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America’s last major party businessman-candidate

October 9, 2015

willkie

One reason to disregard Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency — and Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson as well, for that matter — regardless of what his present standing in the polls might suggest, is a look over the resumes of the men who captured the nominations of the major parties in previous elections. Here for example, is a rundown of the most recent position held by recent Republican nominees:

    • 2012: Mitt Romney, Governor of Massachusetts
    • 2008: John McCain, Senator for Arizona
    • 2004: George W. Bush, President
    • 2000: George W. Bush, Governor of Texas
    • 1996: Bob Dole, Senate Majority Leader
    • 1992: George H.W. Bush, President
    • 1988: George H.W. Bush, Vice President
    • 1984: Ronald Reagan, President
    • 1980: Ronald Reagan, Governor of California
    • 1976: Gerald Ford, President
    • 1972: Richard Nixon, President
    • 1968: Richard Nixon, Vice President
    • 1964: Barry Goldwater, Senator for Arizona
    • 1960: Richard Nixon, Vice President

And finally, in 1952, the pattern breaks, with Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had been the supreme Allied commander in Europe during the Second World War. Even the candidates with unconventional ideologies like Goldwater or backgrounds, like Reagan, had still campaigned for, and won, lower political offices.

Lewis L. Gould looks at the most recent major party candidate to gain the nomination from a non-political background: Wendell Willkie, the Republican Party candidate opposing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third term–bid in 1940:

Here was a candidate for eastern Republicans who was an opponent of parts, but not all of the New Deal. On foreign policy, Willkie said, “it makes a great deal of difference to us—politically, economically, and emotionally—what kind of world exists beyond our shores.” Suddenly, Willkie seemed more exciting to Republicans than the blandness of Taft and the evasions of Dewey.

Seventy-five years ago, it was still possible for a candidate such as Willkie to seize the nomination. There were fewer primaries than today and the party structure was more fluid. Because there was no clear front-runner, Willkie divided and conquered. “Willkie for President” clubs sprang up across the nation. Every down-tick in the international news made Willkie more appealing. By the time the Republicans met in Philadelphia, the Willkie bandwagon was rolling. The crowds in the galleries chanted “We want Willkie,” and the delegates yielded to what seemed an irresistible tide.

Alas, Willkie’s campaign peaked the day he was nominated. In his acceptance speech he referred to “you Republicans.” A wag likened the disorganized Willkie campaign to “a whorehouse on Saturday night when the madam is out and all the girls are running around dropping nickels in juke boxes.” By October, with the polls showing him behind the president, Willkie played the isolationist card. “Our boys shall stay out of Europe.” Roosevelt countered with famous assurances that “your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war.” When he heard Roosevelt’s words, Willkie said, “That hypocritical son of a bitch! This is going to beat me.”

And how did the Willkie experiment work out?

Roosevelt beat Willkie by five million votes and 449 to 82 in the Electoral College.

Ah.

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