Splintered parties lose elections: Lessons from past presidential campaigns

Abraham Lincoln was able to ride to victory against a divided Democratic Party in 1860.

Abraham Lincoln was able to ride to victory against a divided Democratic Party in 1860.

We can all watch and enjoy the disarray, confusion, disgruntlement, and sheer terror on the Republican side during this presidential election season. Betting markets, according to a story on Huffington Post, now put the odds of a contested GOP convention as high as 61 percent.

The GOP establishment shudders at the thought of real estate mogul Donald Trump as the Republican nominee, fearing he will hurt races further down the ballot. Given Trump’s recent behavior and statements, he may be on an electoral suicide mission, although his ego is probably too big to willingly give up becoming the narcissist in chief.

Many party elites are settling for the much-disliked Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whom Arizona Sen. John McCain once described as a “wacko bird” and even once questioned his eligibility to run because of his Canadian birth. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who seems to be holding his nose while endorsing Cruz, once suggested that the difference between Trump and Cruz was “like being shot or poisoned,” although he told Daily Show host Trevor Noah that at least there might be an antidote for poison. There are GOP forces frantically racing to figure out how to derail Trump should he fall short of the 1,273 delegates needed for a first-ballot win. The possibility of a brokered convention has journalists salivating, although a contested convention will certainly hurt the eventual Republican nominee—no matter who it is.

But let’s not ignore divisions among Democrats. Some who are feeling the Bern say they will never vote for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should she become the Democratic standard-bearer. Those voters are likely a minority of supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, but every voter makes his or her own decision that he or she will have to live with. Should Sanders become the Democratic nominee, most Clinton backers seem to be clear that they will vote for him.

Presidential election political history shows us that, for the most part, intra-party squabbles don’t turn out well for the divided party. Let’s look at some of that party infighting from past years in depth to see who won, who lost, and how the party suffered.

The Pew Research Center developed a comprehensive timeline about presidential elections when there were major splinters in U.S. political parties. The splits occurred for both Democrats and Republicans, starting with the 1860 election (1836 is included in this list, just for fun). There are some exceptions, but on the whole, the split party ended up losing, as you might expect. Besides the data from the Pew timeline, much of this information comes from 270towin.com, one of the many online sites that cover and break down every presidential election while making predictions about the state of this year’s race, as well as other sources.

1836: This wasn’t so much a splinter as a wacky and novel strategy from the Whig Party: Run four different candidates in different areas of the country, hoping that the multiple candidates would be more popular than Democratic Vice President Martin Van Buren and thus throw the race to the House of Representatives. It didn’t work, although one of the Whig candidates, William Henry Harrison, came close. He would beat Van Buren four years later, only to die one month after inauguration.

1860: During the run-up to the Civil War, Democrats held no fewer than three separate conventions, with the Northern and Southern wings split over slavery. At the first convention, on April 23, Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas was favored but faced fierce opposition from the “fire-eaters” in the party’s Deep South pro-slavery wing. They were afraid of the moderate party platform that advocated “popular sovereignty,” or the right of territories and new states to decide the slavery question for themselves. The fire-eaters clamored for secession. Here is a description focusing on the Virginia delegation, from the Encyclopedia Virginia:

But events turned sharply. William Lowndes Yancey, a staunch secessionist from Alabama, addressed the convention and invoked the specter of John Brown in a passionate rejection of “Northern violence.” Yancey, along with Edmund Ruffin of Virginia and Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina, forcefully argued that John Brown’s Raid in October 1859 had revealed the North’s true intention to dominate the South and forcibly emancipate enslaved African Americans. Southern radicals called for a federal slave code that would guarantee slaveholders’ rights, and for protections for slavery in western territories. The Douglas wing of the party realized that such provocative tactics would alienate moderate Northern voters and drive them to the Republicans. Douglas’s supporters rejected the proposal. Fifty Southern delegates left the convention in protest.

