Monday, 28 September 2020

What Happens If A Candidate Dies During The US Election?

Note; This post was written over a week before Trump came down with COVID

With the US election the the parties have both nominated their oldest candidates ever in 74 year old Donald Trump and 77 year old Joe Biden (also Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins is 67) during a pandemic no less, which leads to two obvious if uncomfortable questions; a) What would happen if one of them died during the election and b) Has that ever happened before?

The answer to the first question is; "Probably a complete clusterfuck". The second question is one of mere historical trivia and who likes historical trivia and has two thumbs to type with? This guy! So let's do this. Turns out there have indeed been four deaths of Presidential candidates during an election (actually one was a Vice-President but I'm including it as his name was on the ballot). Note; I'm only including candidates from major parties or at least notable minor parties, there may be some hopelessly obscure fringe weirdos nobody has heard of but they had less than zero impact on the election so I don't care. I'm also excluding those potential candidates who possibly could have gotten a nomination but died before that could happen which leaves out Teddy Roosevelt (1920), Huey Long (1936), Bobby Kennedy (1968) and Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell (1968) as their names were never actually on the ballot and may never have been. That leaves us with;

1844 ~ Joeseph Smith - Independent Mormon;


Yes it's that Joseph Smith, best known as the founder of the Mormon Church, Smith also ran for President in 1844 as an independent candidate running against Democrat James Polk and Whig Henry Clay after both parties refused to grant Mormons their own territory, there was also an Abolitionist candidate in James Birney and the Liberty Party. His Vice Presidential candidate was church Elder Sidney Rigdon. The platform was obviously focused on creating a Mormon territory that would give them the authority to raise their own taxes, set their own laws (including allowing polygamy), establish their own police force and National Guard. But Smith also expanded into a full platform that included abolishing slavery (something he had previously opposed) by buying off the slave owners, the money to be raised by selling public lands and cutting the salaries of congress and reducing the size of Congress, they also added banking and tax reform, high tarrifs, abolishing most prisons in favour of re-education, elimination of debtor's prisons, giving the President expanded powers to crush protests and the death penalty for government officials who fail to "uphold the constitution". The Mormons were already unpopular which is why Smith wanted his own territory and military so he could crush his own enemies and in fact he already had his own private militia. As happened it turned out to be insufficient as he was assassinated in by a mob after he was arrested rather trumped up charges of treason, accused of fermenting revolt in Illinois in June 1844. The Mormons did not replace him on the ballot and dropped out.

Effect on the election? Probably none. The Mormons dropped out of the election and relocated en-masse westward. They also were distracted by a fight over who would relace Smith as Mormon leader in which Rigdon would be forced out. It's unlikely that any non-Mormons would have voted for him or that any Mormons transferred their votes to another party they regarded (with good reason) as anti-Mormon. The party's anti-slavery platform would not have attracted abolitionist any votes either as there was already an established abolitionist party with a more consistant record and policies and most, if not all, abolitionists were also repulsed by polygamy. The results were so close however that if one of the parties had made a play for the Mormon votes it could have changed the popular vote if not the electoral vote, but in 1844 the Mormons were so hated that would not have happened.

The final results;
James Polk  ~  Democrats  ~  1,339,494 votes (49.5%)  /  170 electoral votes
Henry Clay  ~  Whigs  ~  1,300,004 votes (48%)  /  105 electoral votes
James Birney  ~  Liberty Party  ~  62,103 votes (2%)  /  0 electoral votes
There were another 2,000 votes noted as "Other", presumably mostly write-ins for Birney in slave states where he was not on the ballot, although some may have have been Mormon write-ins for Rigdon or even Smith since as we shall just because you're dead doesn't mean people can't and won't vote for you.


