in the states that used the new method of selecting convention delegates through presidential primaries, but only about a third of the states chose delegates this way.  So Taft ended up easily winning the nomination, and Roosevelt decided he would not endorse his successor, but instead would run for president on a third party line.

Roosevelt chose to use the name “Progressive” for his third party effort, and used the Bull Moose that he had mounted in his den in Oyster Bay as the symbol of the new party. There were well-known animal symbols for parties by the late 19th century, including Thomas Nast’s famous depiction of the Republicans as elephants and the opposition Democrats as donkeys.   So the “Bull Moose” Progressive Party was named, and chose California Governor Hiram Johnson as Roosevelt’s running mate.  Roosevelt campaigned on calls for vigorous government intervention to protect the people from “selfish interests.”  The campaign was halted for nearly two weeks after Roosevelt was the victim of an assassination attempt (covered in Chapter 5 of my 2015 book Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama) by John Flammang Schrank in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Roosevelt, though bleeding, insisted on giving his planned speech at the local auditorium before going to the hospital, and didn’t have the bullet removed. 

Roosevelt gained an amazing amount of public support, particularly after being wounded, but a third-party effort was doomed to ultimate failure because of the traditional two party system.  However, he accomplished the greatest third party performance in American history, ending up second in electoral votes, winning 88 votes from six states in the Northeast, Midwest, and Pacific Coast, although he did not penetrate the Democratic Party South.  He won 4.1 million popular votes, and 27.5 percent of the total national vote, leaving the sitting president Taft in third place with 3.5 million votes, only 8 electoral votes and 2 states supporting him, the worst defeat for a sitting president in the history of the presidency before and since.  Roosevelt had been much more “progressive” than winning Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, as Roosevelt had supported women’s suffrage and child labor laws, which Wilson believed were issues to be dealt with statewide, not by the federal government. Roosevelt went on to become a critic of Wilson’s conduct of the “Great War,” having suffered the loss of his youngest son, Quentin, who was killed at 20 years of age in 1918 in aerial combat in France. Roosevelt passed away at age 60 a few months later.  But he had remained in public life, constantly outspoken and frequently controversial.

The common theme that comes out from the three failed attempts of former presidents to return to the White House on a third party line is that such efforts are doomed to failure, due to our traditional two party system. Moreover, the victor in such elections has thus far always been the candidate from the opposition party. Should Donald Trump run against the Republican Party establishment on a third party line in 2024, it seems safe to say that it would harm the Republicans, and increase the likelihood of the Democratic Party retaining the White House in 2024.

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