The presidential spoilers are the most interesting of political candidates because they do not seek to win. Instead, a spoiler seeks to thwart another candidate’s; usually an incumbent president’s, election or re-election.
Spoilers usually come from inside a candidate’s party and they often have an ideological ax to grind with the party establishment. A spoiler, for example, often accuses the standard bearer of betraying the party’s principles.
However, jealousy, ambition, and frustration often motivate spoilers. We need to examine spoilers because two of them are trying to ruin President Donald J. Trump’s (R-New York) coronation in 2020.
Meet the Republican Spoilers of 2012
First, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld is running on the hate Trump ticket. Weld’s agenda is return the Republican party to the fiscal conservatism and Libertarianism of the Reagan years. Interestingly, Weld was the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential candidate in 2016.
Weld’s war cry is “Trump is evil and must be destroyed at all costs.” Dramatically, Weld is demanding Trump’s impeachment if the president wins a Second Term, Inside Journal reports. Weld’s campaign; however, is attracting little attention despite his fiery rhetoric.
Second, former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh (R-Illinois) is challenging Trump from a national conservative standpoint. I think Walsh is the bigger threat to the Donald because the president has not delivered on some of his promises. In particular, Trump has proven himself almost as big a warmonger as President George W. Bush (R-Texas).
Walsh is trying to prove national conservatism is viable without Trump. Strangely, Walsh could kill national conservatism if his campaign fails. To explain, if Walsh attracts no attention; he proves national conservatism has no grassroots support.
Third, there is at least one other potential spoiler, former South Carolina governor and Congressman Mark Sanford (R) waiting in the wings. Sanford, is a fiscal conservative who has folk hero status because of his refusal to compromise his values.
Sanford blames Trump for the loss of his seat in the House of Representatives. To explain, Trump endorsed former State Representative Katie Arrington’s primary challenge to Sanford in 2018. Arrington won the primary but lost the general election to Democrat Joe Cunningham in an upset. Fox News claims Sanford will decide on a primary run on 2 September 2019.
Interestingly, Trump supporters heckled Sanford at a rally for Vice President Mike Pence (R-Indiana) in Greenville South Carolina on 25 August 2019, The Greenville News reports.
Presidential Spoilers in History
History shows that spoilers can disrupt a presidential campaign and wreck a standard bearer’s reelection.
The campaigns of several notable spoilers show us how long-shot candidates could make Trump’s life miserable next year. Famous spoilers that show how 2020 could turn out include:
Theodore Roosevelt 1912
The first and most successful presidential spoiler in American history was ex-president Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York).
Roosevelt had left office in 1909 believing his friend William Howard Taft (R-Ohio) would continue his progressive agenda. Taft’s low-key ways were not dramatic enough for ordinary progressives who wanted Teddy back.
Moreover, Taft offended Roosevelt by firing TR’s good friend Forest Service boss Gifford Pinchot in 1909. Pincot accused Taft of illegally selling government lands. Out of office, Pinchot launched a smear campaign against Taft that morphed into a grassroots movement to draft Roosevelt for President.
Roosevelt went along, but conservative state leaders blocked his bid for the 1912 Republican nomination. Instead, the Grand Old Party (GOP) nominated Taft for a second term. An angry Roosevelt launched a third party bid on the Bull Moose, or Progressive, ticket.
The result was the worst debacle in GOP history. Governor Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey) won the presidency with 435 Electoral College votes, 270 to Win calculates. Roosevelt won an impressive 88 Electoral College votes with a hastily organized campaign. In the final count, Teddy humiliated Taft who won just eight Electoral College Votes.
Thus, Roosevelt nearly destroyed the Republican Party and drove progressives to the Democrats. Yet he achieved his goal of denying Taft a second term. Strangely, both Taft and Roosevelt recovered from the debacle of 1912.
Teddy returned to the GOP, became a popular spokesman for American entry into World War I. By the time of his death in 1919, pundits considered Roosevelt the Republican presidential favorite for 1920. President Warren G. Harding (R-Ohio) appointed Taft Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
J. Strom Thurmond & Henry A. Wallace in 1948
Governor Strom J. Thurmond (D-South Carolina) and Vice President Henry A. Wallace (D-Iowa) were very different men with divergent agendas. Yet they had one goal in 1948; deny President Harry S. Truman (D-Missouri) a second term.
Truman angered the racist Thurmond by championing Civil Rights and desegregating the military. Wallace was angry because Truman was willing to fight a Cold War against the Soviet Union. Foolishly, Wallace and his followers believed the Soviet Union was utopia and Joseph Stalin a genius.
Each man launched a third party challenge to Truman. Thurmond ran on the improvised Dixiecrat ticket. Wallace on the Progressive Party. Thurmond’s base was Southern segregationists, Wallace’s backers were northern and western intellectuals. Yet their agenda was the same spoil Truman’s day.
In the final analysis, all Thurmond and Wallace proved was there was no national popular support for their causes. Thurmond only received 1.169 million popular votes and 189 Electoral Votes in the general election, 270 to Win estimates. Wallace won 1.157 million popular votes and no electors.
In the final battle, Truman won reelection with 303 Electoral votes and 24.106 million popular votes Governor Thomas E. Dewey (R-New York) received 189 Electoral votes and 21.969 million popular votes.
Henry A. Wallace quickly faded into obscurity while Thurmond become one of the longest serving Senators in U.S. history. Voters elected Thurmond to the Senate in 1954, he served until 2003.
George Wallace in 1964
1948 was the last year in which a third party was a realistic alternative for a spoiler. In 1964, Governor George C. Wallace (D-Alabama) weaponized the primaries and set the stage for modern spoilers with a brief challenge to President Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas).
Johnson angered the staunch segregationist Wallace; no relation to Henry, by aggressively promoting Civil Rights. Wallace retaliated by trekking north and throwing his hat into the Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary.
Pundits were shocked when Wallace received 34% of the primary vote in Wisconsin running on a blatantly racist platform. Wallace did LBJ no immediate harm, the president won reelection with an astonishing 486 Electoral votes to Republican Barry M. Goldwater’s (Arizona) 52 votes, 270 to Win estimates.
However, Wallace exposed deep divisions in the Democratic Party and White America, Republicans quickly took advantage of. More importantly, Wallace showed how primaries could hurt and embarrass incumbents and party standard bearers.
George C. Wallace, made three more forays into presidential politics. In 1968, Wallace won an impressive 46 Electoral votes on the American Independent Ticket (Dixiecrat) third-party ticket. In 1972, a would-be assassin shot Wallace, and paralyzed him below the waste, on the Democratic primary campaign trail. In 1976, Wallace lost the Democratic primary to Governor Jimmy Carter (D-Georgia).
Eugene McCarthy in 1968
Wallace’s example came back to haunt LBJ four years later. During his second term, Johnson destroyed the Democratic coalition with his brutal war in Vietnam.
Like anti-Trump Republicans today, anti-war Democrats in 1968 were numerous, but they lacked a standard bearer. Anti-war liberals went around the country begging prominent Democrats to challenge Johnson in the primary.
Eventually, one of them; U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-Minnesota), accepted and made history. The straight-laced McCarthy was an old foe of Johnson’s who saw an opportunity for revenge on the president.
McCarthy changed American politics and destroyed Johnson by winning 42.2% of the vote in the March 12, 1968, New Hampshire primary. McCarthy’s upset victory caught the attention of the opportunistic U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-New York), who threw his hat into the ring eight days later.
On 31 March 1968, Johnson shocked the world by exiting the presidential race in a televised press conference. Ironically, LBJ had just lost the Wisconsin presidential primary.
Ultimately, neither McCarthy nor Kennedy achieved the nomination. Tragically, a race track gambler assassinated Kennedy right after he won the California Democratic primary. Meanwhile, Johnson got his revenge by blocking McCarthy’s nomination.
Instead, Democrats nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey (D-Minnesota) at a convention marred by riots. Predictably, Republican Richard M. Nixon (R-California) easily won the presidency by a margin of 301 to 191 Electoral College votes 270 to Win calculates.
McCarthy left the senate in 1970 and faded into obscurity after lackluster presidential campaigns in 1972 and 1976. In 1982, McCarthy’s political career ended with a defeat in a Minnesota U.S. Senate race.
Ted Kennedy 1980
Strangely, Ted Kennedy probably had no desire for the presidency. Yet, Kennedy became one of the most destructive presidential spoilers in 1980.
Edward Moore Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) had one of the longest and most productive careers in the United States Senate. Kennedy served for decades; passed many pieces of groundbreaking legislation, and became the nation’s greatest champion of liberalism.
Those accomplishments would have satisfied a normal person, but Ted was a Kennedy of Massachusetts. He was honor bound to achieve his father’s dreams, avenge his fallen brothers, and vindicate Irish America by running for President.
Yet Ted’s one presidential campaign was a brutal long-shot spoiler challenge to President Jimmy Carter (D-Georgia). Kennedy’s beef with Carter is hard to discern after all these years. However, Kennedy may have felt the lukewarm moderate Carter was betraying his brothers’ progressive legacy.
Tellingly, Kennedy refused to launch presidential challenges in other years more friendly to Democrats; such as 1976,1992, 2000, and 2008. Instead, Ted ran in Reagan’s year and lost.
However, running in 1980 fulfilled Kennedy’s familial obligations and allowed him to keep the Senate seat he loved until his death. In addition, Kennedy got to spoil the day of a man he disliked Jimmy Carter.
Kennedy died of brain cancer in 2014 and got lionized by the press as a national icon. Carter; despite his reputation as a devout Christian, never forgave Kennedy. In fact, Carter criticized Kennedy on nationwide TV after his death.
