Breaking a Vice-Presidential Deadlock in the Senate

One of the unusual features of the 1896 presidential campaign that I talk about in my new book is that William Jennings Bryan had two running mates at the same time.  The Democratic Convention nominated Arthur Sewell, a New York businessman who appealed to the conservative wing of the Party.  The Populists chose Thomas Watson, an agrarian radical from Georgia.  (Watson spent most of his time on the stump attacking Sewell instead of McKinley.)  This meant that if Bryan had won, no vice-presidental candidate would have received a majority in the Electoral College.  In that scenario, the Twelfth Amendment provides that the Senate must choose from between the top two candidates.  This meant that Bryan could have ended up with McKinley’s running mate, William Hobart, as his vice-president.

The only time that a presidential candidate won a majority of the electoral vote and his vice-president did not was in 1836, when Martin Van Buren’s running mate, Richard Johnson (depicted right) came up short.  Why did that happen?  It was because Johnson had two children with his slave, Julia Chinn, and treated her as his common-law wife until her death.  Virginia’s electors refused to vote for him as a result, but the Senate did approve him as VP.  But he was not renominated by the Democrats in 1840.  An interesting story that I had not heard about until recently.

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3 Responses

  1. Joe says:

    “This meant that if Bryan had won, no vice-presidental candidate would have received a majority in the Electoral College.”

    It would depend on how close the race was. The actual Democratic v.p. split was 149/27 [S/W]. Watson only received 15% of the vote. It is reasonable to think that if Bryan picked up the seats won by Bryan, Watson would have received even less of a percentage given the conservative nature of the remaining field.

    Interestingly, there were splits of the electoral votes in 1896, a few electors even denying unanimous votes to the lead candidates. The election does show a possible quirk of the 12A.

  2. Joe says:

    There’s a silly typo in there where “Bryan” should be “McKinley.”

  3. Brian Kalt says:

    I like how in 1824, when the badly split presidential election was thrown into the House, the VP election was an easy victory for John C. Calhoun (he was the “running mate” of both Adams and Jackson).