The Increasing Importance of Vice-Presidents in American Politics


            The Vice-President of the United States had traditionally been a dead-end street politically. In the beginning, when the vice-president was the runner-up, all vice-presidents went on to be presidents. Adams was Washington's vice-president, and Jefferson was Adams'. But the tied election of 1800, when vice-presidential candidate Aaron Burr almost took the presidency from Jefferson, prompted the passage of the 12th Amendment, forcing the candidates for President and Vice-President to run together. Subsequently, the Secretary of State became the stepping stone to the White House.

            After Jefferson, none of the vice-presidents were elected President until Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson's vice-president, managed to get elected president in his own right in 1836.

            Of course, vice-presidents became president if the chief executive died in office.  John Tyler succeeded to the presidency when William Henry Harrison died in 1841. Millard Fillmore took over from Zachary Taylor, who died in 1853, and Andrew Johnson replaced the assassinated Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

            There then followed Chester Arthur and Theodore Roosevelt, who took over from assassinated presidents James Garfield and William McKinley, respectively. Roosevelt was the first vice-president since Van Buren sixty-eight years before, who managed to be nominated for president and win. In the hundred years between 1804 and 1904, only vice presidents John Breckinridge, James Buchanan's vice-president, and Millard Fillmore were nominated for president, both by minor parties, and both lost.

            Modern accidental presidents have fared better at the polls than their predecessors. Calvin Coolidge won re-election in 1924 after he entered the White House upon the death of Warren Harding. Harry Truman won an election on his own after serving the remainder of Franklin Roosevelt's term, even though Henry Wallace, Roosevelt's third term vice-president, was a Progressive Party candidate in that same election. It was the first time two vice-presidents faced each other. And Lyndon Johnson was elected in 1964 after the murder of John Kennedy.

            Yet, the office of vice-president is considered a weak one.   Adams referred to the vice-presidency as "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt's vice-president for his first two terms, said the vice-presidency "wasn't worth a pitcher of warm piss." The twentieth century has seen the vice-presidency gain in power,  prestige, and political potency.

            There had been a 132-year hiatus of victorious vice-presidential candidates winning on their own without first succeeding to the presidency until Richard Nixon, after first losing to Kennedy in 1960, came back to win in 1968. Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey, who had been Lyndon Johnson's second-in-command, in the second contest between two vice-presidents, the first where both had a major party nomination. Nixon even managed to win re-election, but ended up resigning from the presidency, which is not a sign of political strength.

             Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter's vice-president, like Humphrey, was a party nominee who lost ‒ to Ronald Reagan.

            George H.W. Bush, Reagan's vice-president, became the first president since Van Buren 152 years before, to be elected to the presidency directly from the office of Vice-President. However, H. W. Bush also failed to win re-election and was replaced by Bill Clinton.

            Al Gore, Bill Clinton's vice-president, was the third to win directly from the vice-presidency in 2000, but it was stolen from him by W. Bush and the Supreme Court. It's hard to be a weaker candidate than that.

            And now Joe Biden, Barack Obama's vice-president, has become president.

            After 132 years in which no vice-president managed to get elected president without succeeding to the White House on the death of the incumbent, there have now been three (or four) in the past 60 years, in addition to two during that time who won their party's nomination but lost the election. Every election in the 1960s and 70s had at least one Vice-President as a major party contender.

            In the sixteen presidential elections since 1960, ten, or 62.5%, have had a former vice-president as a major party candidate, compared with eight out of the previous forty-three elections (18.6%). Of these, two were runners-up before the Twelfth Amendment, and two were minor party nominees.

            So, the vice-presidency has become a more significant office in American politics. Still, of the ten vice-presidents who became president through the death or resignation of the president, six failed to remain in office past the next election. Only four managed to win a presidential term in their own right even after accidentally entering the White House. Given these historical patterns, it is unlikely that Joe Biden will be re-elected and probable that Mike Pence will be the Republican nominee and perhaps even be elected president to a single term in 2024.

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Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf