America’s political system is designed to always pull toward the center. You have two parties who can’t get much done without compromise, a rigorous primary system to weed out the fringe candidates, and an electorate which has more Independents than any other affiliation.
Yet things don’t always work out that way. Sometimes, a controversial candidate manages to slip through the system and launch a genuine White House bid. This year, it’s Donald Trump. Next election, it might be Bernie Sanders or Ron Paul. But, no matter how polarizing these names might seem, none of them could hold a candle to some of America’s historical candidates. All of the below were nominated to lead genuine political parties. And all of proved mind-blowingly controversial.
10. Earl Browder
In American politics, the idea that anyone who self-describes as a socialist could get a party’s nomination seems ridiculous. That’s why in 2016, Bernie Sanders is losing to Hillary Clinton. But Sanders is far from the most left wing candidate in history. In 1936 and again in 1940, Earl Browder ran as a pro-Moscow Communist.
A WWI draft dodger, Browder was rabidly anti-Hitler, rabidly pro-Stalin, and connected to Soviet spies who were monitoring FDR’s government. His stated policies were to overthrow capitalism and turn America brick red. He received direct funding from Moscow and was married to a suspected Russian agent. When he was nominated to run as the Communist Party’s candidate, he posed for photographers with a giant hammer and sickle.
Browder was controversial for more than just his super-left beliefs. At the time of his nomination, he was under bail for forging passports. Before the election, he was sentenced to four years in jail. Nonetheless, he managed to pull down 48,557 votes – a mere 0.1% of all those cast, but still more than you’d expect a common criminal to get.
9. John Charles Frémont
In 1856, the newly formed Republican Party was looking for someone respectable to catapult their anti-slavery positions into the mainstream. John Fremont could have been that man. One of California’s first two senators ever elected, he was known for his absurdly heroic expeditions into places like Utah and the route West from Wyoming. To top it off, he was a self-made millionaire and had appeal in both Northern and Western states. What possible problems could there be?
Cannibalism. Cannibalism could be a problem.
Back in 1848-49, Fremont had led an expedition into the Sierras. When their guide got lost, the group had nearly starved. Some resorted to cannibalism to survive. When election time rolled round, you better believe Fremont’s opponents made use of this.
Fremont was publicly labelled a cannibal in the press. While we don’t actually know whether Fremont engaged in cannibalism to survive, the public definitely thought he had. The controversy lost the Republicans the election, although Fremont still managed to net around 33% of the vote. If the accusations were ever found by historians to be true, it’d mark the only time in US (and likely world) history that a known cannibal attempted to run for high office.
8. Barry Goldwater
It’s often said that you can judge a man by the company he keeps. It’s a phrase that would come to define Barry Goldwater’s run against Lyndon Johnson in 1964. A vocal conservative at a time when most of America was made up of New Deal liberals, Goldwater was more like a modern Republican: anti-taxes, anti-government spending, and hawkish on defense.
Unfortunately, Goldwater was also a political opportunist. Hoping to hoover up Southern votes from the Democrat administration, he voted against the Civil Rights Act. This won him the official endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan.
To the non-racists sitting at home, this made Goldwater look like the Klan candidate (Klandidate?). While some Southerners lapped it up, nearly everyone else was appalled the Republicans were offering up an apparent racist for election.
Goldwater only got more controversial when LBJ successfully painted him as a warmonger intent on causing a nuclear confrontation with Russia. The famous ‘Daisy’ ad screened before the election showed a little girl getting obliterated by a nuclear fireball as the result of a Goldwater presidency. The ad had the desired effect. By November, Goldwater was so controversial that he only picked up six states and 38.5% of the vote.
7. Eugene V. Debs
A socialist in the truest sense of the word, Eugene V. Debs is today a cultural icon. Kurt Vonnegut loved him. Bernie Sanders has called him his hero. Yet in his heyday (roughly 1900-1920), Debs was more controversial than Sanders could ever dream of being. In 1920, he ran for president while languishing in prison.
A former union member who’d done time for leading a large strike in the late 19th century, Debs became the Socialist Party’s standard bearer in 1900. He kept that position for the next five presidential elections, convinced that America’s workers would one day hear the siren call of socialism and rise up against the system. In the 1912 election, he even picked up six percent of the popular vote – equivalent to nearly one million votes.
But his most controversial election came in the aftermath of WWI. A conscientious objector, Debs had refused the draft and been thrown in jail. Many in the country now saw him as no better than a traitor. Yet Debs still ran for president from the confines of his cell. Impressively, he picked up another million votes, showing just how much of a hero to some people this supposed ‘traitor’ was.
6. George Wallace
If Barry Goldwater aligned himself with racist causes out of political miscalculation, George Wallace was the real deal. A man so committed to the separation of whites and blacks that he physically tried to block two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. A man who famously declared “segregation forever.” There was no way a presidential run couldn’t be controversial.
In 1968, Wallace launched the American Independent Party and announced his bid for the White House. He was the most openly racist candidate to run in a generation, and his bid sent America into meltdown. Wallace publically railed against hippies, the Supreme Court, and the government. At his rallies, supporters surrounded black protestors and chanted “kill ’em, kill ’em, kill ’em!” As his running mate, Wallace chose a guy who wanted to use nukes tobomb America’s enemies into oblivion.
Amazingly, Wallace’s campaign almost did the impossible: not win the presidency, but blur the results so badly that neither Republicans nor Democrats could claim an outright victory. He carried five states, nearly carried two others, and netted 13.5% of the popular vote (equivalent to nearly 10 million votes).