1872  ~  Horace Greeley - Democrat;


This one is far more complicated. By 1872 the Republicans had been in power since 1860 and seemed a shoe-in to repeat with their incumbent, the Civil War hero Ulysses Grant. However Grant's reputation had been taking a beating after a series of corruption scandals including his Vice President being indicted for bribery. Liberal Republicans had been advocating for sweeping reforms against corruption, nepotism and waste all of which the Grant administration and GOP leadership opposed. In addition some conservatives and even liberals were calling for an end to Reconstruction on the grounds that these GOP state governments were rife with corruption and waste as well as being unfair to former Confederates who were claiming they were being disenfranchised. Modern historians mostly argue that concerns about corruption and waste by Reconstruction goverments were overblown and that Reconstruction governments were no more corrupt than any other government of the era, and possibly even less so. But even if that's true it was widely argued at the time that these governments were a highly unpopular among whites both in the North and South especially since they required federal troops to protect them. Liberals were by that time clearly in the minority in the Republican Party however and Grant easily secured the renomination with a new Vice Presidential nominee in Henry Wilson, an aging Senator and former Radical of the Civil War era as a sop to the Liberal wing.

The soundly defeated liberals then walked out and called a convention led by liberal heavyweights including former Congressman Charles Francis Adams (son of former President John Quincy Adams and grandson of former President John Adams), his son Congressman John Quincy Adams II, influencial Missouri Senator Charles Schurz, Missouri Governor Benjamin Gratz Brown, Boston Congressman and former General Nathaniel Banks, Illinois Judge David Davis (former close friend and legal partner of Abraham Lincoln), powerful Illinois Senator Lymun Trumbull (author of the 13th Ammendment ending slavery), Indiana Congressman George Julian (a former leader of the Civil War Radicals) and Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, one of the largest and most important newspapers of the time. Among the Tribune's columnists were none other than Karl Marx and Fredrich Engles. They would form their own Liberal Reform Party and nominated a candidate after several ballots which surprisingly turned out not to be the veterans Charles Adams, Trumbull, Julian or Brown (Schurz would have been a likely candidate if he had not been disqualified by being born in Germany) but instead Horace Greeley. For Vice President they nominated Benjamin Gratz Brown of Missouri.

The Liberal Reformers assembled a full platform calling for a serious program of government reform to stamp out corruption, nepotism and waste, tax and tarriff reforms, an end to free land grants for railroads, and phasing out Federal Reconstruction while preserving black civil rights and voting rights (somehow).

This put the Democrats in a dilemma; They knew they had no chance of beating the still popular Grant and had a shortage of respectable candidates with the most likely being conservative Indiana Governor Thomas Hendricks, liberal New Jersey Governor Joel Parker and moderate Illinois Governor and former General John Palmer none of whom seemed likely to beat Grant. They were also divided between Southerners who were still bitter about the war and wanted to end Reconstruction immediately and liberal and moderate Northerners who wanted to move on from the war and modernize the party. Ultimately when they had their convention the liberals and moderates took the plunge over conservative objections and voted to merge with the Liberal Reformers, accepting their platform and candidates Greeley and Brown.


At that point some diehard Democrats walked out. They objected to the nominations of Greeley and Brown, both of whom had previously been Republicans, not Democrats. Besides party loyalty they objected to Greeley as an eccentric, temperamental, controversial figure with limited political experience who had at various times advocated for abolition, socialism, vegetarianism, pacifism, feminism, spiritualism, government reform, fair treatment for Indians, ending flogging in the Navy, and cheap land settlement of the west for which he coined the term "Go West Young Man". He had been an early supporter of Lincoln and had written many harsh editorials denouncing the Democrats, some by name, which some found hard to forgive. Some wit averred that a contest between the taciturn Grant and the loquacious Greeley would be a fight between a man with no ideas versus a man with far too many. He was also an odd, decidedly non-presidential looking figure, old, fat, bald, nearsighted and rumpled wearing tattered clothes and a scraggly ruff of chin whiskers. Meanwhile Gratz Brown had a reputation as a hard drinker earning him the nickname "Boozy Brown" (on the other hand it's not like Grant was known for his sobriety either although his VP Wilson was).

