Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

A look at five unexpected vice presidential nominations

July 8, 2016 by Scott Bomboy


Nowadays, a presumptive presidential nominee usually names a running mate before a political convention starts. But that hasn’t always been the case, and in some very famous examples, these last-minute presences on the ticket can have long-term implications.

Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon Johnson

For example, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson were picks made at a convention to run as vice presidential candidates. All three would later become President through the deaths of their White House predecessors.

Since 1980, only two vice presidential candidates have been named at a major party’s national convention: George H.W. Bush in 1980 and Dan Quayle in 1988. In current times, presidential nominees and their advisers usually undertake a lengthy background check process about prospective candidates and then leverage the candidate’s announcement heading into convention week.

This year, candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump haven’t announced their VP picks and there were rumors that Trump could wait until the Republican convention in Cleveland.

So here is a look back at when the vice presidential nomination process was less certain and a bit more dramatic.

1988: Bush picks Quayle over the Doles

Going into the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans, GOP nominee George H.W. Bush hadn’t named his running mate. Among the known contenders were Jack Kemp, Robert Dole, and Senator Dole’s wife, Elizabeth Dole. Another rumored contender was Quayle, a 41-year-old Senator from Indiana who wasn’t well-known nationally. According to reports at the time, Quayle emerged as a serious contender about four days before Bush confirmed his selection on a riverboat docked at the New Orleans convention.

1980: Bush as a literal last-second nominee

Ronald Reagan was a clear-cut choice as the Republican nominee going into the 1980 convention in Detroit. Reagan’s rumored running mate would have been one of the most interesting in modern history: former President Gerald Ford. There had been widely reported talks between the Reagan and Ford camps about a “co-presidency,” but the negotiations stalled as the time neared for Reagan to appear at the podium. As the future President spoke, he announced that his toughest primary rival, Bush, was his running mate. Later, Bush told reporters that, “'out of a clear blue sky, Governor Reagan called me up and asked if I would be willing to run with him on the ticket. I was surprised, of course, and I was very, very pleased.”

1960: JFK also picks his biggest rival as vice president

Two men with strong personalities fought bitterly at the end of the 1960 Democratic nomination process, with Kennedy managing a first-ballot nomination in Los Angeles. Johnson also publicly proclaimed that his role as Senate majority leader was more important than being vice president. So it wasn’t a surprise when reporters gasped when Kennedy announced Johnson as his pick at a press conference; Orville Freeman, Stuart Symington and Hubert Humphrey were the rumored contenders. Kennedy and his advisers knew that Johnson would strengthen the Democratic ticket in the South.

1956: Stevenson lets convention pick his running mate

The 1952 and 1956 Democratic conventions were full of surprises. President Truman was eligible to run again in 1952, but declined to do so, forcing an open convention. Estes Kefauver won 12 of 13 Democratic state primaries; however, the nomination process was still controlled by party leaders and state delegates, and 10 potential nominees were at the convention. Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson came away with the third ballot after a rousing convention speech. Four years later, Stevenson again was the nominee, but he refused to name a running mate and left that task to the convention floor. The VP candidates nominated on the floor included Kefauver, Kennedy and Tennessee Senator Albert A. Gore. Kefauver won on the third ballot after Gore dropped from the contest.

1944: Roosevelt picks Truman over a sitting Vice President

Heading into his fourth election bid for President, Franklin D. Roosevelt had soured on his then-Vice President, Henry Wallace. However, Wallace still planned to seek the vice presidential nomination on the convention floor in Chicago and had considerable support. James Byrnes and William O. Douglas were the leading candidates to run against Wallace. Roosevelt’s team then appealed to Truman behind closed doors. Party leaders knew the pick was crucial because of Roosevelt’s apparent declining health. Truman was acceptable as a choice for pro-union and conservative Democrats. Truman was reluctant to accept until Roosevelt insisted, reportedly on a strongly worded phone call. Truman was approved on the second ballot, but only after considerable efforts were made convincing Wallace supporters to switch candidates.

Recent Historical Stories on Constitution Daily

On this day, the Republican Party names its first candidatesThree Presidents Die on July 4th: Just a Coincidence?The Constitution signer who was impeached and expelled

Sign up for our email newsletter