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Today’s Primaries and John Nance Garner’s Continuing Relevance

As the current crop of presidential candidates cajole, charm and hustle for votes, they would do well to study Garner’s timing and strategy in 1932.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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When it comes to presidential primaries, raucous caucuses are nothing new in American politics. For decades, national primaries and caucuses have not simply been about the presidential nomination, but also about lesser political spoils, such as Cabinet posts or the vice presidency.

This is why the presidential primary season can be so long and contentious — multiple auditions for multiple roles are going on at the same time.

The current crop of candidates would do well to learn from the story of Texas political legend and former presidential candidate John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner, who sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1932 and 1940. As a new PBS documentary makes clear, Garner ended up shaping American politics in ways that still matter today.

Elected to the Texas Legislature in 1898, Garner acquired the nickname “Cactus Jack” after unsuccessfully proposing the prickly pear as the state flower.

Garner was elected to Congress in 1902 and rose quickly through the ranks, becoming the Democratic House whip in 1910. By 1930, he was a legislative veteran who knew every parliamentary and political trick in the book.

As with more recent times, candidates in 1932 faced a panicked economic landscape and a cantankerous political climate. There were few primaries then, and the real nomination process took place at the party conventions.

Garner’s candidacy was backed by the Texas delegation and others who opposed the ascendancy of another political maverick, New York Gov. Franklin Roosevelt. Those supporters included California newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who disliked Roosevelt’s internationalism and saw Garner as a true man of the people. As the election season unfolded, Hearst lent the full weight of his media empire to Garner’s candidacy.

Like many would-be nominees today, Garner’s candidacy had as much to do with jockeying for position as it did with being a serious run. It was meant to ensure that Texas, with its large block of votes, went to the convention with some leverage. However, Hearst’s support led to Garner’s surprise victory in the California primary, doubling the amount of delegates Garner took to the convention. He was now a serious contender. 

Aside from Hearst, Roosevelt was opposed by his former mentor and fellow Democrat Al Smith, who had lost the 1928 general election to Republican Herbert Hoover. With the northeastern delegates split between Smith and Roosevelt, a nasty gridlock ensued at the convention.

After three ballots, Roosevelt remained ahead of Smith, but his position looked vulnerable. Talk emerged that a compromise candidate, former Secretary of War Newton Baker, could swoop in and win the nomination. Meanwhile, Garner (running third) still held 90 delegates in his back pocket.

The prospect of a Baker candidacy horrified Hearst as much as it did Roosevelt, though for different reasons. Hearst was now prepared to withdraw his support for Garner, and Roosevelt’s backers were offering the vice presidency to anybody who would give them the votes.

As it turned out, Roosevelt was about 90 votes short. On Hearst’s and Garner’s orders, California and Texas switched their allegiance to Roosevelt, who was duly nominated. Shortly after, Garner was nominated to be the vice president.

Roosevelt went on to win a landslide victory, but he might not have done it without “Cactus Jack.” The more conservative Garner shored up the South and West for Roosevelt, a perceived northern liberal. Lyndon Johnson would do the same for John Kennedy 30 years later.

As the current crop of presidential candidates cajole, charm and hustle for votes, they would do well to study Garner’s timing and strategy in 1932. His ability to hold his nerve and stay in the race despite never actually being a front-runner left him and his backers well placed to act as kingmakers.

Today’s candidates should perhaps note the words of William McAdoo, a Garner ally and Hearst’s handpicked head of the California delegation, who spoke the following words at the convention: “We think that a contest too prolonged would bring schisms in the party which could not be cured before election.”

Don Carleton is the executive director of the Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin, which operates the Briscoe-Garner Museum in Uvalde, Texas. He is also the executive producer of “Cactus Jack: Lone Star on Capitol Hill,” currently airing nationwide on PBS.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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