Professor Donald Elder: The Field is Crowded and Getting Larger

Jul 14, 2015 by


An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Field is Crowded and Getting Larger

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) Professor Elder, you have studied the Presidents of the United States extensively and have a book published by Nova Publishers on all of the Presidents of the United States, so I think you are uniquely qualified to respond to some questions about the current quest for President about to occur.   Since 1776, have we ever seen so many people of any political party throw their hat into the proverbial ring?

While it may seem that what we are witnessing in the Republican Party in the summer of 2015 is truly historic, in actuality we need look no further back in time than 10 years to find a close parallel. As George W. Bush would leave office in 2008, individuals from both political parties sought to secure a presidential nomination. Accordingly, 10 Democrats formally announced their candidacy starting in 2007. On the Republican side, 12 individuals followed suit. Thus, while 15 declared candidates hoping to secure their political party’s nomination to run for president is a record, it is not totally out of keeping with what occurred in the election of 2008.

2) Based on your knowledge of past presidential campaigns, what does it do to a party to have so many candidates?

Logically, a large number of candidates seeking a political party’s nomination does not bode well for winning a national election. First, it means that campaign contributions will at least initially be more widely distributed than they would be otherwise, which might hamper the eventual nominee when the actual campaign starts. It could also mean that a party’s hopefuls will have to spend most of their time trying to critique the records and positions of their rivals rather than the other party’s candidate. That may mean that for the first time in over 40 years a front-runner will not have the party’s nomination secured by the time of the national convention. This might lead to a bitter fight at the convention that will fracture the party, as happened to the Democrats in 1968. While the large fields in both parties in 2008 did not yield this result, it certainly could happen to the Republicans in 2016.

3) In the past, when there have been a plethora of candidates, what is the general reaction of the public?

A large number of candidates usually translates into great interest in the selection of a candidate. This is because with a greater number of candidates, there is usually at least one individual who resonates with a potential voter. On the other hand, this can also lead to voter disillusionment later in the selection process as candidates drop out of the race.

4) I can recall, when I was back in high school, that there were three main candidates for President. (late 60’s). How many times in American history have there been three major candidates for President?

In our nation’s first nine presidential elections, there were realistically only two candidates for that office. It was only in 1824 that the nation saw more than two individuals who had a decent chance of winning the presidential election. From that point on, there quite a few elections that saw a multiplicity of candidates. On a number of occasions, this lead to a candidate winning an election with less than 50% of the popular vote. Democrat Woodrow Wilson, for example, benefited from Theodore Roosevelt’s third party candidacy in 1912, as the former president drew votes that undoubtedly would have gone otherwise to the Republican nominee. In a similar fashion, Democrat Bill Clinton twice failed to win a majority of the popular votes cast for president, but on both occasions H. Ross Perot’s candidacy took enough votes away from the Republican candidate to hand the victory to Clinton. Historians are not agreed, however, that this always happens with a third party candidate. We can use the election you referred to as an example. In 1968, George Wallace ran as an independent candidate for president. Since he was a Democrat, some historians believe that he therefore took votes away from Hubert Humphrey, who was the actual nominee of the Democratic Party. But because Wallace’s views on Civil Rights were far to the right of Humphrey’s, it could also be argued that a vote for Wallace would have otherwise gone to Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate. The influence of a third-party candidate, then, cannot always be predicted.

5) Our current President, Barack Obama seems to have mocked the Republican Party having 15 candidates liking the field to a kind of “Hunger Games” scenario.  Does this reflect a very solid Democratic Party or a splintering of the Republican Party?

There are a number of possible explanations for the unusually high number of Republican candidates in this year’s field. As you have suggested, it may reflect that there is no agreement as to what the Republican Party in actuality stands for. If this is the case, then that state of affairs would require a large number of candidates to stake out the various positions that may most accurately reflect the beliefs of the party. It could, however, be a result of the fact that many Republicans feel that President Obama has been a failure. As recently as a few months ago, his approval rating was under 50%, and this may well have convinced the 15 candidates that whoever secured the Republican nomination would have the chance to ride that wave of discontent to victory in 2016.

6) One recent interesting event was Donald Trump announcing that he was running for President. He has (to my knowledge) no representative, senatorial or governorship experience to speak of). Has there ever been any President in the past lacking political experience that has gotten elected?

Actually, there have been a number of individuals elected to the presidency who had no involvement with the American political system. Most of these individuals were former generals, however, which had given them a significant amount of administrative experience. Moreover, as members of the U.S. Army, all of the generals who went on to become president had all been in effect employees of the American government. Herbert Hoover also was never elected to an office prior to running for the presidency in 1928, but he had served as the Secretary of Commerce in both the Harding and Coolidge Administrations. It would therefore seem that Donald Trump, if elected, would be the first American president with absolutely no governmental experience in his background. His supporters will argue that Trump has administrative experience from running his various businesses, but it remains to be seen if that argument will play well with the American electorate.

7)  We seem to have a Democratic front runner in Hillary Clinton. I know there has never been a female President. But in the past, what first ladies have really, in your mind, contributed a great deal to the American landscape and culture?

In our history, First Ladies run the gamut from an almost total disassociation with the presidency to an active engagement in the process of governance. At one end of the spectrum, the wife of Franklin Pierce spent her husband’s term in office in virtual isolation. But other First Ladies, especially those in the last 100 years, have been recognized for becoming involved in various causes. Some, like Betty Ford, chose to concentrate their efforts on causes that lay beyond the purview of the American political system, but others have tried to help chart a course of action for the nation. Hillary Clinton clearly falls into the latter category. When her husband became president, he asked his wife to head a task force charged with developing a plan for national health care reform. Although that effort failed, her supporters believe that it resulted in her learning valuable lessons about the American political process.

8) What have I neglected to ask?

Public opinion polls seem to indicate that if the presidential election were held today, Hillary Clinton would defeat any of the 15 individuals seeking the Republican nomination. But recent history provides a cautionary tale for those who assume that she will therefore win in 2016. In 2008, opinion polls indicated that John McCain had a significant lead over Barack Obama less than two months before the election, but a severe economic downturn caused a significant portion of the electorate to turn its support to the Democratic candidate. Only time will tell whether a similar readjustment will take place between now and November of 2015.
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