Donald Trump's campaign for president has been dismissed as a joke. Yet, even as his comments grew more outlandish (for instance, dismissing former prisoner of war John McCain by saying "I like people who don't get captured"), his popularity seems to have solidified. Now as the primary season begins in earnest, he remains in the lead in the Republican polls. Whatever happens over the course of the election, Trump will be remembered as one of the key forces in the 2016 run for the presidency.
But Trump isn't the first wild man to mount a serious campaign for the White House. American history is scattered with outsiders and underdogs who made an attempt to become either president or vice president.
Any election brings out its share of demagogues and weirdoes. Most are punchlines and also-rans, playing little part in the national discussion. Sometimes, however, people who in other circumstances would be considered joke contenders push themselves to the center of political discussion. Some of these are worth remembering. Others are better off forgotten. But all of them made their stamp on the nation’s politics. Here is a list of 10 people who gathered hundreds of thousands (and in some cases, millions) of votes, despite being outsiders, cranks, racists, prisoners, invalids or plain outright kooks.
10 Lyndon LaRouche
Lyndon LaRouche is the all-time poster child for crazy presidential campaigns. He officially ran for president every four years from 1976 to 2004.
Unlike most of the other people on this list, LaRouche never generated broad support or contributed to the overall national conversation. But his persistence and the mounting strangeness of his campaigns (including a run in 1992 when he was spending time in prison for fraud) gave him a kind of prominence. For most of his career, he existed as a punchline, but a list of crazy presidential contenders wouldn't be complete without him.
9 Al Sharpton
Al Sharpton is a polarizing figure. There's no doubt that he is one of the highest profile black leaders of his generation, but whether he's a positive or negative influence depends on whom you ask. Supporters say that he has spent decades agitating for various causes and individuals that he felt were being ignored or mistreated by the authorities. Critics would call him a publicity hog, who stirs up controversy to further his own agenda, with little regard for the overall consequences.
Whatever you think of him, if you followed the news in the 1970s and 1980s, you never would have thought that he would one day make a serious run for the presidency. But in 2004, he launched a mainstream campaign for the Democratic nomination, making himself a potent voice in the debates and earning himself a speaking engagement at the convention. True to form though, Sharpton's campaign would eventually incur a fine for breaking campaign finance rules. Specifically, authorities found that Sharpton used outside money to pay for some campaign expenses.
8 Strom Thurmond
There are a lot of unsavory facts about American history. Among the most prevalent of these is the long-standing open racism that marked much of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Strom Thurmond is one of the symbols of that. The South Carolina native ran for president in 1948, as a so-called Dixicrat. Officially known as the States Rights party, the group split off from the Democrats when Northern members of the party insisted on a pro-civil rights stance at the party's convention.
Thurmond's racist party gained just 2% of the total vote (just over 1 million votes total), but managed to carry four Southern states. Thurmond would go on to become one of the all-time longest-serving U.S. senators. He wouldn’t leave the Senate until 2003, a few months before his death at the age of 100. After his death, it was revealed that, back in 1925, Thurmond had fathered a baby with his family’s black maid.
7 Eugene Debs
Much has been made in the 2016 election about Bernie Sanders’ socialist leanings. However, he is not the first avowed socialist to make a run at the U.S. presidency.
Eugene Debs was a labor leader in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who ran for president five times. His best performance was in 1912, when he gained nearly a million votes, or about 6% of the electorate.
That might be the closest he ever got to the White House, but Debs' craziest run for the presidency happened in 1920. In that election, he garnered more than 3% of the popular vote, despite the fact that, at the time, he was confined to a federal prison. Debs had been convicted in 1918 under a law that made it illegal to speak out against U.S. involvement in World War I. He was sentenced to 10 years, though he was eventually let out in 1921. He died 5 years later.
6 William Crawford
William Crawford was not so much "crazy" as he was "completely infirmed." Going into the 1824 election, Crawford was one of the leading candidates in the race for the White House. A former senator and governor, the Georgian was Secretary of the Treasury at the time of the campaign. He suffered a stroke in 1823 however, but this didn’t significantly impact his political career.
