When a President dies in office, steps down or is forced to leave the Oval, the job passes to the next in the line of succession, the Vice-President, until the end of the term. That has been the case since the Constitution was written.
An incumbent with an inherited Presidency running for re-election to the position they were never elected to in the first place and succeeding, though, is something that wouldn’t happen until the 20th Century. We all know that Harry Truman did it and so did LBJ, but it was Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 who broke this particular political ground in 1904.
In 1900, William McKinley won re-election to the Presidency, the first incumbent to do so since Ulysses S. Grant. His first-term VP Garret Hobart had passed away in 1899, so after nixing some of the most likely replacements, McKinley settled on Republican rising star and Governor of New York Theodore Roosevelt.
Despite his popularity, McKinley was shot at the Pan-Am Exhibition in Buffalo, New York in 1901 and died a few days later. Teddy Roosevelt was sworn in as President on September 14th, 1901.
He spent the next three years in office without a Vice-President. Roosevelt made it clear that he would implement McKinley’s policies, the same policies people had voted for.
In addition to that, he made some bold moves, such as inviting African-American community leader Booker T. Washington for dinner at the White House and heavily regulating trusts and prosecuting anti-trust violations through his Attorney General. He became mythologized as the “trust-buster”.
He also successfully cemented his role as the undisputed leader of the Republican Party. Even his longtime enemy and rumored 1904 challenger Mark Hanna was forced to endorse him.
The 1904 Theodore Roosevelt Campaign merch emphasized stability and sought to remind voters that he did what he and McKinley were elected to do. Instead of something catchy like Teddy Roosevelt’s famous quote “Speak softly and carry a big stick” or the official campaign slogan “The Square Deal”, the official campaign poster was kept much more basic.
At the top it read: “Republican policy needs no explanation. Acts and promises fulfilled guarantee the future”. Underneath, there was a picture of the 26th President and underneath that, it simply said “Theodore Roosevelt”.
It clearly worked. Roosevelt, who had inherited the Presidency, was handily re-elected to it. The first person in US history to do it, but certainly not the last.