With 50 delegates gone, the remaining Southerners were split between hard-liners seeking secession and those hoping to keep the country—and the party—together. Virginians were split, with a former governor and a state senator jockeying for the nomination. After 57(!) ballots, Douglas still didn’t have the two-thirds majority needed for nomination.

(Can you imagine the cable TV coverage of 57 ballots at a political convention? All of the cable news channels would try to outdo each other with the latest and greatest electronic big boards and holographic images. Normally dapper anchors would start shedding outer layers and grow wild-eyed as they became over-caffeinated. Wolf Blitzer would be pulling the hairs out of his beard. PredictIt, the New Zealand-based operation that Politico called “an online political stock market,” would be raking in money hand over fist as the odds changed daily or even hourly.)

Back to 1860. Most of the Virginians joined the Southern walkouts, and the convention adjourned. Democrats reconvened on June 18, and 110 fire-eaters walked out, leaving the rest of the delegates finally to nominate Douglas. Southern Democrats had their own convention, the so-called Seceder’s Convention, and nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky.

Meanwhile, the Republicans, seizing the opening left by the divided Democrats, nominated Abraham Lincoln on the third ballot at their convention. Just for fun, a group calling itself the Constitutional Union Party nominated John Bell of Kentucky, a wealthy slaveowner. With a divided electorate and a four-man race, Lincoln received 40 percent of the popular vote and 180 electoral votes, just barely enough to squeak out a win.

1864: Enough Radical Republicans were disappointed with Lincoln’s handling of the Civil War that they briefly formed their own Radical Democracy Party, nominating Army Gen. John C. Frémont and calling for a constitutional amendment banning slavery, among other demands. But Frémont, fearing that the race would be tilted toward the Democrats, withdrew from contention, and Lincoln won re-election.

1872: Liberal Republicans were unhappy with the status quo—this time the administration of President Ulysses Grant—and nominated New York Tribune Editor Horace Greeley as their standard-bearer on a Liberal Republican ticket. Of course, the Democrats also nominated Greeley. Even with the backing of two parties (or maybe one and a half), Greeley was trounced by Grant—one of the few times splintering didn’t matter.

1884: Some Republicans were again angry and upset about their nominee, the moderate James G. Blaine, a former congressman, senator, and secretary of state from Maine who had been accused of bribery. These Republicans formed a separate faction and were derisively called “Mugwumps” by regular Republicans, using the Algonquian word for chief or leader. The Mugwumps swung their support to the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, who won a narrow victory, becoming the first Democrat to win since 1856.

William Jennings Bryan with the text of his famous speech.

William Jennings Bryan with the text of his famous speech.

1896: Both parties faced divisions in this election. The Democrats nominated former Nebraska Rep. William Jennings Bryan, who favored boosting the money supply with silver coinage, or using a “bimetallism” standard (this was the year of Bryan’s famous “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” speech at the Democratic National Convention). Bryan blamed the gold standard for Americans’ money woes, including the recession of 1893. But a breakout group of “Bourbon Democrats” thought Bryan was too young (he was 36 and the youngest man ever nominated) and brash, and by September they had a separate nominee, Illinois Sen. John Palmer, but at 79 years old, his candidacy went nowhere.

The Republican nominee, Ohio Gov. William McKinley, backed keeping the gold standard. Republicans from Western states where a lot of silver was mined rebelled and became “Silver Democrats,” turning their support to Bryan. (These party breakers are sometimes referred to as “Silver Democrats,” “Silver Republicans,” “Gold Democrats,” and “Gold Republicans.” Whatever they’re called, they caused headaches for the party standard-bearers.)

Complicating the electoral picture even more was the National Populist Party, which strove for economic reforms and stressed the importance of the nation’s agricultural base. Those in this camp were a divided group; they also nominated Bryan as their presidential candidate, although they chose a different man for vice president.

