Will Democrats Ever Go West? (For a Presidential Nominee)

Democrats have never nominated a westerner for their presidential or vice-presidential slots

democraticpartylogo5While there is theoretically still time for more Democrats to jump into the 2016 presidential race, the field seems to be set with four candidates (Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee) or possibly five (Jim Webb, still in the exploratory phase).

While Clinton could be geographically classified as a Midwesterner (born and raised in Illinois) or a Southerner (First Lady of Arkansas), her most recent political ties are in the Northeast, where she served eight years as a U.S. Senator from New York.

With Sanders from Vermont, O’Malley from Maryland, Chafee from Rhode Island, and Webb from Virginia, Democrats have once again ensured that their presidential nominee will not hail from the 13-state Western region.

And that is how it has always been.

A Smart Politics study finds that over the last the last 41 cycles since the first western state voted in a presidential race in 1852 (California) and the last 46 cycles since the founding of the party in 1832, the Democratic Party has never selected a westerner to be its presidential or vice presidential nominee – while the GOP has done so 15 times.

The closest Democrats have come to a Western presidential nominee are Plains state politicians William Jennings Bryan (Nebraska, 1896, 1900, 1908) and George McGovern (South Dakota, 1972) and southerner Lyndon Johnson from Texas (1964). Definitely west of the Mississippi, but not the West.

While it is far too early to project a short list for the party’s vice-presidential nominee this cycle, history suggests the odds are quite bleak on that front as well.

Democrats have never nominated a Westerner for the vice-presidential slot – unless one counts the Southern Democratic ticket in 1860.

In that cycle, U.S. Senator Joseph Lane from Oregon was nominated as the running-mate on John Breckinridge’s pro-slavery ticket. The Democratic nominees proper that cycle were Illinois U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas and former Georgia Governor Herschel Johnson (though Breckinridge/Lane won more electoral votes).

The furthest West the Democratic Party has ventured to select its vice presidential nominee is also Nebraska (Charles Bryan, 1924) and Texas (John Garner, 1932 and 1936; Lyndon Johnson, 1960; Lloyd Bentsen, 1988).

Republicans, meanwhile, have nominated westerners for president eight times beginning with their first nominee, former California Senator John Frémont in 1856.

After overlooking the region for the next 100+ years, the GOP then nominated several presidential hopefuls from the West over the last half-century: former California U.S. Senator Richard Nixon in 1960, 1968, and 1972, Arizona U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964, former California Governor Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and Arizona U.S. Senator John McCain in 2008.

Republicans have also selected Western politicians for the VP slot, doing so in seven cycles: Oregon U.S. Senator Charles McNary in 1940, California Governor Earl Warren in 1948, California U.S. Senator Richard Nixon in 1952 and 1956, former Wyoming U.S. Representative Dick Cheney in 2000 and 2004, and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in 2008.

There have been a handful of Democratic presidential candidates from the west who have had a run at the nomination, but fallen short.

The aforementioned Joseph Lane of Oregon was placed into nomination at the 1852 and 1860 Democratic conventions, peaking at fifth (14 votes) and fourth (20.5 votes) place respectively.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field of California also received support at two conventions reaching a high of 13 votes and fifth place in 1868 and 65.5 votes and fourth place in 1880.

Former Treasury Secretary William McAdoo (who became a westerner later in life, winning a U.S. Senate seat from the Golden State in the 1930s) ran second at the 1920 DNC and led for several ballots at the chaotic 1924 convention.

It would be nearly 50 years before the next Democrat from a western state made any waves at the DNC.

In 1972, Washington U.S. Senator Scoop Jackson came in a distant second in balloting behind George McGovern with 525 votes.

Four years later, Arizona U.S. Representative Mo Udall and California Governor Jerry Brown placed second and third at the DNC with 330 and 301 convention votes respectively.

In 1984, Colorado U.S. Senator Gary Hart won several primaries and finished second at the DNC with 1,201 delegates.

Brown, who had also run for president in 1980, came in second in the 1992 race for the Democratic nomination with 596 delegates.

And what will be the effect on the election if Democrats fail to produce a westerner on the ballot again in 2016?

In truth, probably not much – as the Republicans have only one western-identifying candidate running to be their standard-bearer among their 13 declared nominees – businesswoman Carly Fiorina, who was born in Texas but moved to the Golden State later in life. (Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was born in Colorado, but moved to the Midwest as a toddler).

In truth, even if there was a geographic advantage in the region to select a presidential or VP nominee with western roots, there are very few electoral votes up for grabs in the West.

In a normal cycle, Democrats will likely garner 78 votes from California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington while the GOP can count on 30 in Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming. (In a GOP-favored cycle, Oregon and Washington could be competitive as might be Arizona in a heavily Democratic-favored cycle).

That leaves just 20 electoral votes up for grabs in the region: Colorado (nine), Nevada (six), and a perhaps what is a generous inclusion of New Mexico (five).

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3 Comments on "Will Democrats Ever Go West? (For a Presidential Nominee)"

  1. The last time Yours Truly checked, HI has been part of the WESTERN US -whether territory or State- ever since it came under the control of the US military (since the 19th century, via overthrow of internationally recognised Monarchy). Even if both it and AK were not (to be) regarded as part of American West, States that straddle or are entirely west of the “One Hundredth Meridian” -NE, SD, and TX, among others on the Mainland- ought to be, for these are oriented way more towards the W than either South or North!

  2. Oddly enough, John Kerry was born in Denver. I realize you’re not going by birthplace, and obviously Kerry isn’t *really* a Westerner. Still, it’s worth noting.

  3. Also worth noting: Should either Lincoln Chafee or James Webb snag either spot on the ticket, each may credibly claim personal roots in the “West” – by virtue of residing for many years and/or graduating high school/college, in Montana and Nebraska, respectively. Another point: While neither Kerry or BHO is regarded as a son of the region, the same could/should be said of Hoover and Nixon, for they have been inside-the Beltway creatures, rather than “real” Westerners.

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