Why you should care
Because having a party nominate three presidents sounds like a crazy idea, but it has happened in the past.
The author, Mat Tomkowiak, is a Ph.D. student in politics at Princeton University.
From #MakeAmericaGreatAgain to #Drumpf and #NeverTrump, this election has had its fair share of movements. But what worries some within the Republican faithful is that the most successful movements this election cycle have pitted parts of the GOP’s coalition against one another. That’s been true even when certain campaigns seemed to work together — see John Kasich/Marco Rubio in Ohio and Kasich/Ted Cruz in Indiana — while trying to take down the leading vote getter: Donald Trump.
Right now, it seems, no single flag bearer could unite populists for Trump with conservatives for Cruz and moderate Rust Belters for Kasich, stoking widespread fears that the Republican Party will unravel just enough to keep its ultimate pick out of the White House for another four years. So here’s a wild idea: Instead of nominating one president and one veep, the GOP should nominate three presidents.
Risky? Sure. But there are a number of similarities between the Whigs and Republicans today.
Facing a similar dilemma in 1836, the Whig Party crafted an ingenious solution that helped their hopelessly divided party survive for two more decades. That year, the Whigs did not just nominate one candidate for president — they picked three. The maneuver aimed to prevent the Democratic Party’s nominee from receiving the majority of electoral votes in the general election. According to the Constitution, when no single candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives gets to pick the next president from the top three vote getters. Since the House would be dominated by Whigs, a Whig would be selected as president.
Does the Republican Party have something to learn from 1836? It might mean running Trump in the states where he has a better chance of beating Hillary Clinton than Cruz, running Cruz in those where he’s got stronger odds of beating Clinton than Trump, and running Kasich as a candidate in Ohio (where Cruz and Trump would likely lose to Clinton). Risky? Sure. But there are a number of similarities between the Whigs and Republicans today.
Much like the GOP, the Whigs were a coalition of pro-business interests and defenders of traditional moral values. The Whigs also had a powerful media organization — with Horace Greeley as the Roger Ailes of his day — that helped generate popular images of the party and its candidates. One of the most famous contributions of Whig newspapers to American politics is perhaps the first use of the horse race analogy to describe a presidential election.
Both election eras also have much in common. Back then, the Democratic Party nominated Martin Van Buren, a New Yorker who was the anointed successor to Andrew Jackson. The opposing Whig Party was buoyed by the potential of voter fatigue from Jackson’s eight years of polarizing rule, but it was hampered by the facts that Jackson had left behind a prosperous economy and that, as a party, the Whigs had managed no national legislative accomplishments.
Moreover, the Whigs were unable to winnow their field of candidates. In 1836, three Whigs dominated different regions of the country: William Henry Harrison, who united the Northeast; Hugh White, who saw himself as the Southern candidate rather than part of the establishment; and, Daniel Webster, a solid Whig who managed to hold on as the favorite son of Massachusetts.
To be sure, there are some key differences between these eras. For instance, they had no national convention in 1836. State-level contests back then were also seen as more important than national politics, the political scientist Walter Dean Burnham has argued. The presidential election of 1836 had a voter turnout of 57 percent, while the midterm elections of 1834 and 1838 enticed more people to vote. Voter turnout in presidential elections today is regularly about 20 percent higher than those of midterm elections for state and congressional offices.
This crucial historical difference could pose a problem, because one could argue that the Whig strategy is only able to work in a country that values localism over nationalism. And only under such circumstances could the people agree to allow the House of Representatives — a body of localist politicians — to select the next president.
Such an argument, however, fails to take into account that these are precisely the preferences that unite the #MakeAmericaGreatAgain and #NeverTrump movements. Both groups have criticized recent presidents as kings who use executive orders to legislate, and the Congress as “do-nothing.” And, these same groups often cloak themselves in localism by invoking small-town values and states’ rights. Which is why the GOP would be wise to seriously consider this historical analogy. After all, many political parties have come and gone in America, and previous periods of high political polarization ended with the death of a party. Perhaps a Whig-like maneuver could postpone the inevitable with the GOP.