Donald Trump's Candidacy Resembles A Hoosier's 1940 White House Run

Aug 24, 2015

Like Trump, Wendell Willkie was primarily a businessman and not a politician.
Credit Boston Public Library / https://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/8094088202

Donald Trump would be the first presidential nominee with no political or military experience since the last Hoosier nominee.

Elwood native Wendell Willkie was a utility executive who'd gained national prominence through his clashes with President Franklin Roosevelt over the Tennessee Valley Authority.

At the 1940 Republican convention, spectators roared their support for Willkie, and a grassroots campaign of thousands of "Win With Willkie" telegrams vaulted Willkie into the lead on the fourth ballot. He clinched the nomination two ballots later.

Indiana University history professor Jim Madison, the editor of a book of essays on Willkie, says there was an appetite then for an outsider candidate, because the Depression has just ended, World War II had started and the country was gripped with uncertainty.

Many Republicans shied away from frontrunners Thomas Dewey and isolationist Ohio Senator Robert Taft in favor of the internationalist Willkie. Along with their outsider status, Madison says Willkie and Trump share a strength in their public perception as straight shooters with an ability to maintain a common touch despite their wealth -- Roosevelt's sharp-tongued Interior Secretary Harold Ickes mocked Willkie as "the barefoot boy from Wall Street.”

But Madison questions whether Trump's policy views are as fully formed as Willkie's. And while outsider status may be an advantage in the nomination contest, Madison says the cost of the Willkie team's political inexperience became evident almost as soon as he won the nomination. Madison says Roosevelt would likely have won a third term against any Republican, but says the disorganization of Willkie's campaign made the climb steeper. Willkie lost by 10 percentage points and carried just 10 states.

No outsider candidate has come close to winning a major-party nomination since, though billionaire Steve Forbes won two primaries in his first bid for the Republican nomination in 1996.