• Marc Johnson

Dark Horse


The well-quoted Larry Sabato, the political guru at the University of Virginia, has begun talking openly about the possibility that the Republican presidential primary field may not be as complete as many have thought. Sabato suggests that the post-Super Tuesday calendar, when 59% of all the GOP’s convention delegates will be selected, makes it possible – if not likely – that a “dark horse” can still enter the race late and scramble the nomination math, maybe even winning a “brokered” convention.

If so, it would be the first time since 1940 that a late arriving potential president came out of left – or maybe right – field to capture a major party nomination for the White House. That guy, Wendell Willkie, was barely on the political radar screen early in 1940 and came from far back in the field to win the GOP nomination on the sixth ballot at the party’s Philadelphia convention.

In a Gallup Poll in May of 1940, Willkie hardly registered as a serious contender. A former Democrat, who had supported Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Willkie was an afterthought in a field led by New York prosecutor Thomas Dewey and United States Senators Robert Taft of Ohio and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. In that Gallup Poll Dewey enjoyed the support of 67% of those polled. Less than two months later, with France having fallen to Hitler’s army and war seeming more and more likely, Willkie was the GOP candidate charged with the task of depriving Roosevelt of an unprecedented third term. In part, Willkie won the nomination because he refused to be pigeon holed into the GOP’s traditional isolationist foreign policy, the position that Dewey, Taft and Vandenberg espoused, and because he was, more or less, a fresh face who was seen as someone able to take the fight to Roosevelt.

At that Philadelphia convention in late June 1940 – the fascinating political story is beautifully told in Charles Peters’ fine book Five Days in Philadelphia– Willkie trailed on the first ballot, but systematically gathered strength as the delegates kept on voting. Republicans convinced themselves that the Indiana-born, utility executive – FDR’s acerbic Interior Secretary Harold Ickes called Willkie “the barefoot boy from Wall Street” – was the party’s strongest possible candidate.

By October of 1940 Roosevelt’s advisers had become very concerned that the articulate Willkie, who was at the same time both charmingly rumpled and ruggedly handsome, had closed the gap and just might prevent a third FDR term. The threat of Willkie’s growing strength as election day approached prompted Roosevelt to make his famous pledge that American boys would not be sent into a foreign war. FDR, benefiting from the “don’t change horses in the middle of the stream” message, won the election with just under 55% of the vote. Willkie carried only 10 states his home state of Indiana included, as well as Michigan and the big farm states of Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

Is another Republican dark horse possible next? Sure, but not likely. The testing that occurs as part of the primary slog has become the established way to narrow the field and select the last man – or woman – standing. Still, the up-one-day, down-the-next quality of the Republican campaign so far leaves a door open, narrowly, to a late arriving contender. 

As one of Sabato’s columnists said recently, “Should Mitt Romney stumble badly in the January events in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, another establishment Republican could enter the race in early February and still compete directly in states with at least 1,200 of the 2,282 or so GOP delegates. Many of them will be up for grabs after April 1 when statewide winner-take-all is possible.

“Similarly, should non-Romney alternatives led by Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry fall flat in the January contests, there would be time for the conservative wing of the party to find a new champion to carry its banner through the bulk of the primary season.”

So, who might it be should it come to be? Not likely a Willkie-like business person who had never sought political office before. We know Donald Trump and The Donald is no Wendell Willkie. It would have to be someone with broad appeal to both the conservative and more establishment wings of the GOP and someone, like Willkie, who had appeal to moderates and independents, with a real chance – better than the established field – to beat the incumbent. Is Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels listening? The last dark horse was also a Hoosier.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson