19th Century newspaper baron Horace Greeley is best known for the quote borrowed for the title of this post. As the founder and editor of the New York Tribune (which later merged with the Herald before shutting down in 1966) he was a champion of the Whig, then Republican, antislavery movement. What not as many people remember is that he donated his body to be defeated by Ulysses S. Grant in the 1872 presidential election. Many modern sources list him as a Democrat, but in truth the Democratic Party was so weak during Reconstruction that they endorsed Greeley rather than nominate their own candidate. The general election was therefore a competition between two factions within the GOP, one of which had nominal Democratic support.

That's not the interesting part, though. Greeley is the only major party presidential candidate to drop dead before Electoral votes were cast.

I won't rehash the entire Electoral College system here (here is a primer if you're lost) but its most useful contribution to modern American politics seems to be the introduction of a number of great hypotheticals. With the ages of a number of candidates in this election more than a handful of people have brought up scenarios in which a nominee dies. What happens? It depends a great deal on when they die.

For the sake of argument let's say Clinton and Warren (VP) win the Democratic nomination. Just to facilitate this example. Anything that happens before the Democratic convention would be an easy solution for either party, by the way. Running in the primaries is not strictly necessary to win the nomination if a candidate – Clinton in this example – were to win delegates in the primaries but die before the delegates cast their votes at the convention. Those delegates would become uncommitted, which is the same thing that happens to delegates won in a primary when a candidate drops out. And really, dying before the convention is nothing more than dropping out of the race. Really emphatically.

After the convention but before the election, if either nominee died they would be replaced according to the rules established by the parties. It wouldn't necessarily be the most formal process; in 1972 when Thomas Eagleton was removed from the Democratic ticket, the nominee (George McGovern) was basically told to pick someone else by the Democratic National Committee. There could be a second, smaller convention in which people in leadership positions met to choose someone in the old (pre-1968) convention style. If the VP nominee died, a new person would be chosen. If the presidential nominee died, either the VP nominee could be elevated to the position or a different person could be chosen. It would be kind of a mess.

After the election but before Electoral votes are cast – the Greeley predicament – is a bit more of a problem. Despite the fact that some states have "pledge laws" for Electors that are very likely unenforceable, Electors can vote for whomever they want. In 1872 nobody much cared because Greeley lost the election soundly, but the Electors split between voting for the deceased candidate and voting for an assortment of other politicians. Thanks to the 12th Amendment Electors cast two votes, one for president and one for VP. So, if the Clinton-Warren ticket won and then Clinton died, a plausible solution would be the Electors casting their votes for Warren as president and…it gets interesting. Could they collaborate and choose someone else to serve as VP? If you read Article II of the Constitution there would be nothing to stop them. They could also cast blank ballots for VP and then allow Congress to appoint someone to fill the position, as happened when Gerald Ford was chosen as VP upon the resignation of Spiro Agnew.

The really tricky part is the gap between the casting of Electoral votes and inauguration. It's a period of about 4 weeks, from late December to January 20. Having already received votes from the Electors, neither candidate could be replaced by the Democratic Party at this point. Alternative interpretations of the Constitution would abound, but the clear course of action would be the elevation of the VP-Elect to the position of President-Elect. Technically, I think the process would be the swearing-in of the VP-Elect and then, with the Presidency vacant upon the end of Obama's term, immediately elevated to the presidency. Then Congress would be required to fill the VP spot.

There's a contingency in place for just about any scenario. Nonetheless it should be obvious that losing a candidate at some point during the election – or especially after the election – would be a mess. The territory might not be entirely uncharted but it would be, with respect to Horace G., effectively unprecedented.

18 thoughts on “GO WEST, YOUNG MAN”

  • A Different Nate says:

    Horace Greeley has a couple of other claims to fame, at least indirectly. The more notable is the fact that Hjalmar Schact's parents were big admirers of Greeley and named their son after him – Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schact. Schact would grow up to be more or less the economic minister of the Third Reich until the later '30s, when he was dismissed because his Keynesian economic views were cramping Hitler's style. The success of the economy under Schact amid the global depression is fairly impressive, but it's not the kind of thing that tends to be brought up much in defense of the Keynesian approach since it was, after all, being used by the Nazis.

    Greeley's other footnote is lending his name to a city founded with the kind of technocratic optimism typical of Americans in the late 19th-century. Tragically, that city turned out to be Greeley, Colorado.

  • As a long time G&T reader, I recall a post exploring the scenario of a candidate (most likely McCain) dropping dead sometime during the 2008/9 election and inauguration process. Good times.

    It would seem the Democrats have more of a problem here, with front-runners Hillary (68) and Bernie (74). Republican question marks include Trump (69) and Christie (53, but obese); most of the other plausible nominees are in their 40s or 50s and seem reasonably healthy.

    This time around, Martin O'Malley's best shot at the big job is Hillary falling under the proverbial bus.

  • Eagleton got dropped because a psychiatrist had declared him sane. He would have been the first certified sane candidate. But no…was not to be…

  • Which just shows why the Electoral College system is archaic and stupid. Just go by popular vote. If someone dies after the election, just go to the #2 candidate. We don't need to cater to the slave states any more.

  • My memory of this is hazy but I read a bit of political fiction in Playboy in the early 70's (always a copy floating around in the barracks so it had to be '70 or '71) which went through a convoluted scenario ending with Mayor Lindsay of New York (former Republican then Democrat) securing the Presidency after numerous machinations in the electoral college even though he was not the nominee of either/any party for either Pres or VP. I think some third party candidate (Wallace perhaps?) carried some states in that fictional election.

  • @Dave Dell: As the OP notes, things could get pretty weird if a Presidential candidate dies. Either party might call on some elder statesman to take the top slot, instead of elevating the VP candidate. Possible recruits are Joe Biden for the Democrats, or Mitt Romney for the Republicans.

    If Trump fails to win the GOP nomination, he could well try a third-party run, with the potential to split the Electoral College and make all of this even more complicated.

  • The USA could do worse than O'Malley (like any of the Republican candidates…). Maryland is called a blue state, but outside of the Baltimore-Washinton high-tech, highly-educated Fed service corridor, you've got…Alabama. Go to any of the alphabet agencies or military bases and you'll find lots of cars demanding smaller gov't (of course, don't start by getting rid of THEIR job, oh no…). O'Malley was mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland, so he's used to dealing with Republican obstinacy and childishness.

  • One of the few things I miss about working at the VA hospital is my quadrennial stint explaining the Electoral College to my colleagues. Never went into this much detail, though.

    One of the closest calls we had in the XXth Century was the attempted assassination of FDR after his first election but before the inauguration. If he'd been killed, Cactus Jack Nance would almost certainly have become President; at least one alternative history story has been based on it. Not a best-case scenario.

  • @Katydid: I have family in Maryland so I'm somewhat familiar with O'Malley. I agree he looks like a pretty tolerable President. He just doesn't have the star power or distinctive ideology to stand out next to Hillary and Bernie. Assuming neither of them perishes in a bizarre gardening accident, O'Malley's best likely result is being named VP candidate.

  • @Talisker; I wouldn't mind having O'Malley for a VP. He reminds me of Joe Biden in that he seems to be able to get along with people, seems reasonably competent, and has actual governmental experience. Maryland is not an easy state–the majority of the state is gimme-gimme-gimme redstaters being supported by IT, biotech, and federal gov't jobs in the blue state part.

    His experience and personality, and the fact that he's not batcrap insane and/or Dominionist malignant whackadoo Christian puts him head-and-shoulders above anything the GOP has on offer.

  • I dunno, my experience in Maryland under O'Malley was similar to what I saw with Jindal in Louisina, by which I mean that both men seemed far more interested in buttressing their presidential prospects than the governing of their state.

    To his credit, even so O'Malley didn't crater the state like in Kansas.

  • Townsend Harris says:

    In 1972 George McGovern and his people asked Thomas Eagleton if there was anything they needed to know about Eagleton's background before offering him the Dems' vp spot. Eagleton chose to not divulge a game-changer: he'd had electro-convulsive therapy for depression. Eagleton knew his background would damage McGovern's campaign if it became public knowledge, but he'd successfully hidden that knowledge from Missouri's voters for years. In 1972 Eagleton thought his private medical history would remain private. I no longer recall who in the media first reported the story, but in retrospect Eagleton seems incredibly naive: McGovern's opponent was a kindhearted and naive politician named Richard Nixon, and Nixon's CREEP (Committee to Re-Elect the President) employed several boy scouts with names like Charles Colson and Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy.

  • Jeff Greenfield actually took on this subject in his 1996 novel, "The People's Choice."


    I think we need a "Federal Elections Amendment" that would, among other things (change House terms to 4 years, overturn Citizens United, remove barriers to voting, move Election Day to a Saturday and make it a federal holiday, etc), address the issue of a president-elect dying between Election Day and the meetings of the electors in December; and even in the weeks between the Electoral College meeting and Inauguration Day.

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