Republican Party presidential primaries

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For the most recent Republican primaries, see Republican Party presidential primaries, 2012. For the upcoming Republican primaries, see Republican Party presidential primaries, 2016.


Following the landslide defeat of incumbent president Herbert Hoover by Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Republican Party sought its first nominee to attempt to unseat the largely popular incumbent president. There were six candidates in total, but four of them were seen as "favorite son" candidates who only won their respective home states: Earl Warren of California, Frank Knox of Illinois, Stephen A. Day of Ohio, and Warren E. Green of South Dakota. Thus, the only two serious candidates were Governors William Borah of Idaho and Alfred "Alf" Landon of Kansas. Although Borah won more states' primaries, more total popular votes, and a larger percentage overall (with 5 states to Landon's 2), Landon managed to use his connections to the party machinery to secure a majority of necessary delegates at the convention, and became the nominee.

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After Landon's even larger landslide loss to Roosevelt in 1936, the party sought out more moderate candidates for the nomination in 1940. There were twice as many candidates as in 1936, with 12, including former President Hoover. However, only three won any primaries: Senate Minority Leader Charles L. McNary of Oregon, Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, and Manhattan District Attorney Thomas Dewey of New York. Dewey won 5 states, while McNary and Taft won only one state each. However, later on in the primaries, businessman Wendell Willkie began to gain momentum due to his lack of political experience and for being a new face in the political scene. He ultimately managed to win a majority of necessary delegates at the convention, primarily when the delegates of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York switched their allegiances to vote for Willkie. McNary was ultimately chosen as Willkie's running mate.

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Willkie had come closer to defeating Roosevelt than Hoover or Landon, but still lost substantially. At this point, a divide appeared in the Republican Party between the moderates and the conservatives, each claiming that only a candidate with their beliefs had a chance at beating Roosevelt as he ran for an unprecedented fourth term. The 1944 primaries saw 10 major candidates, which included former candidates Earl Warren and Thomas Dewey, as well as the previous nominee Wendell Willkie. One prominent candidate was General Douglas MacArthur, who was popular among conservatives and won 2 states and the most total popular votes and vote percentage, but was unable to campaign effectively or attend the convention due to still planning Allied strategies in the midst of World War II. Thus, the conservative support shifted from Robert Taft in the previous election to Governor John W. Bricker of Ohio, while the moderates supported Governor Dewey of New York, who won the most primaries with 3. Dewey ultimately secured the nomination at the convention, and selected Bricker as his running mate.

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Although Dewey had also lost to Roosevelt in 1944, Roosevelt had died in office shortly thereafter, and incumbent President Harry S. Truman was widely unpopular and thus seen as easy to beat. The 1948 primaries set the record for the highest amount of candidates in the history of the Republican Party, with 15 total; a record it held for nearly 70 years until 2016 surpassed it. Among them were repeat candidates Douglas MacArthur, Senator Robert Taft, Governor Earl Warren, Businessman Riley A. Bender of Illinois, and the previous nominee Thomas Dewey. Although Warren claimed the highest vote total with his sole win in California, the top two candidates were moderate Republican Dewey and former Governor Harold Stassen of Minnesota, a more liberal Republican who had previously run in 1940 and 1944. Stassen won more primaries with 4 to Dewey's 2, but after Stassen was perceived as losing the first-ever broadcast presidential debate with Dewey (on the issue of outlawing Communism in the United States), Dewey went on to easily claim the nomination for a second consecutive time (the first non-president in the Republican Party's history to do so).

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Having suffered five consecutive losses, the Republican Party sought out a candidate who could appeal to voters all across the political spectrum, possibly through name recognition. Once more, a divide emerged between the conservative wing of the party and the liberal wing. The conservatives were once again represented by Senator Robert Taft, while the liberals were represented by General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Other candidates included Governor Earl Warren of California and former Governor Harold Stassen of Minnesota. Taft narrowly won more victories than Eisenhower, with 6 primaries to Eisenhower's 5. The race was neck-and-neck by the beginning of the convention, but Eisenhower's supporters (including, most prominently, former two-time nominee Thomas Dewey and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.) accused Taft of corruption by convincing state party leaders in Texas and Georgia to give him all their delegates, rather than award them proportionately and therefore give some to Eisenhower. The delegates at the convention ultimately agreed and voted on measure "Fair Play 658-548," which convicted Taft of such and gave the delegates in question to Eisenhower by default, thus earning Eisenhower the nomination. Eisenhower then went on to win the general election in a landslide, finally putting a Republican president in the White House for the first time since 1933.

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As a popular incumbent, with a strong economy and recent foreign policy victories including the Korean War, Eisenhower easily won his party's primaries in 1956 with little opposition, namely former candidate John Bricker from 1944, as well as Joe Foss of South Dakota and S.C. Arnold of Montana.

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With Eisenhower term-limited from office, the clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination was incumbent vice president Richard Nixon, who was also very popular in his own right. He won 11 primaries, while his only two major challengers, Governor Cecil Underwood of West Virginia and State Senator James M. Lloyd of South Dakota, only won their respective home states. Thus, Nixon easily won the nomination, and selected longtime Eisenhower ally Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. as his running mate.

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Despite Nixon's continuing popularity, and the closeness by which he lost in 1960, he refused to seek the Republican Party's nomination in 1964, primarily due to his previous loss as well as another equally stinging loss in the 1962 California gubernatorial race. Thus, the party was left without a clear frontrunner. For the first time, the divide between conservatives and moderates allowed the conservative candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona to win the nomination despite his unpopular, strong conservative views. His biggest challengers were Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., with 3 primary wins, and Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York with 2; however, despite both candidates' strong alliances in the liberal wing of the party (including Lodge's continuing alliance with former President Eisenhower), both were far surpassed by Goldwater's surprising 7 victories. Other candidates included Governor James A. Rhodes of Ohio, Governor William Scranton of Pennsylvania, and Congressman John W. Byrnes of Wisconsin, who each won their own respective home states and nothing else. Also among the candidates was Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, who became the first major female candidate for a major party's presidential nomination in American history.

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Despite Goldwater's landslide loss to President Johnson in 1964, the struggling economy and the escalation of the unpopular Vietnam War led to Johnson's approval ratings falling dramatically, to the point where he refused to seek another term in 1968. Thus, many in the Republican Party felt that they had a strong chance of winning, and turned to former Vice President and 1960 nominee Richard Nixon to run again. Despite previously claiming he was done with politics after losing in 1960 and 1962, Nixon ultimately decided to join the race. As a moderate, Nixon faced a series of challengers from all sides of the Republican political spectrum who would rise briefly, then fall again in popularity just as another challenger arose. His first challenger was a fellow moderate, Governor George W. Romney of Michigan. Romney's record as Governor briefly elevated him with Nixon, but after a gaffe where he said he was "brainwashed" by the military into supporting the Vietnam War, he quickly lost his popularity and dropped out before the primaries even started. Nixon's next challenge was the leader of the party's liberal wing, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who briefly rose in popularity with his win in Massachusetts before fading in the polls as well. By the end of the primaries, Nixon's main challenge was Governor Ronald Reagan of California, the leader of the party's conservative wing. Although Reagan's victory in his home state gave him a plurality of the popular vote, he didn't win any other primaries. Nixon won a total of 9 primaries before easily winning the nomination at the convention. Despite some supporters encouraging him to choose a former primary rival, such as Romney, as his running mate, Nixon ultimately chose Maryland Governor Spiro T. Agnew.


By 1972, Nixon was a popular incumbent president. The Vietnam War was winding down and Nixon had achieved détente with China and the Soviet Union, as well as a stable economy at home and solidified victories in the Civil Rights Movement. He had challengers, but won 1323 of the 1324 delegates on his way to the GOP convention. The sole delegate opposing his reelection was in support of Pete McCloskey, a representative from California, who ran on an anti-Vietnam War platform. The Watergate scandal began in June but interfered with neither the primaries nor the November election.

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Gerald Ford had become Vice President after the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew. Upon the resignation of President Richard Nixon following the Watergate Scandal, Ford became the first President never elected President or Vice-President. This status, plus the fall of Vietnam, a struggling economy, and Ford's pardon of Nixon, caused politicians in both major parties to view Ford as vulnerable. Ronald Reagan led the conservative wing of the party in condemning Ford's foreign policy in Vietnam, Eastern Europe and Panama. Ford held a lead from the beginning until the North Carolina primary, where he was upset by Reagan. Reagan then put together a string of victories that put him back in the race. Ford bounced back in his native Michigan. From there, a close battle in the remaining states led to a convention in which Ford held the lead, but not the necessary majority. Reagan gambled by announcing he would choose a moderate running mate, alienating conservatives. Ford narrowly won on the first ballot.

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Ronald Reagan entered the season as the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination. He lost his lead with a strategy of forums, polls and other events. George H. W. Bush used the McGovern/Carter strategy and began to come in first at these events. Bush beat Reagan in the Iowa straw poll in January. Reagan responded by sweeping the South. Although he lost a few more primaries and even came in third in one state, he had the contest won early. He went into the convention with almost all the delegates.

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The incumbent President Ronald Reagan won all but two of the delegates, who abstained from voting.

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George H. W. Bush entered the contest as incumbent Vice-President and with the support of sitting President Ronald Reagan. Bush had trouble at first but by the time Super Tuesday was over his campaign's organization and fundraising ability had overwhelmed his opponents. He received all the votes at the convention.

