Wide-open presidential election explained

This blog is a companion piece to a related column.

One of the curiosities of the 2008 election is that it is the first wide-open race — where neither a president nor a vice president seeks nomination — since 1928. That’s Herbert Hoover’s nomination, homefry. Hoover has been out of office for longer than my grandparents have been alive.

This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned the race being “wide-open,” but this fact involves a fascinating bit of history, and there were a few close calls and speedbumps along the way.

In 1952, incumbent Harry Truman ran in a few primaries, but gave up pretty early on. His vice president, Alben Barkley, lamely sought the nomination for a short while but was persuaded from lasting to the convention by adamant labor union leadership.

Barkley had been a fiery progressive and was admired well by Democratic leadership, but his campaign had been damaged because he was then a 74-year-old man with failing eyesight. He would die in 1956, before finishing one more term as Senator.

Both Truman and Barkley withdrew, but both did run for the nomination. Not quite a wide-open, even though neither candidacy even lasted to the national convention.

For the other bit of confusion, an anonymous editor here at The Collegian called me on the “wide-open” claim using the 1968 election, when incumbent president and then-likely Democratic nominee Lyndon Johnson declined to run for a second full term in 1968.

Too bad for the editor that Johnson’s ideological replacement was the then-vice president Hubert Humphrey. Like Barkley, Humphrey was also a former fiery progressive legislator popular with constituents but pigeonholed as vice president for a few unhappy years.

Humphrey decided to run as a pro-war candidate once LBJ dropped out of the race. He was an incumbent vice president and he was a candidate for the office of president.

The really interesting part is that he didn’t compete in primaries. For the most part, he was pledged support by delegates from states without primaries. It would take awkward diction and semantic tweezers the size of neutrons to make the case that 1968 was another wide-open nomination race.

It didn’t really matter much to Humphrey, though — his party’s vote split by segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace, both the Democrats and the American Independents lost in 1968 to anti-war candidate Richard Nixon, a Republican.

Because Humphrey, Barkley and Truman all sought their party’s nomination some way or another — with varying degrees of success — all of them ran for nomination.

Arguing over labels like this one might be silly. After all, who cares about however many years it has been since we really had an unclouded nomination race?

George W. Bush faces term limits, and Dick Cheney had the foresight to quit while he’s ahead. That’s already a lot to be happy about.

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In other words: Iowa’s Republican caucus split six ways; while Hillary falls a little with women, Edward gains with men; and a poll shows a tie at 26 percent among three candidates by voters who are Iowa’s “certain-to-caucus”-ers.

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