When President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to run for an unprecedented third term, the competition seemed to stop trying. The GOP pinned their hopes on a political novice, Wendell Wilkie. The socialist and prohibition parties put their unflexed muscles behind relative unknowns. For FDR, the race seemed to be a lock. That is, until George Burns decided to shake things up.
In early 1940, the comedian hatched a scheme to have his wife and comic partner Gracie Allen run for office as the “Surprise Party” candidate. When Allen made her announcement on the couple’s radio show that February, she and Burns thought they’d get a few chuckles and some promotional buzz. To the pair’s shock, the idea caught on with the glum electorate.
It didn’t matter that Allen’s platform made no sense. One of her proposed programs involved offering correspondence courses for unemployed workers, so they could fail to find jobs in three or four different industries. She also refused to share the ticket with a vice presidential nominee, claiming she didn’t want any vice in the White House, and promised to settle the Florida-California border dispute.
Although the stunt was obviously a joke, “Vote for Gracie” buttons popped up around the country. Harvard students pledged their support for Allen’s campaign. A Minnesota town offered her its mayoral job. Allen and Burns’s modest stunt went as viral as anything could in pre-YouTube days. The pair even mounted a “real” campaign, with Allen embarking on a 34-city whistle-stop train tour that drew hundreds of thousands of supporters.
The silliness escalated. In May of 1940, the Surprise Party held its own convention. All 8000 “delegates” in attendance threw their support behind the Gracie Allen ticket. But shortly after the event, the comedian put the brakes on her gag campaign. In a rare serious moment, Allen acknowledged the country was in rough shape. Everyone had enjoyed the laugh, but it was time for the real candidates to get their messages out.
In the end, Roosevelt beat Wilkie, piling up over 27 million popular votes on his way to a third term. Oddly, several thousand Americans still cast their votes for a dark horse candidate who had ended her campaign months earlier: Gracie Allen of the Surprise Party.