Another Minnesota governor on a presidential quest: Harold Stassen

Harold Stassen
Courtesy of MNHS
Harold Stassen

Now that Tim Pawlenty has established a presidential exploratory committee, he is edging closer to a full-throttle run for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. If, as expected, he jumps into the presidential ring, he will be following in the footsteps of another Minnesota Republican governor, Harold Stassen.

Stassen and Pawlenty share some common attributes. Both were attorneys who launched their political careers from a home base in Dakota County and both were elected governor at an early age. But the two men represent very different political outlooks.  Stassen was a progressive, who campaigned as an internationalist at a time when a strong current of isolationism ran through the Republican Party, while Pawlenty, one of this state’s most conservative governors, has tacked even further to the right to catch this year’s prevailing Republican winds.

While Stassen has been derided in recent years as a perennial candidate who became a caricature of himself in his old age, the Minnesota Republican mounted a serious and well-organized campaign for the presidential nomination in 1948. While he ultimately lost the nomination to Thomas Dewey that year, he pioneered the use of campaign techniques that became standard practice in a later time.

Harold Stassen burst on to the Minnesota political scene in 1938 at the age of 31, when he defeated the state’s incumbent Farmer-Labor Gov. Elmer Benson in a landslide win that swept the Farmer Laborites out of power for the first time in eight years. Stassen campaigned as a progressive who signaled that he would not dismantle the programs put in place by his Farmer Labor predecessors, but, rather, that he would administer those programs more efficiently.  

Resigned from office to join the Navy
After winning re-election in 1940 and 1942, he resigned from office in 1943 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where he served on the staff of Adm. William Halsey. Following his discharge from the Navy in 1945, he plunged back into Minnesota politics and began to eye a role for himself on a larger political stage. As an energetic political newcomer with a well-established military record, he soon began to establish a following among political activists throughout the country who were attracted to his youthful charisma and his brand of progressive Republicanism.

By 1946, he had already achieved national recognition as a potential presidential candidate. That summer, Gallop polled a cross-section of people listed in “Who’s Who”  and asked them how they ranked the leading presidential aspirants. The results showed that Stassen was the overwhelming favorite of that elite group, ranking first with 48 percent support, while New York Gov. Thomas Dewey came in a distant second with 15 percent.

An unconventional approach
With the help of his coterie of Minnesota advisers, including future Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger, Stassen began to establish grass-roots campaign organizations that bypassed the traditional state party committees.  At the same time, he began making plans to enter the small number of statewide presidential primaries that selected delegates to the Republican National Convention.  In this political era, at a time when most presidential aspirants focused their efforts on state party bosses, Stassen’s state primary strategy represented an unconventional approach to the presidential nomination.

In December 1946, nearly two years before the next presidential election, Stassen announced at a Washington, D.C., press conference that he “intended” to become a candidate for the 1948 Republican presidential nomination. When one reporter asked Stassen if he was actually a candidate at that point since he had used the future tense to describe his intentions, Stassen replied with a chuckle: “Yes, of course I am, if you want to put it that way. I am very frank and direct about it.”

A year later, in December 1947, Stassen was still the only presidential aspirant openly and publicly seeking the Republican nomination. Wisconsin historian Alec Kirby would later write that “the close of 1947 saw the Stassen for President campaign  in full swing at the grassroots long before any of the other White House aspirants had bestirred themselves from the their smoke-filled rooms. The other candidates were concerned principally with winning over party leaders who controlled state delegations; the Stassen strategy, in contrast, envisioned a public demand for a Stassen nomination that the Kingmakers would be unable to resist.”  

Whirlwind campaign in New Hampshire
The Stassen campaign would test this new strategy in the country’s first primary, then as now, in New Hampshire, a state where Stassen’s chief competitor, New York’s Thomas Dewey, was better known. Using a campaign model that would become standard practice at a later time, Stassen began a whirlwind effort to visit every town and hamlet in the state, so he could shake as many hands as possible.  But, in the end, Stassen could not overcome Dewey’s name recognition in New Hampshire and the support the New Yorker had built up among party leaders. In the March primary, Stassen was able to win only two of New Hampshire’s eight delegate slots, with the remaining six slots going to Dewey.

