James Garfield, arrived at the Republican National Convention in Chicago on May 29. Right from the start, people began to ask Garfield if he would seek the Presidency. The field was wide open. It appeared as if Ulysses S. Grant might be persuaded to serve a third term. The scandal and corruption of his administration had been promptly forgotten amid the controversy surrounding the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes. Many thought that Grant could successfully implement the Reconstruction policies that Hayes had rolled back. Several state delegations, including New York and Pennsylvania, arrived in Chicago with orders to support Grant.
For his part, Garfield personally supported his good friend James G. Blaine, but as Ohio chair was obligated to publicly support the state's favorite son, John Sherman. Blaine appeared to be the only person who could stop the third- term movement, and it appeared that he stood a good chance against grant. As Secretary of the Treasury, however, Sherman appealed to voters who believed Hayes had actually been a good president, ensuring fiscal solvency and reforming civil service.
The convention began with a customary fight over rules, and Garfield was chosen as chair of the rules committee. He persuaded the convention to permit delegates to vote individually rather than in state blocks, freeing many delegates from their "obligatory" votes. When the nominations began, a Michigan delegate nominated Blaine, and Grant's name was also frequently mentioned. Garfield stood to nominate Sherman, but he spoke for nearly fifteen minutes before mentioning Sherman's name, which many delegates interpreted as actually nominating himself. Two others names nominated as well: George F. Edmunds of Vermont and Elihu B. Washburne of Illinois.
Grant grew worried about the contentiousness of the convention and sent a messenger to Blaine to enquire about withdrawing both of their names in favor of a lesser-known candidate. When the first ballot was cast, Grant fell about seventy votes short of the 378 needed to win and gained almost no votes over the hours of debate that followed. Garfield's name slowly entered the picture, and by the thirty-sixth ballot, he won the nomination with 399 votes. Garfield slumped in his seat, unsure of what to think. He wired his wife before being rushed to a hotel. Chester A. Arthur, a New York official originally from Vermont, won the vice-presidential nomination.
The following day, a special train carried Garfield and the Ohio delegation back to Cleveland. The House sent him a congratulatory telegram, pointing out that no member of Congress had ever been elected president. Upon arriving in Cleveland, Garfield hurried to Hiram College, where he had a long-standing engagement to speak. On June 14, Garfield left for Washington amid much celebration. Hayes saw Garfield's nomination as a vindication of his administration.
For their part, the Democrats' convention proved just as volatile. Samuel Tilden, who still considered himself the rightful president, had been tarnished by the publication of telegrams alleging that he had tried to buy the election. General Winfield Scott Hancock eventually received the nomination amid lackluster enthusiasm.
As Hayes predicted, the Republican party campaigned heavily on his administration. Neither candidate, however, was particularly enthused by the campaign: Garfield held too many independent views and Hancock knew little about government. Garfield spent much of his time behind the scenes wooing the Republican delegation from New York, without whose support the state would easily go to the Democrats.
The first fall election was held in Maine on September 13, and the Democrats gained a surprise victory in the gubernatorial race. The Republicans stepped up their nationwide campaign and Garfield eventually won the election, receiving 214 electoral votes to Hancock's 155. Garfield won primarily thanks to the larger Northern states and their large blocks of electoral votes. His victory with the popular vote was much closer. Congressman and Senator-Elect Garfield was now President-elect as well. On November 8, Garfield wrote to the Ohio governor, resigning his House seat so that he could concentrate on preparing for the presidency.