Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

10 famous people who switched political parties

March 20, 2015 by NCC Staff


On the Republican Party’s 161st birthday, Constitution Daily looks at Republicans who were once Democrats (Ronald Reagan), Democrats who used to be Republicans (Hillary Clinton) and two presidents who changed parties under different circumstances.


clinton-reaganThe whole notion of political parties was looked down upon by the Founding Fathers, but Alexander Hamilton, and his later political rival, Aaron Burr, played roles in creating the adversarial party system.


By 1856, when the Republicans replaced the Whigs as the second major national party, movement between parties became more commonplace. Today, when a significant public figure changes parties, the move becomes a national story. And in other cases, famous people switched parties before they become famous.


Here’s a look at 10 major figures who decided to change parties at some point in their lives.


John Tyler. When Tyler became President after William Henry Harrison’s death in 1841, he was soon disowned by his own party, the Whigs, and expelled from the party while in office. Tyler didn’t join the Democrats, so he was a president without a party.


Hannibal Hamlin. Hamlin was Abraham Lincoln’s first Vice President. He was a life-long Democrat who switched parties after 1856, when he didn’t agree with the pro-slavery position taken by many party members. His defection to the Republicans made national headlines.


Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt served nearly two full presidential terms as a progressive Republican. But after he grew dissatisfied with his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, Roosevelt left the 1912 Republican convention and formed his own party. He lost his bid for a third term in office, and he later returned to the GOP.


Wendell Willkie. The 1940 Republican presidential candidate was a delegate at the 1932 Democratic convention. But he officially left the Democrats in 1939 after a dispute with the Franklin Roosevelt administration.


Ronald Reagan. Reagan was also originally a Democrat and a New Deal supporter, who became a union leader while in Hollywood. He switched parties officially in 1962 and gave a famous quote: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”


Strom Thurmond. He ran as a segregationist candidate for President in 1948, and then served in the U.S. Senate in the 1950s. By 1964, Thurmond switched to the Republican Party in the middle of the Civil Rights battle, as many Democrats sided with the Johnson administration.


Elizabeth Dole. Dole served in the Johnson administration in the 1960s as a Democrat. But she remained with the Nixon administration, and switched parties in 1975, before her husband, Bob Dole, joined Gerald Ford on the 1976 GOP presidential ticket.


Hillary Clinton. In 1964, a very young Hillary Rodham Clinton was one of the Goldwater Girls who campaigned for the Arizona Republican. She officially became a Democrat later in the 1960s after she attended the 1968 GOP convention.


Leon Panetta. Panetta started out in politics as a Republican and he worked briefly in the Nixon administration. He switched parties in 1971 over concerns about the civil rights policies of the Nixon administration.


Elizabeth Warren. The current liberal icon started life as a conservative who voted Republican because of the party’s pro-business stance, and she didn’t switch to the Democratic Party until the mid-1990s.


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