“It is an interesting comparison, one that gets talked about in Indiana more and more often as Trump rises in the polls, ” said Oakman, who cited a plaque dedicated to Willkie in the Indiana state Capitol rotunda, and a dorm named for the former presidential candidate at Indiana University. “I don’t feel it impacts Trump’s standing among the Hoosier electorate one way or the other.”
Willkie was a Wall Street attorney and a utility executive described by Fortune magazine as having a “clever bumpkin, homespun” charm that appealed to the public. That’s perhaps not that different from Trump’s New York straight talk that appeals to a public tired of politicians.
“Wendell Willkie had a folksy, middle-America appeal that the brash New York billionaire cannot match, ” Republican Party historian Michael Zak told TheBlaze. “Willkie’s long-standing opposition to Ku Klux Klan influence within the Democratic party left him unburdened by allegations of bigotry such as what Trump faces.”
Willkie supported most of the New Deal, but rose to national prominence when he sued the Roosevelt administration over regulation that hurt his utility company. He also belonged to the hawkish internationalist wing of the Republicans.
Zak, author of “Back to Basics for the Republican Party, ” added that should Trump win the nomination, he could learn a similar lesson to Willkie about discarding the GOP’s base and the party’s establishment.
“Just as Willkie learned the cost of distancing himself from the Republican Party during the general election campaign, after months of bashing the GOP establishment, Donald Trump would find it very difficult to motivate the immense array of local office-holders and party officials and volunteers so critical to winning in November, ” Zak said.
During the lead-up to the June 1940 Republican National Convention (where nominations were decided then) in Philadelphia, the contest was expected to be between Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, the son of a former president, and the youthful New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey — much the way a son of a former president, Jeb Bush, and a handful of youthful governors and senators were initially expected to be the biggest players in the GOP primaries in 2016.
But “Willkie Clubs” were starting across the country months before the GOP nominating convention to secure his nomination, giving a grassroots aspect similar to the Trump frenzy. Unlike Trump, Willkie’s nomination was being pushed by major media at the time, including Time magazine and several major newspapers, as well as New York bankers.