During this campaign season I’ve been helping Newell Bringhurst and Craig Foster edit their forthcoming book, The Mormon Quest for the Presidency. The book tells the fascinating story of 9 Mormons who ran for president prior to Mitt Romney’s bid and I thought I’d briefly share their stories while Mitt’s fate is being decided today…
1844 Joseph Smith Jr. (no party) — In an era when the separation of church and state were still absolute, Smith was the first clergyman to run for president. As such, he did not emphasize his role as a prophet or as president of the Mormon church. Instead, he campaigned as “General Joseph Smith” (of the Nauvoo Legion of the Illinois militia). Smith organized the Council of Fifty whose chief goal was to campaign to get him elected president. The Fifty ratified Smith’s choice of Sidney Rigdon for Vice President, and then spread out across the country campaigning for the Smith-Rigdon ticket. Smith’s positions were expressed in a widely distributed pamphlet entitled “General Smith’s Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States.” Dominating the day was the question of Texas annexation, which Smith favored. This was a very popular position in the western states which were interested in expansion and cheap land. People in the eastern states viewed the question more soberly because annexation meant an unprovoked war with Mexico. The leading contenders for the Democratic and Whig party nominations were Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay, both of whom came out against annexation. Smith’s initial, quixotic hope was to capture enough of the pro-expansion vote to prevent a clear winner in the Electoral College, throwing the choice to the House of Representatives, where he planned to bargain as John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay had done in 1824. The Democrats’ surprise nomination of James K. Polk and their adoption of a pro-expansionist ticket upset those plans and ultimately resulted in their victory that year. Meanwhile in June of 1844, Smith himself became the first US presidential candidate ever to be assassinated while most of the Fifty were still out on the campaign trail.
3 MAJOR PARTY RUNS
1968 George W. Romney (Republican) — Born in the Mormon polygamist colonies in Mexico, Mitt Romney’s father had been president of American Motors and had become the popular governor of Michigan. Romney was a liberal Republican who eliminated the state’s massive budget deficit by imposing the state’s first income tax. For the 1968 election, Romney was initially the leading choice for the Rockefeller wing of the Republican party and he quickly emerged as the party’s frontrunner. However, Romney’s muddled position on the Vietnam War (he was for it before he became unclear about it and then ultimately came out against it) became unpopular among Republicans and Romney dropped out before the primaries, leaving the nomination to Richard Nixon. The Mormon Question: Because Romney was a vocal supporter of civil rights for blacks in the face of the LDS church’s active political opposition, he was viewed as an independent thinker. These circumstances neutralized the question of whether Romney would be “taking orders” from Salt Lake, and his Mormon identity did not have a major impact on his candidacy.
1976 Morris K. “Mo” Udall (Democrat) — Born to one of Arizona’s prominent political families, Mo Udall was raised LDS but broke with the church over the question of race policies. Udall was a prominent member of Congress who had been a House whip behind the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Medicare, and the Campaign Finance Reform Acts of 1971 and 1974. Udall had been an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. With the weakness of Gerald Ford and the post-Watergate GOP, the Democratic field was full in 1976. Gov. Jimmy Carter emerged as a surprise early frontrunner, but Udall hung on through the primary season as other more prominent rivals dropped out. A couple of close losses for Udall in Wisconsin and Michigan sealed the nomination for Carter who went on to win the presidency. The Mormon Question: Udall’s status as a lapsed Mormon had little effect on the campaign.
2000 Orrin G. Hatch (Republican) — Although raised in a working class family in Pittsburgh and pro-union in his early years, Hatch converted to hardcore Republicanism and pulled off a surprise victory in 1977 race for Sentator from Utah. By 2000, Hatch saw himself as a moderate conservative with a record of working with Democrats. He threw himself into a large GOP field already dominated by previous GOP president’s son, George W. Bush. Hatch’s rationale was that he would serve as a “kind of election insurance policy,” should Bush’s campaign collapse for any reason. Unfortunately for Hatch, Republican voters preferred other brands of insurance, leaving him last in both fund-raising and caucus votes. The Mormon Question: Hatch’s long-shot campaign itself invoked the Mormon question as nearly all of Hatch’s fundraising came from LDS members and Hatch openly called upon Iowa Mormons to caucus for him. Hatch then blamed anti-Mormon bigotry for his dismal showing.
5 MINOR PARTY RUNS
1920 Parley P. Christiansen (Farmer-Labor) — A lapsed Mormon raised in Idaho, Christensen was an activist in the labor movement who hoped to reactivate the progressive impulse that had led to a number of reforms in the early 20th century. He received over 265,000 votes and Farmer-Labor party became a player in places like Washington state and Minnesota. (In Minnesota it eventually merged with the Democratic party, which is why Minnesota Democrats are known as DFLers.)
1968 Ezra Taft Benson (American Independent) — The most politically active member of the LDS hierarchy in the later 20th century, Benson was Secretary of Agriculture under Eisenhower, where he became known for taking opposition to Communism to the point of obsession. The John Birch Society and the “Committee of 76” worked to create a third party ticket of Benson for President and outspoken segregationist Strom Thurmond for VP. Later, when George Wallace emerged as the Presidential candidate for the segregationist American Independent party ticket, Wallace indicated that Benson was his first choice for VP. David O. McKay was persuaded to deny Benson permission to run on either ticket.
1968 Eldridge Cleaver (Peace and Freedom) — Prior to joining the Mormon church, Eldridge Cleaver was a radical left-wing activist in the black power movement. If elected president, he promised to burn the White House down. By the 1980s, Cleaver converted to Mormonism and became an ardent right-wing Republican.
1984 Sonia Johnson (Citizens) — Feminist activist and former chair of Mormons for ERA, Sonia Johnson had been excommunicated in 1979. In 1984 she continued to promote gender equality by running on the left-wing pro-environment Citizens party ticket and was simultaneously endorsed by the Socialist Party USA and the Peace and Freedom party.
1992 James G. “Bo” Gritz (Populist) — Bo Gritz was a convert to the LDS church, a conspiracy theorist and a white supremacist. The right-wing Populist Party had previously run KKK leader David Duke in its campaign to roll back perceived preferential treatment for non-whites. After his 1992 campaign, Gritz was subsequently disfellowshipped by the LDS church for his vocal advocacy against paying Federal income tax.