By venting the frustrations of disappointed progressives, Kennedy showed how primaries can damage an incumbent. Kennedy also demonstrated how fragile political coalitions often are.
Pat Buchanan 1992
1992 was supposed to be President George H. W. Bush’s (R-Texas) year, until Patrick J. Buchanan threw his hat into the presidential ring.
After all Bush had just won both the Cold War and the First Gulf War. In addition, most Americans seemed satisfied with Bush’s moderate neoliberal economics and interventionist foreign policy.
Pundit Patrick J. Buchanan disagreed and set out to prove Bush wrong and succeeded. Like many ordinary people, the Cold War’s end disappointed Buchanan when America did not scale back its military and diplomatic commitments when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Furthermore, Buchanan felt the new trade-based global economy was not working for ordinary Americans. Instead, Buchanan wanted a return to the traditional Republican policy of tariffs and protection for American industry. Finally, Buchanan dared question the wisdom of unfettered immigration.
Despite his apostate positions, Buchanan was a member of the Republican leadership. He had been a close adviser and confidante to President Richard M. Nixon. In addition, Buchanan was a fixture on the editorial pages and TV news shows which gave him a national audience.
The pundit class dismissed Buchanan as a joke but voters had the last laugh. Buchanan received 40% of the vote in the 1992 New Hampshire Republican primary, The New York Times estimates. The columnist and TV commentator went onto win three million votes in the GOP primaries.
Frightened Republicans let Buchanan speak at their 1992 convention and deliver the unsettling Cultural Civil War tirade. Despite that olive branch, Buchanan’s estrangement with the GOP kept growing.
He made two more spoiler attempts in 1996 and in 2000. In 2000, Buchanan’s third-party bid on the Reform Ticket brought in $12.5 million in federal funds, Britanica.com estimates.
Buchanan left active politics after 2000 and now concentrates on commentary and publishing ventures. Interestingly, Buchanan’s influence as a thinker grew dramatically after his presidential run. I consider his American Conservative among the most thoughtful and intelligent of political websites.
In the final analysis, Buchanan was a man ahead of his time. Pat was among the first to sense the widespread unease average people had with the Post-Cold War economic order. In addition, he helped sparked the working-class revolt against that order that has spread worldwide.
In 2016, Buchanan had his improbable revenge when the buffoonish Donald J. Trump bested a dream team of mainstream Republicans in the GOP primary. Interestingly, Trump based his campaign on many of the issues Buchanan raised in 1992; including immigration, opposition to free trade, and isolationism. Incredibly, Trump defeated the sainted Hillary Clinton (D-New York) in the general election.
Buchanan’s 1992 surprise shows spoilers are often better judges of popular opinion than the party leaders. In fact, Buchanan was nearly alone among the leadership class when he sensed how uncomfortable the American people were uncomfortable with Bush’s New World Order.
Bernie Sanders 2016
In 2016, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) wrote a new chapter in the spoiler story with his disruptive challenge to Hillary R. Clinton (D-New York).
Unlike Buchanan, Sanders was far outside both the political mainstream and the Democratic establishment. In fact, Sanders calls himself a Social Democrat. Sanders is an unapologetic admirer of both European social democracies and the technocratic People’s Republic of China.
In his 14 month campaign Sanders went from an obscure Senator from a small state to a national political figure. Effectively, Sanders used the primary as a soapbox to make himself a celebrity and interject his agenda into the national debate. Thanks to his primary celebrity, Sanders has inspired clothing lines, Saturday Night Live skits, and even a dating app, Vox claims.
The Sanders revolution began in January 2016, when Bernie tied Hillary in Iowa Caucus. The Socialist Senator went onto raise $77 million in small digital contributions and won the New Hampshire primary by a 22% margin, Vox estimates.
Sanders won 13.2 million votes; or 43% of the ballots cast, in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, The Green Papers estimates. By fatally wounding Hillary; and laying bare the conflicts in the Democratic Party, Sanders destroyed the neo-liberal consensus built by President Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas).
Ultimately, Sanders’ most disruptive achievement is showing how politicians can use presidential primaries to build a powerful political movement. The Democratic Party is quietly, and painfully, adopting many of Sanders’ policies including single-payer healthcare, (Medicare for All), free college, and free-trade skepticism.
Sanders is now a serious presidential contender, who receives the support of 24% of Democrats in an August 2019 Emerson Poll. Interestingly, Emerson estimates Sanders and three other leftists; U.S. Senator Liz Warren (D-Massachusetts), U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) and Andrew Yang (D-New York), are receiving the support of 52% of likely Democratic primary voters.
By using a primary run to build a national political brand Bernie shows how to use a spoiler challenge to change the national agenda. However, it is too early to tell if Sanders is a flash in the pan or a model for future politics.
Only time will tell if spoiler challenges to Donald J. Trump (R-New York) can remake the Republican Party. However, history teaches that the Donald can expect some nasty primary surprises next year. Particularly if media claims that Republicans are uncomfortable with Trump are true.