These mostly conservative diehards were joined by free traders (the Republicans were a high tariff party as Greeley had been and the Liberal/Democratic platform dodged the issue) and held their own convention in which they nominated their own candidates Charles O'Connor for President and John Quincy Adams II for VP under then banner of the Straight-Out Democrats. The name coming from their insistence that they were simultaneously loyal Democrats and temporarily out of the party. O'Connor was a former prosecutor known for his role in taking down the notoriously corrupt Boss Tweed Ring in New York as well as being defence counsel for ex Confederate President Jefferson Davis, which earned him friends in the white South. He was also an orator popular for his eloquence and wit. But the most notable thing about him was that he was the first Catholic nominated for President, an honour that is usually given to Al Smith in 1928. However this honour is somewhat diluted by the fact that he didn't want it and even tried to refuse the nomination sending a telegraph to the convention so informing them as did Adams. Amazingly however the delegates chose to disregard O'Connor and Adams' telegrams and nominated them anyway. The delegates may have assumed O'Connor and Adams would change their minds. In those days candidates were expected to play coy and pretend they didn't really want the nomination, it being seen as unseemly to be too ambitious. But it turned out that O'Connor and Adams were not being coy and did not change their minds, but by that time the convention had ended and it was too late to hold another vote so they kept their names on the ballot over their objections which is another first (and last). In the end O'Connor and Adams would not back down and refused to campaign in any way.


But wait there's more! Yet another group of reformers had been organizing a third party and had chosen not to accept Greeley, instead forming yet another Labor Reform Party and nominated David Davis (Lincoln's old law partner) for President and New Jersey Democratic Governor Joel Parker for VP. After thinking things over Davis and Parker turned down the nominations and urged them to support Greeley who they endorsed. Unlike the Straight Outs the Laborites accepted the refusals and called another convention in which they chose to instead endorse O'Connor whose reputation as a corruption fighter apparently outweighed his obvious lack of desire to actually run for the job. In the end they probably split their votes between Greeley and O'Connor.

Wait, Still not done yet! Getting into the spirit of things the anti-alcohol prohibitionists started their own Prohibition Party (this being one of the few issues Greeley had never supported) and nominated James Black, who had previously been both a Democrat and a Republican. They would however be on few state's ballots. Some women's suffrage activists also got in on the fun and formed their own Equal Rights Party (Greeley had in the past shown some sympathy for the cause but the Democratic platform did not mention the issue at all) and nominated Victoria Woodhull, a notorious advocate of women's suffrage as socialism and free love for President and abolitionist icon Fredrick Douglas for VP thus making 1872 the election with the first woman and black and Catholic candidates. Douglas for his part did not acknowledge his nomination but unlike O'Connor he didn't refuse it either, he simply ignored it. As it happened their names did not make it on to any ballots at all.

During the actual campaign Greeley broke with tradition that nominees should appear above politics and actively campaigned going off on a speaking tour and writing a stream of editorials and letters, all of which he wrote himself, working himself to exhaustion. By the end of the campaign the Greeley was very ill. He was 61 years old but looked much older, overweight and high-strung, upset about the vicious personal attacks from former Republican friends like cartoonist Thomas Nast and facing a rebellion at his paper's board of directors unseating him from his own paper. A week before the election his wife died plunging him into a deep depression and after the election, which Grant easily won, Greeley entered a sanitorium suffering from an unexplained breakdown, possibly a stroke, from which he died at the end of November. A distraught final letter he left behind also implies the possibility of a suicide then covered up.

The actual election results were;
Ulysses Grant  ~  Republicans  ~  3,597,439 votes (55%)  /  286 electoral votes

Horace Greeley  ~  Democrats  ~  2,833,710 votes (44%)  /  66 electoral votes

Charles O'Connor  ~  Straight Outs  ~  23,054 (0.4%)

Greeley won only six states. The Prohibitionists got a few thousand votes and Woodhull got a handfull of write-ins.

By the time Greeley died the election was over but the electoral college had yet to vote which put the Democratic electors in a bit of a bind as they obviously couldn't vote for the dead guy. The solution should have been obvious enough as they could have simply voted for their VP candidate Benjamin Gratz Brown. After all that's literally the only reason they have a VP at all. However you will recall that Greeley and Brown had not been Democrats in the first place and many Democrats, especially conservatives, had resented having to support them on the ticket and now with the election lost anyway and Greeley dead they were damned if they were going to give Brown a head start on getting the nomination four years hence. So when it came time to vote the majority instead voted for the candidate they had wanted in the first place; Indianna Governor Thomas Hendricks, an ambitious states-rights conservative. Hendricks won 42 electoral votes to 18 for Brown with a few votes going to two other figures including one for David Davis. Showing impressive loyalty three Georgia delegates insisted on casting their votes for Greeley anyway in spite of his still being dead.These votes were not counted.  

