There have many electoral defeats in American presidential history. However, some defeats stand out because they were enormous.
Moreover, I think these defeats explain some perplexing recent behavior of Republican politicians. For instance, the 147 Congressional Republicans who voted against the certification of President Joe Biden’s (D-Delaware) election.
To elaborate, many Republicans fear their party will suffer electoral defeats similar to some of these historical defeats if party members fight over ex-President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida).
Some of the greatest electoral defeats in American presidential history include:
1. President William Howard Taft (R-Ohio) in 1912
Taft’s defeat stands out because 1912 was the only time since before the Civil War, a Republican or a Democrat came in third in a presidential election. Moreover, Taft was a sitting president who had won an impressive victory in 1908.
In 1908, Taft defeated William Jennings Bryan (D-Nebraska) by a comfortable margin of 321 to 162 Electoral College votes. In 1912, Taft won only eight Electoral College votes. Moreover, Taft carried just two states; Vermont and Utah. The victor in 1912, Governor Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey) won an astounding 435 Electoral College votes.
What happened? In 1912, ex-president Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York) was the popular favorite with the vast majority of Republicans. However, the Republican establishment blocked Teddy’s insurgent challenge to Taft’s nomination.
Consequently, Roosevelt and his supporters walked out of the Republican Party and formed their own third party – the Progressive or Bull Moose Party. Most Republicans voted for Teddy or Wilson.
Taft’s defeat weighs heavily on today’s Republicans because the Republican situation in 2021 resembles 1912. Most Republicans support a popular but controversial ex-president Donald J. Trump (R-Florida). For instance, a 13 January 2021 Morning Consult-Politico poll found 75% of Republicans approve of Trump.
However, many GOP leaders including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) fear Trump and want to keep him out of office. Meanwhile, news reports claim Trump is threatening to start a third party as TR did. The Republican fear is that Trump’s third party, like Teddy’s, will split the vote and make the Grand Old Party un-electable.
There is good news from 1912 for Republicans, however, the GOP did not split up. Instead, in 1916, Teddy returned to the fold and campaigned for party standard bearer Charles Evans Hughes (R-New York).
2. William Jennings Bryan (D-Nebraska) in 1896, and 1900 and 1908
Another Republican fear is that the GOP will become like the Democrats around the turn of the 20th Century.
To explain, Democratic voters only one wanted one presidential candidate rabble rouser William Jennings Bryan (D-Nebraska). However, Bryan was too unpopular to win a presidential race. Thus, the Democratic Party became unelectable for over a decade.
Bryan was a radical populist who was wildly popular in rural areas of the South, West, and Midwest. However, Bryan was unpopular in cities and among the upper classes.
Many people feared Bryan as a demagogue and would-be tyrant as they fear Trump today. Conversely, Bryan’s followers worshiped the Silver-Tongued Orator of the Platte as the savior of the real America and a champion of the common man and American values.
Bryan had other similarities to Trump; he was a racist, a nativist, an isolationist, and a popular celebrity, for instance. Like Trump, Bryan traveled around the country attracting enormous crowds to rallies that scared his opponents.
In another similarity with Trump, increasing income inequality and a growing culture war drove Bryan’s popularity. Bryan became popular by championing the economic interests of small-town merchants, farmers, and workers and attacking the growing power of Robber Barons and Big Business.
Bryan, a devout Christian, unlike Trump, was an opponent of a growing secular and commercial culture many people felt was destroying traditional American values.
However, Bryan was a flawed savior who was incapable of translating his ideas into an effective political program. Hence, Bryan had many of Trump’s character flaws.
Bryan, like Trump, turned presidential politics into class warfare and weakened the Democratic Party. In 1896, Bryan won a surprise victory at the Democratic convention by championing the Free Silver Issue.
To explain, Free Silver was an effort to expand the money supply by minting enormous numbers of silver coins. The hope was that a larger money supply cost boost the spending power and lifestyles of ordinary people. Many people saw Free Silver as a solution to the poverty and economic misery the Depression of 1893 created.
Bryan’s success united America’s elite and many ordinary people behind William McKinley (R-Ohio). Plutocrats donated enormous amounts of money that allowed McKinley to crush Bryan. For example, McKinley’s campaign printed and distributed millions of pamphlets attacking Bryan in many languages.
The most potent McKinley strategy was to convince workers that Bryan’s policies could make their salaries worthless. McKinley also used culture war issues by appealing to Catholic immigrants who feared Bryan’s fundamentalist Christianity.
McKinley won the 1896 election by 271 to 176 Electoral College votes. In anticipation of Joe Biden’s 2020 victory, McKinley carried all the population centers, while Bryan won in the rural regions.
McKinley repeated the same strategy in 1900 and won by 292 to 155 Electoral College Votes. In 1900, McKinley captured several states from Bryan, including Bryan’s home turf of Nebraska. McKinley was more successful in 1900 because of rising prosperity and growing patriotism generated by the Spanish-American War.
Bryan fearing the enormous popularity of President Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York) sat out 1904. In 1908, Bryan challenged TR’s successor, William Howard Taft (R-Ohio) and lost. Taft defeated Bryan by a margin of 321 to 162 Electoral College votes.