5. Huey P. Long
Huey Long is unique on our list in that he didn’t actually run for president. He was fully planning to go for the White House in 1936, but was shot dead by assassin Carl Weiss in September 1935, only a month after announcing his bid.
Yet in the short period of time between his announcement and his death, Long (known in his native Louisiana as the ‘Kingfisher’) still managed to be one of the most controversial candidates in American history. Many thought he was deliberately modelling himself on Benito Mussolini.
A brash populist who surrounded himself with openly anti-Semitic advisors, Long’s campaign had associations with fascist sympathizers like Father Charles Coughlin. He went everywhere with state troopers, who dressed in uniforms that recalled Mussolini’s Black Shirts. While some of his policies were to the left of FDR, his demagogic tendencies meant plenty in the establishment feared he was a fascist dictator-in-the-making. Had he not died, Long would likely have been more controversial as a candidate than anyone else on this list.
However, Weiss killed him before America got a chance to find out. The movement Long had inspired dissipated soon after. In sign of how divisive the Kingfisher was, both his funeral and the funeral of his assassin attracted huge crowds.
4. Victoria Woodhull
Everything Victoria Woodhull did seemed designed to offend the sensibilities of the American mainstream in the 1870s.
At a time when women still didn’t have the vote nationally, she ran to be America’s first female president. At a time when slavery had only recently been abolished and Jim Crow was just around the corner, she put former slave Frederick Douglass on her ticket. She advocated free love, the legalization of prostitution, the practice of eugenics, and giving women the vote. When she was made head of the Equal Rights Party in 1872, the country’s media lost its mind.
Woodhull’s ideas were so out of whack with the 19th century that members of the public vowed to murder her. People wrote to her and her party, saying they would poison her or burn her alive – the sort of threats modern candidates get every day on Twitter, but were significantly rarer back then. By the time of the election, she’d even been imprisoned for “using the mail for the circulation of questionable literature.”
Unlike some on our list, Woodhull’s divisiveness didn’t translate to votes. The Equal Rights Party received so few it worked out as statistically less than 0.1% of the popular vote.
3. Pat J. Buchanan
The most recent candidate we’re going to cover, Pat Buchanan ran on the Reform Party ticket in 2000 after failing to get on the Republican one in ’92 and ’96. There was a good reason for this failure. Buchanan supported some positions that went beyond being merely controversial, and into out-and-out bigotry.
One aspect of Buchanan’s platform was to halt non-white immigration. The move won him support amongst white nationalists and far-right extremists, but alienated nearly everybody else. He was also openly anti-gay, calling AIDS “nature’s retribution” against gays and labelling homosexuality a “disorder.” Finally, Buchanan was also widely regarded as anti-Semitic, not least because he’d once praised Adolf Hitler as “an individual of great courage, a soldier’s soldier in the Great War, a leader steeped in the history of Europe.”
With such views, Buchanan would have been controversial at the best of times. But he additionally ran on a platform that would have essentially banned abortion and loosened gun rights even more than George W. Bush did. His candidacy was so extreme it was later called the final nail in the Reform Party’s coffin.
Interestingly, Buchanan’s campaign continued to be controversial even after the election. In Florida, around 3,000 Jewish retirees were found to have accidentally voted for him, due to poor design of the state’s ballots. Many claimed these people were intending to vote for Al Gore and Bush’s election should thus have been nullified.
2. George Edwin Taylor
If you want the definition of bravery, look no further than George Edwin Taylor. The Liberty Party candidate in 1904, Taylor’s shot at the presidency was history in the making. Not because he was running for a recently revived party (the original Liberty Party had stopped fielding candidates in 1848). Not because his platforms included reparations for ex-slaves at a low point in US race relations. No, what was incredible about Taylor was that he was the first African-American in history to run for president.
The son of a former slave who had been left homeless and uncared for as a child, Taylor had used his natural talents and fierce drive to work his way up the ranks at a newspaper, eventually becoming editor. Although he was incredibly sharp and a gifted speaker, the mere color of his skin sent most of the US into meltdown. Taylor was considered a dangerous, extremist candidate and shunned by most of the media. Ultimately, he would receive less than 2,000 votes. But for the sheer brass of being a black man running for president at a time of Jim Crow, racial violence and race hostility, he deserves to be remembered.
1. Grover Cleveland
Many presidents have been more controversial than Grover Cleveland. But few have had to deal with such big scandals before they even won the election. During his time on the campaign trail, Cleveland found himself at the center of a controversy that utterly shocked the public of the day. It was discovered the Democratic nominee had been hiding a secret love child.
If that doesn’t sound particularly scandalous, you have to remember this was 1884 – a time when Victorian morals were an everyday reality. On top of that, there’s some evidence to suggest Cleveland impregnated the mother through rape, then abused his power to have her thrown in a mental asylum so she couldn’t tell anyone about it. Even if this was embellished, it was dynamite stuff. The modern equivalent would be the FBI finding an email on Hillary Clinton’s server headlined WHY BENGHAZI WAS MY FAULT.
In other words, Cleveland should’ve been sunk. The public hated him, and Republicans were turning up at his rallies and shouting “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” The press branded him a libertine. Unfortunately for the Republicans, their guy – James G. Blaine – was openly corrupt and had traded congressional favors for cash. The vote came down to a knife-edge count in New York, with only one state separating the two candidates. New York went Cleveland by a mere 2,000 votes. As a result, one of the most-controversial candidates in the 19th century wound up becoming the 22nd president.
Controversial Presidential Candidates