Presidential Candidates Who Never Held Elected Office

Originally this was a discussion that I had a few months back. It stemmed from a question of Donald Trump’s experience and qualifications for President. He is, after all, a man who never held any elected office before. He is a man who has never even let his name stand on a ballot before. With the exception of a brief period in 2000 when he threw his hat in the ring for the Reform Party Nomination, he has never showed the slightest interest in public service.

Some will argue that’s perfect. It, after all, makes him a man untainted and unchanged by the political structure. Finally, at long last, we can have a President who isn’t corrupted by the system itself. After all, his only real political experience, aside from running racist and demeaning ads, has been buying and selling politicians, seeking political favors for money. Who better to clean up the mess of our nation’s capital than a man who, by his own admissions, helps to degrade it? Truly, from atop his office at Trump Towers he is the man to restore government to the hands of the little people he has tried so hard to squash when they got in his way.

Still, I thought it would be interesting to look at candidates who had a comparable level of election experience as the belligerent Reality Star has.

In the course of the past 228 years that America has been electing Presidents, I can think of a total of 9 cases where a Major Party Candidate never stood for elected office prior to running for President. I put the Liberal Republican Party in the classification of Major Party because they did finish second in the 1872 Election under the candidacy of Newspaper Editor Horace Greeley. Of these 9 only 3, much like Trump, who avoided the Vietnam War through a series of military deferments, were not Generals who were largely considered War Heroes during their time. Of those remaining three, only one of them never had any political experience whatsoever. Greeley, an active member of the Republican Party, was selected, after all, to serve in Congress for a brief period when a seat was vacated due to electoral fraud and corruption.

It’s interesting because even Generals who have rode a wave of popularity have not been guaranteed a Presidential win. Those who did take the White House often did so by sheer force of will against a largely divided opposition, and were viewed as a unifying force. Regardless of anything else, what the trend has said was that people, they prefer experience. They prefer a candidate who understands how government works and can navigate around it. In the absence of that they want a unifying force, someone capable of bringing people together.

Of course, this list isn’t the be all and the end all of lists. Yet it is something that is remarkably telling and perhaps should have been something considered by those Republicans backing Donald Trump, a divisive, bitter candidate who lacks the experience and the service that is considered a prerequisite for service as the President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of the United States.


Major General Zachary Taylor, triumphed as a hero of the Mexican-American War.

Zachary Taylor
Party: Whig
Election: 1848
Opponent: Lewis Cass (Democrat), Martin Van Buren (Free Soil)
Experience: Major General, United States Army

Winning the Whig Party nomination in 1848, General Zachary Taylor was a war hero facing off against a deeply divided Democratic Party. Lewis Cass’ positions on slavery had already chased many Democrats into the Free Soil Party. Now, facing off against a man without a clearly defined platform or articulated policies, the Michigan Senator had any number of difficulties pinning anything to Taylor. In the end it came down to a battle of personalities, and, for as hard as he tried to paint Taylor negatively, Cass just couldn’t compete successfully against his opponent’s military record. Add to that the bleeding away of support by Martin Van Buren and his Free Soil Party and the Democrats would lose by 5% in the popular vote and 36 Electoral College votes. Yet had Cass not so badly splintered the Democrats it would have been a potentially different picture, as former President Van Buren’s new party took enough votes in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Vermont and Wisconsin to rob Cass of major win in the Electoral College.


Major General Winfield Scott, declared “The Greatest Living General” by the Duke of Wellington.

Winfield Scott
Party: Whig
Election: 1852
Opponent: Franklin Pierce
Experience: Major General and Commanding General, United States Army

Well past his prime, General Winfield Scott entered the 1852 Presidential race against the backdrop of a party deeply divided by region over the question of Slave States and the Compromise of 1850. Millard Fillmore, who ascended to the Presidency following the death of Zachary Taylor was heavily favored by the south. The North would not have him though. They would look anywhere but to the sitting President who they believed favored the Slaveholding States over the Free States. Emerging as the victor of a bitter convention, General Scott faced off against former New Hampshire Senator Franklin Pierce. With a Whig Platform almost identical to the Democratic Platform, prominent party members split from Whig ranks, and left it as a clash of personalities between Scott and Pierce ensued. A military hero as well, Pierce was able to offset the advantage his opponent might have otherwise had in the political arena.

In truth the New Hampshire Senator was a better politician, he understood the race and the dynamic of it better than his opponent did. Knowing that he needed to strike a delicate balance, let others do the heavy campaigning for him, while Scott’s distinctively anti-slavery positions sunk his chances of winning key Southern States. Pierce carried 27 states to Scott’s 4. It would be the ultimate demise of the Whig Party as it faded into the ranks of the Republican Party by the 1856 Election.


Major General George McClellan would break with his party to advocate peace talks with the Confederacy

George McClellan
Party: Democratic
Opponent: Abraham Lincoln (Republican)
Experience: Major General, United States Army

The country was tired of the Civil War that raged on for the past four years and, with the victories of the Confederacy, there were many who wondered if Union victory was still possible. There were many who believed that it was perhaps time for a different approach than the one taken by President Lincoln. General George McClellan tried to represent that compromise. At points, even Lincoln himself wondered if his own electoral defeat was a forgone conclusion. Still, the state of the Democratic Party itself made its chances of winning the White House almost non-existence. Divided among those who supported an immediate peace and those who adhered to the idea of a return to Union with Slavery. The Democrats were divided, inconsistent and incoherent.

Perhaps McClellan would have stood a chance if John Fremont had remained in the race as the candidate for the Radical Republicans, but he saw the Democratic Party as a greater threat to the Union than any problems he had with President Lincoln. A deal was brokered and, with the exit of Senator Fremont, there was little chance left for McClellan to win. McClellan was trounced 55% to 45% at the polls on Election Day even as an aggressive push by Lincoln during those months leading up to November began to show cracks in the South that would lead to their inevitable defeat.


General of the Army Ulysses S. Grant, who successfully led the Union to victory in the Civil War.

Ulysses S. Grants
Party: Republican
Election: 1868
Opponent: Horatio Seymour (Democrat)
Experience: General of the Army of the United States

Three years after the end of the Civil War, who could contend with the popularity of General Ulysses S. Grant, the man heralded as the hero of the Union? Even without campaigning Grant would waylay the fears of the Republican Party that they would be bested by former New York Governor Horatio Seymour. Backed largely by the media, the truth was Grant didn’t need to attack Seymour, he never really had to raise a finger against him. The press was more than willing to do it for him. Not even the papers in his home state of New York would defend him, helping to pile it on. Running a largely racist campaign of fear against Grant, Seymour might have gotten closer in the popular votes than anyone would have expected, but he still would only carry 8 states and 80 Electoral College votes compared to Grant’s 26 states and 214 Electoral College votes.


Newspaper Editor Horace Greeley, who had a track record of making enemies and making statements that would come back to haunt his bid for President.

Horace Greeley
Party: Liberal Republican Party
Election: 1872
Opponent: Ulysses S. Grant (Republican)
Experience: Newspaper Editor, Congressman from December 1848 to March 1849, selected by the Whig Party committee to fill the vacancy in New York’s 6th District.

A New York news man best known now for his use of the phrase “Go West Young Man and Grow up with the Country,” Greeley served briefly as a Member of Congress, appointed to fill a vacancy left when the sitting Whig Member had to resign due to electoral fraud. Still he was never elected to serve a full term. After a public falling out with President Ulysses S. Grant over corruption in the Grant Administration, Greeley ran for President in 1872 as a Liberal Republican, backed by the Democratic Party in his attempt to unseat the sitting President. Still, Greeley was controversial. He was attacked for his lack of experience, for positions he took as a newspaper editor, and for being a poor campaigner at best. Grant, on the other hand, still held on to his popularity as the hero of the Civil War, a reputation that was largely untouchable. Greeley lost, carrying 44% of the vote and 6 states. He died shortly thereafter, becoming the first and only candidate to pass away before the Electoral College convened.


Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, the Hero of Gettysburg

Winfield Scott Hancock
Party: Democratic
Election: 1880
Opponent: James Garfield
Experience: Major General, United States Army


No relation to General Winfield Scott, General Winfield Scott Hancock secured the Democratic nomination to run against the Congressman James Garfield, newly selected to fill Ohio’s Senate vacancy, in the 1880 Presidential election. It perhaps seemed like it should have been a sure thing for Hancock. The Republican Party was deeply divided. Garfield himself was no one’s first choice at Convention and there were any number of questions as to his integrity as questions of corruption arose. Hancock campaigned on being an outsider, as being removed from the realm of politics and thus untainted by scandal and corruption. Still, he lacked substance, and the Republicans were able to go after him as being inexperienced and ill-informed. Unifying just long enough to defeat Hancock in the election it became the closest election in history. Congressman Garfield won the popular vote by less than 2,000 votes (.02%) and both candidates carried 19 states. The difference came in the Electoral College, where he gathered 59 more votes than Hancock, giving him what he needed to win. Not quite as controversial as Samuel Tilden or Al Gore winning the popular vote but losing the election, but still noteworthy.


Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, served in 2 posts under 3 Presidents

Herbert Hoover
Party: Republican
Election: 1928
Opponent: Al Smith (Democrat)
Experience: Businessman, Head of the US Food Administration, Secretary of Commerce


When Herbert Hoover secured the Republican nomination in the 1928 election he had never held elected office. What the mining executive from America’s heartland did have was experience. He had served as the Secretary of Commerce, appointed by President Warren Harding, and kept on by his successor, President Calvin Coolidge. During World War I he served as the head of the US Food Administration, appointed by Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. Incredibly popular due to his reputation as a humanitarian and a high-profile in the Commerce Department during a time of economic prosperity and he already had an advantage over his challenger. This election didn’t bring an ordinary challenger. It brought New York Governor Al Smith, the first Catholic candidate for President. America had a long history well before Smith of Anti-Catholic sentiments. This just brought them further into the limelight. It might have allowed him to carry a few areas that were more Catholic, such as Massachusetts but it lost him a number of states in the South that viewed his religion with suspicion and anger. Hoover would carry 40 states to Smith’s 8 and 444 electoral college votes compared to the 87 of his opponent, winning by over 5 million votes.


Wendell Willkie, Democrat turned Republican to run against FDR

Wendell Willkie
Party: Republican
Election: 1940
Opponent: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Democrat)
Experience: Lawyer, Businessman

A lifelong Democrat and businessman, Willkie switched parties in the late 1930’s, realizing that President Roosevelt had no interest in abiding by the two-term limit precedent established by George Washington. He wanted to be President and he saw the Republican Party as the vehicle in which that could be achieved. At the height of his popularity he secured the Republican nomination in a contentious fight against New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey and Ohio Senator Robert Taft on the fifth ballot. he faced off against President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 Presidential election. A tireless campaigner Willkie was willing to campaign were Republicans feared to go since the Depression. He proposed that the New Deal wasn’t the problem, but rather the largesse of it was and that it needed to be scaled back to be made more efficient. Yet little of that made a difference, with the only real issue he found to chink the armor of FDR was the idea that he was secretly planning to take the country to war. Willkie forced him into a position where he had to promise he would not send troops overseas but that was hardly enough to win him the election. He handily lost, giving Roosevelt an unprecedented third term with almost 55% of the vote and 38 states.


General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force (WWII)

Dwight Eisenhower
Party: Republican
Election: 1952
Opponent: Adlai Stevenson (Democrat)
Experience: General of the United States Army, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, Chief of Staff of the Army


The reluctant candidate, what can be said about the election of 1952? President Harry Truman had been chased out of the race by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver. After 20 years of holding on to the White House allegations of corruption were tarnishing the Democratic Party’s reputation. Enter Dwight Eisenhower as the Republican Candidate. One of the most highly decorated soldiers in American history, there was little that Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson and his divided Democratic Party could do to counter the popularity of Ike. Despite missteps and miscalculations and the potential of his running mate, Senator Richard Nixon, becoming an albatross around his neck, Eisenhower rode an unstoppable wave of popularity to the White House. Winning 39 states and 55% of the popular vote, he carried 442 of the Electoral College seats to the 89 Stevenson grabbed in the 9 states he carried.

The point here is that Trump is not on the side of history. No one has ever successfully run for the Presidency with his level of experience. Yes, it can be argued that everything has “Never been done” until it is actually done, but there is a reason people such as the Presumptive Republican Nominee don’t win elections. Capturing a divided Party’s nomination is does not secure the Presidency.

Without a plan to unify the Party, and more and more Republicans fleeing the party ranks out of the belief that this man does not lack the experience, decorum or dignity that the office of the Presidency is meant to hold, Trump is an impending disaster for a Party that has wandered through the political desert seeking real leadership. Hardly the best or the brightest the Republicans have to offer, there is a lesson here for those who forget history and what it has to teach us. What it is saying right now, at this moment, is that the GOP, for whatever frustrations its ranks has, is heading for a disaster of its own making as it props up a grossly under-qualified candidate for President as its standard-bearer.


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