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Pat Buchanan mounted a challenge that was too weak to seriously challenge President George H. W. Bush's campaign for a second term. However it was strong enough to alter the party platform and push it to the right, and to award Buchanan the keynote speech at the convention.

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Bob Dole, being the most prominent Republican politician in the race, and who had been widely expected to compete for the 1996 presidential nomination since the 1992 campaign, was the early favorite to win. However, his campaign stumbled in the first few contests as it fell behind conservative insurgent Pat Buchanan in New Hampshire and publishing magnate Steve Forbes in Delaware and Arizona. Dole rebounded with easy victories in the Dakotas and South Carolina, eventually winning every single state thereafter, save a narrow Buchanan win in Missouri.

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George W. Bush entered the race as the favorite, being the son of a former president and the governor of a big state. He faced early opposition from the well-organized campaign of wealthy businessman Steve Forbes, who quickly fizzled. Bush easily won in Iowa but suffered a severe blow when insurgent candidate John McCain defeated him in New Hampshire by 18 points. Bush struck back with a win in South Carolina after a bruising primary fight there. McCain rebounded with wins in Michigan and his home state of Arizona, but lacked the money and organization to keep up with Bush in the Super Tuesday contests, where Bush won all but a few New England states. McCain suspended his campaign the next day.

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As a popular wartime President, George W. Bush was unopposed for the nomination and clinched it easily.

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George W. Bush, the incumbent President, was ineligible to run for a third term due to the Twenty-second Amendment, and Dick Cheney, the incumbent Vice President, did not seek the office, so the field was wide open. Rudy Giuliani was the frontrunner in the polls for most of 2007, but made a critical mistake by skipping the early primaries and staking his fortune on a win in Florida the week before Super Tuesday. This backfired badly as John McCain, whose campaign had been written off long before as a lost cause, surged suddenly in New Hampshire (where he had won before during the 2000 primaries) and rode a wave of momentum through South Carolina to defeat all other contenders in Florida. Giuliani quickly dropped out and endorsed McCain, but Mitt Romney, a well-organized candidate who up to that point had won only his native Michigan and a couple minor caucus states, fought on. McCain easily beat him on Super Tuesday, with assistance from Mike Huckabee, a conservative contender who stole a few crucial Southern primaries, shutting Romney out. Romney suspended his campaign during the CPAC convention that week, leaving only Huckabee, who said he would stay in until the nomination fight was over. He dropped out in early March after McCain won Texas and Ohio, thus clinching the nomination. Ron Paul, who had generated a lot of Internet buzz, did not win a single contest but stayed in the race until the last primary votes were cast in June.

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For the first time in modern Republican primary history, three different candidates won the three key early contests: Rick Santorum in the Iowa caucuses (though Romney was originally believed to have won before a recount), Mitt Romney in the New Hampshire primary and Newt Gingrich in the South Carolina primary. However, only Romney and Santorum seemed to project national strength, as Gingrich's only win after South Carolina would be his home state of Georgia. Ron Paul, who had been expected to perform much better than he did in 2008, only scored second-place finishes in contests such as New Hampshire and Virginia (where only he and Romney were on the ballot), and a narrow win in the popular vote in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Romney maintained the upper hand throughout the primaries, winning most of the Super Tuesday contests and holding onto a wide lead in delegates. Santorum's final efforts included a surprise victory in the Colorado caucuses, which Romney was expected to win, and narrow second-place performances in Michigan and Ohio. Santorum dropped out of the presidential race on April 10, leaving Romney undisputed in his drive for the party's nomination.

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The 2016 primaries feature at least 17 major candidates, thus becoming the largest presidential primary field in the history of the Republican Party, surpassing the aforementioned 1948 primaries, as well as the largest in American history, surpassing the Democratic primaries of 1972 and 1976. As with 2008, there is a significant lack of a clear frontrunner, especially when popular former nominee Mitt Romney ultimately chose to not stage a third run.[1][2] Former candidates who ran again in 2016 included former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former Texas Governor Rick Perry from 2012, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore from 2008, and Ohio Governor John Kasich from 2000.

Ever since late 2012, the front-runner has fluctuated over the course of several months at a time: From late 2012 to mid-2013, the first major frontrunner was Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Rubio was followed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, from mid-2013 to early 2014, but he eventually lost his lead in the polls due to the Bridgegate scandal. Then, for most of the year 2014 and early 2015, the frontrunner appeared to be former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and a variety of other candidates who challenged his frontrunner status, including Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, Mike Huckabee, the previous nominee Mitt Romney, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, with a brief return of Rubio in frontrunner status as well. However, since mid-2015, the frontrunner in the polls has been New York businessman Donald Trump.

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  1. ^ "Romney announces he will not run for president in 2016". Fox News. January 30, 2015. 
  2. ^ "Text of Romney's Statement on Decision Not to Run in 2016". The Wall Street Journal. January 30, 2015.