A History of Insurgent Candidates' Impact on Down-Ballot Races

Top-of-the-ticket insurgents like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders often show little interest in helping other like-minded candidates win lower offices.
by | May 13, 2016
Presidential candidate George C. Wallace, center, on the campaign trail in 1968. (AP)

During a May 5 rally in Charleston, W.Va., Donald Trump said something no one was expecting. He told the audience not to bother showing up to the polls in the following week’s primary.

"What I want you to do is save your vote -- you know, you don't have to vote anymore,” Trump told the crowd. “Save your vote for the general election, OK? Forget this one. The primary is gone."

It was an emblematic moment for Trump’s candidacy -- and one that illuminates a pattern set by many of his predecessors who have run insurgent presidential campaigns. Far more often than not, such candidacies are focused on advancing the presidential ambitions of the candidate, with little attention to the nitty-gritty of building a political network of down-ballot officeholders. This is true even when doing so could help advance their agenda.

In the case of West Virginia, Trump was correct that he didn’t really need any more votes because he had effectively clinched the Republican nomination two days earlier when he won the Indiana primary. But in saying this, Trump overlooked the other primary contests further down the ballot, from state legislative seats to judicial races.

Later that night, Trump did reverse himself, tweeting, “Thank you West Virginia. Let's keep it going. Go out and vote on Tuesday -- we will win big. #Trump2016."

Still, his oversight is telling, and it fits snugly with a century’s worth of American political history.

“The Trump phenomenon is ‘all about Trump,’ so it's not surprising that he hasn't recruited candidates,” said Ron Rapoport, a College of William and Mary government professor and author of Three’s a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot and Republican Resurgence.

The same can be said about Trump’s Democratic rival Bernie Sanders, another insurgent who, for the most part, also hasn’t prioritized assistance to down-ballot candidates. Sanders has endorsed just three congressional candidates -- Zephyr Teachout in New York, Pramila Jayapal in Washington state and Lucy Flores in Nevada.

While Trump and Sanders are both running for the nominations of major parties, the more common path for insurgent candidates is to run under a third-party banner.

“These sorts of candidates -- I like to call them ‘unconnected outsiders’ -- benefit from media and often demagogic appeals, but they tend not to be well-organized or interested in developing a serious structure,” said Andrew E. Busch, director of Claremont McKenna College’s Rose Institute of State and Local Government. “A real party is bigger than its candidate, and many of these candidates are not interested in being overshadowed or constrained by any such structure. This gives them more freedom of action in the short run, but it’s a weakness in the long run.”

Referring to billionaires Trump and Ross Perot, who ran for president in 1992 and 1996, Purdue University political scientist James McCann said that “it’s easier to make a billion dollars in business than it is to form a fresh, well-organized political movement with staying power.”

Historians point to a few insurgent presidential candidates who were able to operate in tandem with a broader network, but they usually sprung from an existing, organized movement -- such as socialists Norman Thomas and Eugene V. Debs -- or represented a breakaway bloc within a major party.

The closest example of a candidate who was both a genuine insurgent and a party builder is Huey Long, the legendary populist governor and senator from Louisiana. Before his death from an assassin’s bullet, many expected him to run for president.

“Huey Long was an interesting blend of Donald Trump hucksterism and empire building,” said Pearson Cross, a University of Louisiana-Lafayette political scientist. “He was assiduous in promoting like-minded people down-ticket and was very successful in doing so. In fact, after his assassination, the Long versus anti-Long factions into which he had divided the state continued for 30 years. Long, unlike Trump, was a person who understood the idea of a political legacy and operation.”

By contrast, historians say another Southern populist politician -- Alabama’s George C. Wallace -- was much less successful in crafting a lasting political infrastructure. Wallace ran for president in 1968 and 1972, courting white Southerners disaffected with the civil rights movement. But while Wallace nominally ran for president under the banner of the American Independent Party, it's widely considered merely a vehicle for Wallace’s ambitions, said Jeff Frederick, a historian at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke.

“Rather than Wallace recruiting like-minded candidates, it was rather the like-minded candidates trying to latch onto the popularity of George Wallace,” said William H. Stewart, an emeritus professor of political scientist at the University of Alabama.

In more recent years, Perot has fared the best as an insurgent candidate, winning almost one-fifth of the popular vote for president in 1992. More than some of the others, Perot made an effort to institutionalize his success through the creation of the Reform Party.

Reform Party Chairman Russ Verney told National Journal in 1997 that the party had endorsed 69 congressional incumbents from major parties the previous campaign cycle, 65 of whom won. But Verney acknowledged that the endorsements drew little attention, largely because those candidates ran only on their Democratic or Republican ballot lines, not on parallel Reform Party ballot lines.

“The Reform Party never really escaped Perot’s shadow before fading out at the national level,” said Busch of the Rose Institute. “Pat Buchanan was its nominee in 2000, which few people remember.”

Other insurgent candidates have shown little interest in creating a lasting political movement.

“It’s not my job to build the party -- it’s Rick McCluhan’s,” Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura told National Journal in 2000, referring to a former Republican who was then serving as the state Independence Party chairman. “My job first is to govern the state. If I have spare time and can lend some help, I can do that. But it’s not my job to be the party builder. Elected officials have to do what they’re paid to do.”

Ventura, beset by feuds with the legislature and the media and suffering from sinking approval ratings, declined to run for a second term in 2002. No subsequent Independence Party candidate for a major Minnesota office came close to the 37 percent of the vote Ventura won in his third-party bid in 1998.

"There were several forces that contributed to the collapse of the Independence Party in Minnesota, but one critical part was the failure of Ventura to assist in building the party and its organization,” said David Schultz, a political scientist at Hamline University in St. Paul. “He had many good people, a powerful grassroots movement, and a state public financing system to help sustain the party. But in the end, he did not translate his persona into a force to help keep the party going."

Ventura “was only interested in his own cult of personality,” agreed Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “The world will little note nor long remember his political legacy.”

Ralph Nader -- whose vote haul for the Green Party in the 2000 election is blamed by many for throwing the landmark election from Democrat Al Gore to Republican George W. Bush -- has reluctantly concluded that it’s better to work inside the two-party system than outside it.

In an interview for the Princeton Alumni Weekly less than three weeks after Election Day 2000, Nader said he intended to “recruit and field more candidates -- local, state and national” for the Green Party during the succeeding few years. But 16 years later, Nader penned an op-ed for The Washington Post titled, "Why Bernie Sanders was right to run as a Democrat."

If there is a silver lining for insurgent candidates, it's that their ideas can sometimes last longer than their party infrastructure. Insurgent candidates and movements have helped promote causes like child labor laws, women’s suffrage and racial integration.

“It can be shortsighted to end the story there,” said Nancy C. Unger, a Santa Clara University historian. “If the third-party candidate has tapped into something powerful, that candidate's proposals may well be subsequently co-opted by more mainstream parties even in the wake of that candidate's defeat."

Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz said the conditions are ripe for such longer-term impacts in 2016, regardless of what happens to the Trump and Sanders candidacies.

“The underlying forces that gave rise to Trump and Sanders will not be gone after this election,” said Abramowitz. “Trump has clearly tapped into a real divide within the GOP base that is not going away. On the Democratic side, there is evidence that the party base has been shifting to the left and that there is a large constituency for economic populism. We are likely to see more candidates seeking to appeal to [both those constituencies] in the future.”

Maybe, even, some of them in down-ballot offices.