But, like later presidential contenders who suffered early defeats in New Hampshire, Stassen bounced back and prepared to contest vigorously for votes in the upcoming Wisconsin and Nebraska primaries. Both states’ election contests would represent high points in the former Minnesota governor’s quest for the nomination. In Wisconsin, he would run far ahead of the political pack in the April 6 primary, winning 19 of that state’s delegates, with former Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur coming in second with eight delegates, and Dewey shut out entirely, winning no delegates at all.

In the Nebraska primary, where potential presidential candidates were listed on the ballot, whether or not they wanted to be there, Stassen ran first again, winning 43 percent of the vote, with Dewey coming in second with 35 percent and Taft running third with 11 percent.

By now, political pundits across the country were beginning to take note of Stassen’s unconventional approach. In April 1948, the Arkansas Gazette would write that: “Harold Stassen has already earned a place in American political history.  It is even possible that he has brought into being a new type of political campaigning, as precedent-setting in its way as William Henry Harrison’s portable log cabin.”

Named a trend-setter
Newsweek echoed those views, noting that “political experts interested in long-term trends say Stassen’s success at the polls may have revolutionized long-established methods for seeking the presidential nomination. … In the future … candidates will frankly announce their attentions well in advance of election year and work openly for delegates at the convention.”

Then came Oregon, where Stassen stumbled after a poor showing in a radio debate with Dewey, his main competitor.  The Minnesotan ran a close second to Dewey in that state’s May 21 primary, wining 104,000 votes to Dewey’s 113,000. But, in Oregon’s winner-take-all system, Dewey swept up all the delegates.

Despite his defeats in 1948, Stassen made a credible showing in the states with contested primaries, winning over 800,000 votes, more than any other candidate that year. But the time had not yet come when winning primaries determined the outcome of the battles for the presidential nomination. That would not occur until later election cycles.
Hint of a possible VP nod
At the 1948 National Convention in Philadelphia, Stassen, with 157 votes, ran third in the first ballot delegate count, behind Robert Taft, in second place with 224 votes. Thomas Dewey, who led with 434 votes, would win the Republican nomination that year on the third ballot. There are some indications that Dewey might have offered the vice presidential slot to Stassen if Dewey’s first choice, Earl Warren, had declined to run with the New York governor.

But Warren did agree to run. In November, the Dewey-Warren ticket would go down to defeat at the hands of incumbent Democratic president, Harry Truman and his running mate, Alben Barkley.

After his defeat for the presidential nomination in 1948, Stassen would go on to serve as president of the University of Pennsylvania and later hold high ranking jobs in the Eisenhower administration. Eventually, he would return to Minnesota and begin a series of futile and quixotic quests for the presidency that would greatly tarnish his reputation and his political legacy.

But, in 1948, he staked out a new political path that his successor, Tim Pawlenty, will need to follow if Pawlenty is to win the ultimate political prize that eluded Stassen so often during that earlier era.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 03/26/2011 - 12:30 pm.

    The candidates’ paths diverged about the time Stassen resigned office to defend his nation and Pawlenty stayed in office to run for president.

  2. Submitted by cheryl luger on 03/26/2011 - 01:37 pm.

    dear iric,

    thanks for the history. didn’t know he originated and played such an important role in the primary system.

    always admired the man and his internationalist outlook. his work with and support of the UN probably didn’t win him much insider republican support.

    had an accidental chance meeting with him at the 1968 gop convention in miami. a group of us rockefeller volunteers accidentally got off the elevator on his floor. as we stepped into the ‘hall’…a group of secret service agents immediately surrounded us.
    in 1968 national convention security was tight.

    gov. stassen stepped forward and spoke with us for a few minutes. gracious to a competitor’s volunteers.

    mpls ward 12

  3. Submitted by Dick Novack on 03/27/2011 - 01:46 pm.

    I recall one of my prominent Political Science professors in the 1960’s explaining that Harold Stassen was not the perennial candidate buffoon some media made him out to be because he never really had a chance. The prof ought to have known as he sometimes worked with Stassen.

    He explained that Stassen successfully practiced international law (a field I was studying). Stassen’s greatest benefit to his law practice was to be able to be introduced to overseas clients and their opponents as “Candidate for President of the United States.” At a time when most foreign countries were somewhat less democratic and were controlled by powerful people including sultans, dictators, kings and the like, that introduction / label did wonders for Stassen. Clients, knowing their own corrupt systems, wanted to hire a man who might be president.

    Stassen was smart businessman for the times.

Leave a Reply