Republican Challengers Seeking Nomination Face Historical Paradigm Shift

To date three candidates have challenged President Donald Trump to the Republican Party nomination for next year’s election. William Weld, former Massachusetts governor, Joe Walsh, one-term Congressman from Illinois’ 8th district, and Mark Sanford, former South Carolina governor, hope to repeat a phenomenon that rarely occurs in American history—wrestle a party’s nomination from an incumbent President.

An Elected President Has Lost The Nomination Once

The only instance in American history where an elected President was denied his party’s nomination was at the 1856 Democratic Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, at which Ambassador to the United Kingdom James Buchanan defeated then fourteenth President Franklin Pierce on the seventeenth ballot after securing 206 of the necessary 197 votes.

In 1820, the Missouri Compromise sought to balance regional disagreements over slavery by admitting Maine and Missouri to the Union; one being free from slavery and the other instituting the practice, respectively. By the 1856 convention, Pierce’s popularity was struggling, adversely affected by his approval of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and the bleeding Kansas border war that resulted from the migration of conflicting popular sovereignty and abolitionist factions in the territory.

The New York Daily Times reported on June 2, 1856 that “In no event, is it believed that Pierce can get more than 130 votes—197 being required, under the two-thirds rule, to nominate.” On June 7, 1856 after it was determined Buchanan earned the needed votes, a round of cheers broke out: three tremendous for the nominee and Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, and three modest for Pierce.

Vice Presidents Who Ascended To The Presidency, Have Been Denied The Nomination Four Times

On four separate occasions, Vice Presidents have became President following the death of the incumbent, only to be denied the nomination at the next election:


• John Tyler, Whig, 1844. Tyler became president in 1841 following the death of William Henry Harrison. Tyler, a conservative Southerner, was out of step with many in the Whig Party, which instead nominated Henry Clay for president.

Millard Fillmore, Whig, 1852. Fillmore also ascended to the presidency following the death of the incumbent. In this case it was Zachary Taylor, who died in 1850. Taylor’s death left the Whigs in disarray, and the party convention chose Gen. Winfield Scott over Fillmore and Daniel Webster.

Andrew Johnson, Democrat, 1868. Johnson, a Southerner and a Democrat, was chosen to be part of a Republican unity ticket led by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Following Lincoln’s assassination the following year, Johnson tried in vain to win the support of the late president’s allies; in fact, he was impeached and nearly convicted by a GOP Congress. The Democratic nomination went to Horatio Seymour.

Chester Arthur, Republican, 1884. Arthur was picked for VP by James Garfield in 1880 in order to help the GOP carry New York. Following Garfield’s assassination in 1881, Arthur alienated his erstwhile allies by attacking the patronage system that had helped his career until that point. Arthur lost the GOP nomination to James Blaine.

While the examples of a candidate successfully winning the election from an incumbent are limited, ten instances exist where an incumbent has lost a re-election bid. In an odd twist, President Grover Cleveland, first elected in 1884, lost his re-election bid in 1888 to Republican Benjamin Harrison, only to return in 1892 and defeat Harrison.

In the recent era, three Presidents who failed to win a second term, faced significant primary challenges, but still retained the nomination. The notable examples are: 

  • Gerald Ford, who assumed the presidency after the resignation of President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew, faced a significant primary challenge from then California Governor Ronald Reagan. Ford was defeated by then Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter in 1976.
  • In the 1980 election, President Jimmy Carter faced a primary challenge from Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, but retained the Democratic nomination. Carter lost the 1980 election to Reagan.
  • In 1992, President George H.W. Bush, who served as Vice President under Reagan and won the election in 1988, lost to Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Bush faced some initial opposition from Senators Pat Robertson and Bob Dole in 1988. In 1992, he soundly defeated Pat Buchanan for the Republican nomination. Independent candidate Ross Perot received 19 millions votes, which was the highest in this century.

The odds of wrestling the nomination from a sitting President are limited and have only occurred five times in American history. Recent polling from Hill-HarrisX indicates “83 percent of GOP voters said they approve of the President’s job performance, marking a 2-point drop” from an identical poll conducted last month. Also, it was recently reported that the Republican Parties in Arizona, Kansas, Nevada, and South Carolina intend to cancel presidential primaries as a measure to block any Republican challenges to the President’s nomination. If Weld, Walsh, or Sanford are to win the Republican nomination from Trump, history is not on their side. 

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