This election also is seen as a “realignment” election in U.S. politics, as voters moved beyond the traditional issues of agrarian (rural farmers) interests vs. industrial (city) interests, and was the last time a party’s nominee tried to base a win solely on a majority of rural votes. It also marked the beginning of the modern campaign era in that Bryan, a gifted orator, actually campaigned widely. But whatever his political and oratorical skills, Bryan lost in 1896 and also lost a rematch with McKinley in 1900. The ongoing Democratic divisions kept Republicans in power until the 1912 election.

1912: The Republicans were doomed in this election because former President Theodore Roosevelt and his followers bolted the party so he could run on his own in the Progressive Party, often called the Bull Moose Party (Roosevelt had once referred to himself as being “as strong as a bull moose”). Vice President Roosevelt became president after McKinley’s assassination in 1901. He decided to honor his two-term limit pledge and did not run in 1908. But he became angry that his Republican successor, President William Howard Taft, did not complete Roosevelt’s progressive agenda, siding with the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Roosevelt performed better than any other third-party candidate in the post-Civil War era with 4.1 million popular votes and 88 electoral votes, even out-polling Taft. With the Republicans split, Democrat Woodrow Wilson won that election in a landslide. The Democrats captured both houses of Congress at the same time.

1924: Democrats were split in this election. The party nominated a little-known conservative Democrat, former West Virginia Rep. John Davis. Liberal Democrats instead turned to Wisconsin Sen. Robert LaFollette, who ran as the Progressive Party candidate. Incumbent President Calvin Coolidge, who had taken office after the death of President Warren Harding, won with the largest popular vote margin (25 points) in U.S. history.

1928: Northern and Southern Democrats were divided over the party’s nominee, New York Gov. Al Smith, for multiple reasons. Smith was a Catholic, he was part of New York’s Tammany Hall political machine, and he did not favor Prohibition. Enough white Southern Democrats, or “Hoovercrats,” turned their backs on their nominee to elect Republican Herbert Hoover—Smith carried only six Southern states and only nine states overall, even losing his home state of New York.

President Truman was never so happy to see polls proved wrong.

President Truman was never so happy to see polls proved wrong.

1948: President Harry Truman had divisions on both sides of his party in this election. Southern Democrats, or “Dixiecrats,” who were angry at Truman’s civil rights push nominated South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond to run in the States’ Rights Democratic Party. Liberal Democrats backed former Vice President Henry Wallace in the Progressive Party. But this was one instance where Truman overcame the polls and the party divide and beat Republican Thomas Dewey in a close race (even if the Chicago Tribune got it wrong with the famous “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” headline).

1960: Once again, Southern Democrats were angry at the civil rights platform of their party and their candidate, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy. Several Southern states tried to run slates of “unpledged” presidential electors, hoping to steer the race to the House of Representatives. When it came time to tally up electoral votes, Democratic Virginia Sen. Harry Byrd received 15 electoral votes from the unpledged group, but it wasn’t enough to make a difference in Kennedy’s win over Vice President Richard Nixon.

1964: The state of the Republican Party in 1964 has some parallels to the 2016 race (although between the “hot wife” competition, the bragging about penis size, and the general policy lunacy, we’re beyond parallels to any election). Prominent moderate Republicans refused to back the GOP nominee, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, and he lost in a landslide to President Lyndon Johnson.

1968: You could argue that Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s candidacy in the American Independent Party took Democratic votes away from Vice President Hubert Humphrey, but you’d probably be wrong. Wallace won five Southern states and 46 electoral votes (one from North Carolina), but with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the South was headed away from the Democratic Party anyway, even before Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” of appealing to disaffected white Southern voters. Nixon swept the South when he was re-elected in 1972. And no third-party candidate has won electoral votes since.

History shows us that splintered parties are for losers, even worse than the kind Trump always derides. Even the folks at Fox News say there’s “internal strife” over Trump within the fake news network.

If historical precedent is correct, with Republican divisions, a unified Democratic Party will win in November. So let’s pledge to be unified.

Originally published on Daily Kos on April 3, 2016.

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