A Heartbeat Away

What do Joe Biden and Martin Van Buren have in common? Nothing yet.

Author: Robert Schmuhl ’70

Often lost in the cacophony of campaign commentary and its priority on immediacy is consideration of just how historic a Joe Biden victory would be.

A Democrat who has served as vice president has not won the White House since 1836, when Martin Van Buren defeated William Henry Harrison. Harrison came back to defeat Van Buren in 1840, beginning a losing streak for Democrats who’d been a heartbeat away that extends to today.


Dare we call it the Van Buren Curse?

Colorized portrait of Martin Van Buren
By Daniel Hass/Wikimedia Commons

In recent political history, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Walter Mondale in 1984 and Al Gore in 2000 — Democratic veeps all — went down to defeat. But they are not alone.

Remarkably, every single Democratic vice president since Van Buren’s time has seriously tried to ascend to the nation’s highest office, with the exception of two (William King and Thomas Hendricks) who died in office.

Since the Democratic Party was organized in 1828, the party has had 17 vice presidents. Besides Van Buren, only two others have moved up to take charge — Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson — each succeeding chief executives who died in office, then running and winning as incumbent presidents (in 1948 and 1964 respectively). They were no longer perceived as understudies; they’d become main characters in their own right.

In most cases, vice presidents (such as Alben Barkley, Thomas Marshall and Adlai Stevenson I) went to their party’s national conventions with Oval Office dreams, only to come away empty without the presidential nomination.

John Nance Garner, who once cracked that “the vice presidency is not worth a bucket of warm spit,” even defied his own boss of eight years, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1940, when Roosevelt decided to seek an unprecedented third term. Garner collected just 61 votes at the Democratic convention to FDR’s 946. Needless to say, Garner was replaced on the 1940 ticket by Henry Wallace.

Will Biden break this spell of 180 years? We’ll see.

Biden also confronts another deep-seated hurdle, and this one dates back even further to the heyday of America’s founders. Except for Thomas Jefferson’s victory in the much-disputed election of 1800, no candidate who’s served as vice president has ever wrested the White House away from an incumbent president. Mondale’s defeat to President Ronald Reagan 36 years ago is the most recent example.

Besides grappling with these electoral curiosities that have roots early in the 19th century, Biden faces more contemporary circumstances that possess historical implications.

As a senator, Biden ran for the presidency twice — in the campaigns of 1988 and 2008 — so he’s hoping the third time becomes his charm. Interestingly, however, every president since Bill Clinton in 1992 mounted winning campaigns on their first attempt before going on to re-election. Indeed, victory by Donald Trump would mark the fourth straight two-term presidency, a string of continuity in America’s chief executives that’s never happened before.

Moreover, since Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976, “outsiders” — figures without a strong Washington association — have become the preferred White House choices for both Democrats and Republicans. The only exception to the “outsider” pattern during the last four decades was that consummate “insider” George H.W. Bush, himself a two-term vice president. Will Biden, another eight-year VP, join him as an insider who achieved the apex of federal power?

As candidates barnstorm around the country and plead that “democracy” or “the economy” or “character” will be on the ballot this Election Day, it’s important to remember that history is, too, for both candidates.

Bob Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor Emeritus of American studies and journalism at Notre Dame. He is the author or editor of 15 books, most recently Fifty Years with Father Hesburgh: On and Off the Record and The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from FDR to Trump (both published by Notre Dame Press).