Under Bryan, the Democrats shrank steadily, and lost some of their traditional strongholds, including New York and Illinois. However, without Bryan, Democrats won an impressive victory in the 1912 presidential election (see above) by nominating a progressive intellectual Governor Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey).
Wilson was the anti-Bryan. He was Ivy League, well-educated, intellectual, urban, internationalist, imperialist, and upper-class. In contrast to Bryan, Wilson had the support of the party establishment and traditional Democratic allies on Wall Street.
After 1908, Bryan stayed in politics but became a joke. Under Wilson, Bryan became one of America’s worst Secretaries of State. During the 1920s Bryan lost the culture war and became a laughingstock during the Scopes Monkey Trial.
Republicans’ fear today is that Trump will repeat Bryan’s history of fatally dividing the party and discrediting their popular culture war strategies. However, it is possible that a Republican Wilson will appear sideline Trump;, reunite the party, and lead the GOP to victory. Unfortunately, I do not know who that Republican Wilson is.
3. You Know He’s Right but you will never vote for him Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona) in 1964
U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona) was one of the most influential politicians of the 20th Century yet he suffered one of the greatest electoral defeats in presidential history.
Goldwater was ahead of his time, or behind his time, depending on which pundit you ask. A libertarian Goldwater was an early exponent of the low-taxes, small-government conservatism that Ronald Reagan (R-California) rode to victory 16 years later. Goldwater was also the first Republican to oppose Civil Rights legislation, a winning strategy in the South.
Yet many Americans considered Goldwater too extreme. In particular, many feared Goldwater wanted to demolish the New Deal just 30 years after the Great Depression.
In 1964, Goldwater won only 52 Electoral College votes and six states. His opponent Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) won 486 Electoral College votes and 44 states.
Similarly to Trump, Goldwater was an unelectable candidate who had widespread support among the party base. Many rank-and-file Republicans saw Goldwater as a savior and a champion against the excesses of big government.
However, party leaders viewed Goldwater as a dangerous extremist or a crank. The fear of many Republicans today is the party will drift too far right to win elections in most American states as it did in 1964.
In 1964, former Vice President Richard M. Nixon (R-California), a moderate received criticism for supporting Goldwater. Supporting Goldwater gave Nixon goodwill among the Republican base. In 1968, Nixon rode that goodwill to an easy presidential primary victory and two terms in the White House.
I think Hawley and Cruz think they could emulate Nixon. However, Nixon did not incite a lynch mob to attack the Capitol, disrupt Congress, and threaten to hang the Republican Vice President as Trump did. Unlike Trump, Goldwater was an honorable man and a champion of principled conservatism.
4. George McGovern (D-South Dakota) in 1972 the failed crusader
George McGovern and Barry Goldwater had a great deal in common. Both men were US Senators and World War II aviators who took principled stands that ran counter to popular opinion. Those stands cost both men the presidency.
Similarly to Goldwater, McGovern was a highly ethical man many people viewed as a dangerous extremist. McGovern’s campaign was born in 1968 during the opposition to the Vietnam War. As with the Republicans in 1912, Democratic leaders thwarted the party base and blocked the antiwar insurgent U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy’s (D-Minnesota) path to the nomination.
In response, an insurgent movement; similar to the one that swept Goldwater to the Republican nomination, arose. Taking advantage of new party rules and primaries, the insurgents nominated McGovern.
McGovern was an antiwar isolationist and a far-left progressive. In another similarity to Goldwater, McGovern’s campaign was too far ahead of its time. McGovern promoted a basic income and ran on the isolationist platform of “Come Home America.”
Thus, McGovern anticipated both Donald J. Trump; remember America First, and Andrew Yang (D-New York). However, Americans were not ready for either platform in 1972.
McGovern won just 17 Electoral College votes and carried only one state; Massachusetts. Thus, McGovern’s performance was the worst of any major party candidate in the 20th Century. McGovern’s defeat is astonishing because there was no noticeable third party on the ballot in 1972.
McGovern’s opponent, President Richard M. Nixon (R-California) won an astounding 520 Electoral College votes. Nixon was the only presidential candidate in modern history to win almost every state.
The McGovern catastrophe taught a generation of young Democrats; including future Presidents Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas) and Joe Biden (D-Delaware) to avoid ideology and big promises. Instead, such men make no promises and mouth mindless platitudes.
One result of the post-McGovern Democratic Party was that Americans who wanted to take a strong ideological stand joined the Republicans or went the third-party route. Another result of McGovern’s defeat was that some issues; including entitlement expansion and anti-imperialism, became toxic in American politics. Nobody wanted to raise those questions out of suffering a McGovern style defeat.
One fear is that Trump will make isolationism, opposition to free trade, criticism of China, and immigration toxic issues nobody wants to raise. Another is that Post-Trump Republicans will become like Post-McGovern Democrats, appealing only to upper-class suburban whites and ignoring everybody else.
History shows that massive electoral defeats can reshape parties and politicians’ thinking. Fear of such defeats can influence political behavior decades after those debacles.
Consequently, today’s Republicans fear that their party faces massive defeats in the post-Trump era.