This was obviously before the age of the 24-hour news cycle and Crawford remained nominally in the race. He eventually won 11% of the popular vote and 41 electoral votes, despite the fact that he was paralyzed and almost blind. Partially because of the support that Crawford received, there was no clear winner in the election, which was eventually decided by the House of Representatives. John Quincy Adams was declared the winner in one of the most controversial results in the 19th century.
As for the stroke-ridden Crawford, he would continue as Treasury Secretary into 1825. From there, he was apparently sufficiently recovered to take on a judgeship in his native Georgia, a post he would hold until he died in 1834.
5 James Stockdale
Admiral James Stockdale was selected by Ross Perot as his running mate when the businessman made his fateful 1992 third-party run for the White House. On the surface, Stockdale had an impeccable resume. He was a decorated navy veteran who had spent seven years as a prisoner of war. In general, he was a serious and respectable person.
Unfortunately, he was also an aging crank with no real political experience. The peak of his national exposure came during the 1992 vice presidential debates. At one point during the event, he admitted that he had turned off his hearing aid. He also made the word "gridlock!" a national punchline when he blurted it out as part of his rambling performance. Following his ticket’s defeat in the election, Stockdale moved from the public eye and died of Alzheimer's disease in 2005.
4 Curtis LeMay
One way to know a man is a crazy candidate for public office: even before he becomes a candidate, he is used as the model for paranoid general Jack D. Ripper in the 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove. That was Curtis LeMay.
Four years after the movie's release, LeMay, nicknamed "Bombs Away" for his aggressive reputation in World War II, became George Wallace's vice presidential candidate when Wallace made a third-party run in 1968.
Just an example of LeMay’s brand of crazy: at the televised press conference where he was announced as a candidate, LeMay reiterated his support for the occasional use of nuclear weapons. "I think there have been times when it would be most efficient to use nuclear weapons," he offered. Wallace and LeMay would lose the election to Richard Nixon, though they would get more than 13% of the popular vote and win the electoral votes of 5 states.
3 Ronald Reagan
Just because someone won doesn't mean it wasn't crazy that they ran. In Ronald Reagan's case, it’s all a matter of perspective.
By the time he won the presidential election in 1980, Reagan was a perfectly sensible candidate. The former movie star had long since retired from Hollywood and had spent decades building an impressive political resume. He had almost pulled off an upset victory to become the Republican presidential candidate in 1976 and he was a popular governor of California in the 1960s.
But looking at it from, say, 1951, when Reagan starred alongside a monkey in the movie Bedtime for Bonzo, Reagan would seem like a very strange candidate for the White House.
2 George Wallace
When George Wallace was sworn in as governor of Alabama in 1963, he said in his inaugural address: "I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Later that year, he stood in front of the auditorium at the University of Alabama and attempted to stop two black students from being enrolled. Five years after that, he was running for president.
In 1968, the overt racist ran as a third-party candidate and, in a disturbing statement about that period in American history, mounted the most successful such run since Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose party in 1912. He eventually lost the election, but tried again in 1972. That bid was effectively ended when an attempted assassination left Wallace paralyzed. He gave the White House another try in 1976, though he was a non-factor in the election. He would serve as governor of Alabama again in the 1980s.
1 Ross Perot
No candidate in modern U.S. political history created more havoc than Ross Perot. The first George Bush seemed unbeatable in the middle of his first term, but by the time the 1992 election rolled around, the U.S. was in the middle of a recession and the incumbent president seemed vulnerable. Bill Clinton won a wide-open Democratic primary, but Perot was the real wild card in the election.
The businessman joined the election as a third-party candidate and drew support from voters tired of the major parties. Unfortunately, Perot was an erratic campaigner, dropping out of the running and getting back in, announcing strange conspiracies involving threats to his daughter and (as we’ve seen) choosing the unpredictable James Stockdale as his running mate.
Eventually, Perot took in nearly 19 percent of the popular vote. He earned no electoral votes, but opened the door for Clinton's surprise upset.