THOMAS HENDRICKS     In the long run the devious Hendricks never ended up getting the nomination he wanted so badly, he did however get the Democratic VP nomination in 1876, when they lost again, and again in 1884 when they finally won behind Grover Cleveland. He didn't get to enjoy it very long however, dying in office soon thereafter. Senator John Palmer, one of the conservative Democrats would finally get a Presidential nomination, albeit at the head of yet another Straight-Out conservative third party rebellion in 1896.

Effect on the election; Potentially significant if he had died just a month earlier before the voting. This would have thrown the election into turmoil, for the Democrats at least as they scrambled to find a replacement. It would have created even more chaos if he had actually won and then died which would have led to utter chaos for the electoral college. But his dying after losing the election only left an opening for the scheming Henrdicks to make a play for power but in the end even that didn't amount to much.

In the end while Greeley's campaign was a disaster it did end up being significant as being the first time the Democratic Party moved from being a conservative party to a liberal one, setting in motion a long fight which would lead at the end of the century to the Democrats being a firmly liberal party.  


1912  ~  James Schoolcraft Sherman - Republican;

The election of 1912 was another wild one with multiple parties. The GOP had been in power since 1896 with Presidents McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt and finally Taft each time winning election fairly easily. Taft a genial, easygoing judge and government official who had never actually run for office before, had been essentially hand-picked by Rossevelt to succeed him in 1908. However by 1912 the two had a falling out with Roosevelt (then in his progressive phase) deciding that Taft had sided with the conservative, corporate wing party establishment and failed to implement his policies. These arguments had been encouraged by Taft's VP James Schoolcraft Sherman, an undistinguished conservative party hack from upstate New York. Taft and Sherman had never been close at the start of his Presidency but Sherman encouraged the feud which he was in a position to do as the hands-off Taft had left Sherman in control of the party's patronage machinery which he used to freeze out Roosevelt supporters. Finally the angry Roosevelt took the shocking step of challenging Taft for the 1912 nomination and he easily won the few primary contests. However in 1912 the majority of states did not hold primaries and the their delegates were appointees which most of which were controlled by Sherman who used them to shut down Roosevelt's challenge and secure the nomination for Taft and himself. Naturally Roosevelt, ever the diva did not take this lying down and stomped out to form his own Progressive Party to make a third party run for the Presidency. Roosevelt and Taft would not have the contest to themselves of course as the Democrats nominated Woodrow Wilson, the reform minded governor of New Jersey and the Socialist Party made a serious run with their charismatic leader Eugene V Debs. Times had changed since the sedate election of 1872 and Roosevelt, Wilson and Debs ran an electrifying campaign criss-crossing the country giving speeches to cheering throngs.


Ironically after all the plotting and backstabbing it took to secure the nomination for Taft and Sherman they did nothing to actually hold on to them. Neither Taft nor Sherman had ever done much actual campaigning and speechmaking. The obese and lazy Taft had been a sedate judge and cabinet official while Sherman had been an obscure congressman and mayor of Utica, New York more at home in backrooms than on the hustings. In 1908 Roosevelt had done much of the campaigning for them but once he decided to run his own campaign and the Democrats chose the popular Wilson, Taft quickly figured out that he couldn't compete and the GOP schism had made Wislon's victory all but certain so he sulked off to his vacation home in Vermont for the summer where aside from greeting local politicos and writing some letters he checked out. Sherman was in no condition to campaign either, although only 57 he was almost as fat as Taft and in worse health and suffering with Bright's Disease so he trudged back to his home in Utica, shook a few hands and staggered off to his bed where he died a week before the election and after his own birthday.


His death did not give enough time to take his name off the ballot so Republicans who voted for the ticket did so knowing they were voting for a dead guy. The Republicans had no time to hold another convention but officials did manage to vote for a replacement. There would seem to be little demand to play second fiddle to a doomed, third place campaign but they gave the role to Nicholas Murray Butler, the President of Columbia University. Giving the job to a respected non-politician who was not involved in the party schism was probably a signal of a desire to rebuild the party after the election. Even though Sherman's name was still on the ballot the party's electoral few votes for VP would be cast for Butler. In the end they only ended up winning two states, Vermont (where Taft's vacation home was) and conservative Utah.  

