The Invasion of the Party-Switchers in Presidential Politics

04/27/2015 03:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

The 2016 Presidential election might go down in history as the year of the party-switchers. Republican Rick Perry was once a member of the Texas Democratic State Legislature. Potential Democratic Presidential candidate Jim Webb was once a Republican. Lincoln Chafee became a Democrat in 2013. He had initially been a Republican, then registered as an Independent. Republicans Benjamin Carson and Donald Trump are former Independents. Bernie Sanders, who appears likely to seek the Democratic Presidential nomination, is still registered as an Independent. Going further back, Hillary Clinton was once the President of the Young Republicans at Wesley College, and campaigned for the party's 1964 nominee, Barry Goldwater.

At a time when many Americans are weak partisans or Independents, party allegiances have less relevance. Still, in a party primary, a candidate who is new to the party must prove to primary voters that his/her change of party affiliation was due to "ideological conviction," rather than out of rank electoral opportunism. The line many party-switchers use is the line that worked for Ronald Reagan when he left the Democratic Party to become a Republican: "I didn't leave the Democratic Party. The party left me."

During the past half-century, the two major parties lost their ideological homogeneity. An ideological realignment occurred, as the Democrats became the center-left and liberal party, while the Republicans became the center-right and conservative party. Reading the electoral tealeaves, many conservative Democrats, particularly in the South and West, gravitated to the Republican Party. Contrariwise, some liberal Republicans on the West Coast and in the Northeast changed their allegiances to the Democratic Party.

Perry and Chafee are the epitome of this phenomenon. Both can make a legitimate case that the political landscape shifted and they became iconoclasts within their own parties. Perry was reared in a political family. His Grandfather was a state legislator. His father was a County Commissioner. Perry followed them into politics, being elected to the Texas Legislature as a Conservative Democrat. Perry might fit the term often used today: "Democrat in Name Only." In fact, he was often an ally of the conservative Republican Governor Bill Clements. The liberal Texas Observer branded Perry with the label: "Benedict Arnold of the Democratic Party."

In 1988, Perry, along with 27 mostly conservative Texas legislators, supported the failed candidacy of Democrat Al Gore for the Democratic nomination. Gore had been dubbed a "southern centrist." However, to Perry's chagrin, Gore lost the nomination to the more liberal Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Perry later told The Austin American Statesman that seeing Dukakis' name on the ballot was the moment he realized he was too conservative for the Democratic Party. Perry asserted: "I came to my senses." Perry voted for Republican Presidential nominee George H. W. Bush instead of Dukakis.

The switch paid off for Perry politically, as he was elected as a Republican to the following positions in the Loanstar state: Agricultural Commissioner, Lieutenant Governor, and Governor of Texas.

Lincoln Chafee, like his father John Chafee, served Rhode Island as both the state's Governor and U.S. Senator. Both Chafee's did this as liberal Republicans. Lincoln Chafe was arguably the last liberal Republican to serve in the U.S. Senate. His father was at home in the GOP Senate caucus, serving with fellow liberals like Ed Brooke of Massachusetts, Jacob Javitz of New York, and Charles Percy of Illinois.

The hallmark of Chafee's Senate career was independence from his caucus and independence from Republican President George W. Bush. He was the only Senate Republican to vote against the authorization for the use of force in Iraq, and was the only Republican to favor returning the top tax rate to 39.6%. Chafee did not even vote for George W. Bush's re-election in 2004, writing-in Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, on the ballot instead.

Before his 2006 re-election campaign, some Democrats made expanded overtures for Chafee to caucus with the Democrats. However, Chafee rejected them and subsequently lost his re-election bid as a Republican in 2006 to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse. A year later, Chafee became an Independent and asserted: "Its not my [Republican] party anymore." In 2013, three years after being elected the Ocean State's Governor as an Independent, Chafee completed the full shift, joining the Democratic Party.

The relatively recent party-switching of the aforementioned candidates is reminiscent of 1940, when both major parties nominated a party-switcher on their national tickets. Both candidates were considered interlopers by some elements in their respective parties. Henry Wallace Jr. was the son of Henry Wallace Sr., a steadfast Republican who served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under the administration of Republican Warren G. Harding. The younger Wallace became a Democrat after being introduced to the party's 1932 Presidential nominee, Franklin D. Roosevelt, by a mutual friend, Harry Morgenthau Jr. Wallace, the Editor of The Farmer, advised and helped write speeches for Roosevelt on farm policy during the campaign. Impressed, Roosevelt nominated Wallace as U.S. Agricultural Secretary. Wallace's populist proclivities were more welcomed in the Democratic Party than in the Republican Party that he had been born into.

In 1940, the GOP nominated U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles McNary (R-OR) as its Vice Presidential nominee. McNary was popular in the agricultural community. In a move partly to counter that selection, Roosevelt asked the Democratic National Convention to chose Wallace as his Vice Presidential Runningmate. However, the choice was met with consternation by many Democratic partisans. In fact, when Wallace's name was placed in nomination, he was booed, with one Democratic stalwart commandeering an open microphone and demanding: "Give us a Democrat! We don't want a Republican!" However, the delegates knew Wallace was Roosevelt's choice, and he was nominated on the first ballot. The losing candidates reluctantly coalesced around the nominee.

Interestingly, Wallace continued to move to the left. In 1948 he was the Presidential nominee of the Progressive Party. Unlike the Democratic Party, which called for a hard-line against Communists, Wallace called for "a peaceful understanding between the United States and Soviet Russia."

In 1940, while the Democrats nominated a former Republican for Vice President, the Republican Party nominated Utilities Executive Wendell Willkie, a former Democrat for President. Willkie had actually been a delegate to the 1928 Democratic National Convention, which nominated New York Governor Al Smith for President. Willkie was put on the political radar screen of many Republicans after a strong debate performance against Assistant U.S. Attorney General Robert Jackson on a national radio program on the issue of Free Enterprise. This resulted in an attendant movement to draft Willkie by some in the Republican Party. Willkie shocked many Republicans by winning the GOP nomination on the sixth ballot at the Republican National Convention. Many Republicans were wary of a nominee who had so recently pledged his allegiance to the Party. Relative to this sentiment, U.S. Senator James E. Watson (R-IN) quipped: "I don't mind the Church converting a whore, but I don't like her to lead the choir the first night."

During the general election, Willkie often angered his new Republican compatriots by referring to them in public orations as: "You Republicans." Willkie lost the election to Roosevelt and Wallace.

In this current election cycle, Perry's migration from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party is not likely to become an issue, since it was over 25 years ago. However, his support for Al Gore could be fodder for his Republican opponents to exploit due to the fact that Gore has moved to the left since 1988 and is no longer viewed as a "Southern centrist." Perry will have to explain Gore's ideological transmogrification since 1988.

Alternatively, should Chaffee gain any traction in the Democratic race, he will have to explain why he switched from a Republican to an Independent to a Democrat in the span of the last eight years. His challenge is to convince Democrats that his move was done out of sincerity, not opportunism.

Reminiscent of 1940, the 2016 Presidential election is shaping up to be the invasion of the party-switchers.