Picking a vice president can be dicey. Although the presidential candidate is the main focus in an election, there’s a chance that a popular or particularly adept veep can help the ticket, just as a particularly unpopular or offensive candidate can hurt it.
The selection is also done with the understanding that the vice president could become president if anything happens to the elected commander-in-chief. Out of the United States’ 45 presidents, nine came to the position via vice presidential succession. In eight of those cases, it was because the previous president died. Gerald Ford is an outlier because he ascended to the presidency after Richard Nixon resigned, and also because he’s the only president who wasn’t elected via a presidential ticket. (Nixon appointed Ford in 1973 after his elected vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned.)
Even though they can be overlooked, vice presidential candidates often have an impact whether they win or lose. Here are some of the most notable ones—for better or for worse—in U.S. history.
1. Andrew Johnson
During the Civil War’s election of 1864, Republican President Abraham Lincoln picked Democrat Andrew Johnson for his running mate as a unifying gesture. Unfortunately, the “unifying” candidate was averse to compromise. When Johnson became president after Lincoln’s assassination, the former slavery supporter vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (which Congress passed through override) and opposed the 14th Amendment.
“For the most part, historians view Andrew Johnson as the worst possible person to have served as President at the end of the American Civil War,” writes Elizabeth R. Varon, a history professor at the University of Virginia, for the university’s Miller Center. “He is viewed to have been a rigid, dictatorial racist who was unable to compromise or to accept a political reality at odds with his own ideas.”
In addition, Johnson was the first president ever impeached. The House of Representatives voted to impeach him in 1868 for violating the Tenure of Office Act, and the Senate fell short of convicting him by one vote. He served the remainder of the term he took over for Lincoln but didn’t receive a nomination to run for another.
2. James W. Ford
James W. Ford was likely the first Black American to campaign for vice president and receive popular votes. He ran as the Communist Party’s vice presidential nominee three times: in 1932, 1936 and 1940. Previously, the Equal Rights Party had nominated Frederick Douglass as Victoria Woodhull’s running mate in 1872, but he didn’t accept the nomination. Reverend Simon P.W. Drew also ran as the vice presidential candidate for the Interracial Independent Party in 1928, yet it’s unclear if the party’s ticket appeared on ballots and received popular votes.
Ford’s three vice presidential campaigns highlight how Black Americans historically ran for the office outside of the two-party system that denied them entry. The goal of these candidates wasn’t always to win the race, necessarily, but sometimes to draw national attention to racial and working-class issues.
There have been several Black men and women nominated for vice president since Ford. One was Charlotta Bass, the first Black woman nominated for vice president, who ran on the Progressive Party ticket in 1952. Senator Kamala Harris’ nomination for the 2020 Democratic ticket marked the first time a major party has ever nominated a Black American for vice president.
3. Richard Nixon
Before he was president, Richard Nixon served two terms as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president from 1953 to 1961. Their relationship wasn’t always cordial. In 1956, Eisenhower tried and failed to push Nixon off the ticket. During a 1960 press conference, when pressed to name Nixon’s contributions to his administration, Eisenhower replied: “If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.”
When the Republican Party first nominated Nixon for vice president in 1952, he was most famous for serving on the House Un-American Activities Committee, persecuting suspected communists and investigating Alger Hiss. He’d also already earned the nickname “Tricky Dick” for his negative campaign strategy. In particular, he liked to smear his opponents by associating them with communism.
4. Thomas Eagleton
In July 1972, Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern chose Thomas Eagleton as his running mate. A few days later, an anonymous call led McGovern’s campaign to learn Eagleton had previously been hospitalized for depression and received electroshock therapy. Around the same time, the Detroit Free-Press received another anonymous call about Eagleton.
When journalists questioned Eagleton about his medical history, he was upfront about it. At first, McGovern professed his confidence in Eagleton, saying he backed him “1,000 percent.” Yet after only 18 days as the vice presidential nominee, McGovern forced Eagleton to withdraw over fears that his past treatment would affect voters’ confidence in him.
It’s not clear how much Eagleton’s mental health history mattered to voters, but McGovern’s willingness to dump him hurt his campaign. That November, Nixon won reelection in a landslide, even though Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were already detecting a link between Nixon’s team and the Watergate break-in that summer.
5. Geraldine Ferraro
Before Ferraro, other women like Marietta Stow in 1884 and Charlotta Bass in 1952 had run for vice president on third-party tickets. In fact, Ferraro was one of several female vice presidential candidates the year she ran. One of them was scholar and civil rights activist Angela Davis, who ran as the Communist Party’s vice presidential candidate in 1980 and 1984.
Since Ferraro, only two other women have been a major party’s vice presidential candidate. Sarah Palin ran with John McCain on the Republican ticket in 2008 against Barack Obama and Joe Biden. In 2020, Biden picked California senator Kamala Harris to be his running mate against Donald Trump and Mike Pence. Harris was the first woman of color to be named on a major party's ticket.
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