The final results were;
Woodrow Wilson  ~  Democrats  ~  6,296,284 votes (42%)  /  425 electoral votes  

Teddy Roosevelt  ~  Progressives  ~  4,122,721 votes (27%) /  88 electoral votes  

William Howard Taft  ~  Republicans  ~  3,486,242 votes (23%)  /  8 electoral votes  

Eugene Debs  ~  Socialists  ~  901,551 votes (6%)  / 0 electoral votes  

Eugene Clafin  ~  Prohibitionists  ~  208,156 votes (1.4%)

Effects on the election; None, His death may have actually helped the Republicans reunify the party. Alive he would have been at least an annoyance, dead he was quickly forgotten.


1928  ~  Frank Johns -  Socialist Labor Party;


Eugene Debs, Socialist candidate from the 1900's to 1920 is the most famous American socialist leader but he was certainly not the only one nor was the Socialist Party even the first such party. The Socialist Labor Party had been running since 1888 usually getting twenty to thirty thousand votes. Debs had originally had been in the SLP before leading an exodus to the new SP which quickly surpassed the SLP in size and influence. However the never-say-die SLP continued on into the 1970's, even outlasting the SP as an electoral party, such as it was, denouncing all other parties as "bourgeois" and insisting they were the only true socialist party. Even when the Communist Party was formed the SLP would denounce them as well as authoritarian. By 1924 their rival Debs had retired (he died in 1926) and their candidate in 1924 was Frank Johns, a young (35 in 1924), handsome, energetic and charismatic organizer and orator from Oregon who had already run twice for Congress in his twenties. In that election the party got its usual thirty thousand votes but the party was pleased with his performance and potential and nominated him again in 1928 along with writer Verne Reynolds as VP.

The 1928 election is the noteworthy as the first with a Catholic as a proper Presidential candidate (remembering Charles O'Connor's sort-of candidacy in 1872) from Democratic New York Governor Al Smith versus Republican Herbert Hoover. The Socialist Party would begin its decline as an electoral force with Norman Thomas (who would lead them until 1948), the Communist Party with William Foster and the Prohibition Party also ran.

Johns' future as a socialist leader turned out to be brief, his energetic nature turned out to be his misfortune. In May he was giving a speech at a park in Oregon near a river when a young boy fell into the river. Johns immediately jumped in to rescue him but both were swept away and drowned. Frank Johns was only 40 years old.

As it was only May unlike the GOP in 1912 the SLP had time to hold another convention and nominate their VP candidate Verne Reynolds as their new candidate and the party would continue the campaign.


Final results;
Herbert Hoover  ~  Republicans  ~  21,427,123 votes (58%)  /  444 electoral votes

Al Smith  ~ Democrats  ~  15,015,464 votes (41%)  /  87 electoral votes

Norman Thomas  ~  Socialists  ~  267,478 votes (0.73%)

William Foster  ~  Communists  ~  48,000 votes

Verne Reynolds  ~ SLP  ~  21,590 votes

William Varney  ~  Prohibitionists  ~  20,095 votes

Effect on the election; None. The SLP did get slightly fewer votes than previously but the Socialists lost far more. The older socialist parties were being squeezed by the Communists (in their second election) on one side and a modernizing Democratic Party on the other. If Norman Thomas, a respected figure in socialist politics was unable to defy this dynamic with the larger Socialist Party it's doubtful even the charismatic Johns could have changed any of that with the smaller SLP. At any rate the SLP did not even achieve the success of Deb's Socialist Party and obviously never had a chance at getting any electoral votes. Frank Johns would posthumously be awarded the Carnegie Medal Of Heroism for his bravery. Of more lasting impact would be Verne Reynolds; he would remain as party leader for another election in 1932 and his son Mack Reynolds would become one of the creators of "Star Trek". So that happened.

Frank T. Johns from Steve Kaufmann on Vimeo.


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