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    Help Wanted: Dark-Horse Candidates

    By Ken Rudin
    Special to
    Friday, June 18, 1999

    Question: I can only locate two true dark-horse presidential candidates, James Polk and Franklin Pierce, and both were pre-Civil War. Were there any deadlocked conventions since then that turned to a dark-horse candidate? – Mark Rost, San Jose, Calif.

    Answer: In the old days, a presidential candidate needed to win two-thirds of the convention delegates (instead of a simple majority) to capture his party's nomination. This often led to multi-ballot conventions, which resulted in the nomination of dark-horse candidates. At the 1844 Democratic convention, former president Martin Van Buren had a majority of delegates after the first ballot, but not enough to claim the nomination over Lewis Cass, the former secretary of war and ex-minister to France. By the seventh ballot, Cass took the lead. With the convention headed towards a stalemate, James K. Polk's name was proposed. Polk, the former governor of Tennessee, was deemed acceptable by both sides and won the nomination on the ninth ballot. He went on to win the presidency that year.

    At the 1852 Democratic convention, Cass – by this time a senator from Michigan – was the early frontrunner. James Buchanan, who was President Polk's secretary of state, William Marcy of New York and Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois were also contenders for the nomination. Cass held the lead after 20 ballots, and then Buchanan moved in front. On the 35th ballot the name of Franklin Pierce was added to the mix. Pierce, a former senator and congressman from New Hampshire, was hardly a known commodity. But that was probably to his benefit. Gradually the other contenders lost ground, and Pierce won the nomination on the 49th ballot. He too was elected president.

    The other nominees who began as dark-horse candidates were Horatio Seymour, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Warren Harding and John W. Davis. Of the five, Hayes, Garfield and Harding were elected president.

    • Seymour, the former governor of New York, said over and over that he had no desire to be a candidate, but he nevertheless found himself nominated at the 1868 Democratic convention on the 22nd ballot.

    • Ohio Gov. Hayes won the Republican nomination in 1876 on the seventh ballot.

    • Congressman Garfield, an Ohio Republican who was the last person to go directly from the House to the White House, won the 1880 GOP nod on the 36th ballot.

    • Harding was nominated during a 1920 smoke-filled room meeting in which Republican leaders settled on the Ohio senator on the 10th ballot.

    • The 1924 Democratic convention was the longest in American history, going 103 ballots – and 17 days – before settling on former West Virginia congressman Davis.

    Nowadays candidates only need a majority to win the nomination, a change that has led to fewer deadlocked conventions. Since World War II only one presidential nominating convention – the Democrats in 1952 – went beyond a first ballot. In addition, 1956 Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson left the choice for his running mate that year to the convention's delegates, which went three ballots before settling on Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.).

    Question: How many presidents continued their political life in elected office after their presidencies ended? I know that John Quincy Adams did, but have there been others? – Bill Martin, Silver Spring, Md.

    Answer: Adams was one of just two. Two years after losing his 1828 bid for reelection, he won a House seat in Massachusetts. He served nearly 17 years in the House until his death in 1848. The other was Andrew Johnson, who succeeded to the presidency in 1865 following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Johnson failed in his bid for renomination as president in 1868. In 1874 he was elected U.S. senator by the Tennessee legislature but died within five months of taking office.

    Question: I was at dinner last week with someone who referred to former Virginia governor Doug Wilder as the "only black governor that ever was." I pointed out that P.B.S. Pinchback was governor of Louisiana for 30 days during Reconstruction. What I could not explain was how he got in a position to be governor for 30 days in the first place. Can you explain? – Cordel L. Faulk, Charlottesville, Va.

    Answer: For five weeks, from Dec. 9, 1872, to Jan. 13, 1873, Pinckney B.S. Pinchback, the Republican lieutenant governor of Louisiana, served as acting governor. He filled out the remainder of the term of white Republican Gov. Henry Clay Warmoth, who was suspended from office on corruption charges and was going through impeachment hearings. Pinchback had previously been elected to the Louisiana state Senate and was elevated to Senate president pro tempore. He succeeded to the position of lieutenant governor upon the death of incumbent Oscar Dunn, another African American. It was from this position that enabled Pinchback to become the first black governor.

    Virginia's L. Douglas Wilder became the nation's first elected black governor in 1989.

    Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin:

    Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio, is also the creator of's ScuttleButton contest.

    © Copyright 1999 Ken Rudin

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