A Historical Precedent for Dumping a Presidential Candidate

The Republican party is set to nominate Donald J. Trump as its nominee this week. Most signs indicate that a plan to derail the New Yorker’s convention nomination by unbinding delegates, thus freeing them to vote for someone else, will come to naught.

In 1844, another New Yorker discovered that going into a major party’s national convention as the presumptive nominee didn’t necessarily guarantee a victory. Martin Van Buren, who had served one term as president (1837-41), sought to recapture the White House for the Democrats after losing his reelection bid in 1840. Up until the convention met in Baltimore in late May, many Democrats assumed that Van Buren was the likeliest nominee. On the first ballot, in fact, the former president won a simple majority of the votes. Unfortunately for him, the party had passed a rule that required the nominee to win a 2/3s majority. For the next three ballots, Van Buren won a plurality of the votes, but he slowly lost ground to his closest rivals: James Buchanan, Lewis Cass, and Richard M. Johnson, who had been Van Buren’s vice president and had been on the 1840 Democratic ticket with him.

Unknown to Van Buren, work had begun to replace him even before the convention started. In April, the New Yorker had written a public letter disavowing the immediate annexation of Texas. This decision sunk him with his friend, Andrew Jackson, the former president and still-powerful Democratic statesman. In the days and hours leading up to the convention, Jackson met with several politicos, including Tennessee delegate Andrew Jackson Donelson, to find a replacement for Van Buren. He settled quickly on his loyal protegĂ© and fellow Tennessean, James K. Polk. The former U.S. House Speaker was an ardent supporter of Texas’ immediate annexation, and his name had been prominently mentioned as a vice-presidential candidate in 1840 and in the months preceding the 1844 convention.

At Jackson’s direction, several members of the Tennessee delegation, including Donelson and Cave Johnson, worked behind the scenes in Baltimore to effect Polk’s nomination. They waited to orchestrate Polk’s nomination until it became clear that Van Buren did not possess enough votes to win the nomination and that none of the other leading candidates had a chance, either. “Young Hickory,” as he was known, went on to win the fall election against his Whig opponent, Henry Clay.

Of course, the presidential nominating system works differently now. The parties operate according to a system comprised of primaries and caucuses to determine their respective nominees weeks, if not months, before the national conventions meet. Delegates walk into the convention hall bound by rules that discourage or eliminate deviation from the planned pageantry, which is all conventions have proved to be in recent elections.

That doesn’t have to be the case, however. Republicans could take inspiration from the 1844 Democratic convention and decide to dump Trump for a “dark-horse” candidate like Polk. It worked for the Democrats in 1844, but it’s an unlikely occurrence for this year’s Republican party, which seems certain to seal its candidate’s fate in the November election.

This post was inspired by the Spring 2016 senior seminar paper written by Cumberland University student Josh Williams.

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