Was Arnold Vinick Going to Win the Presidency on The West Wing Before John Spencer’s Untimely Death?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.

TV URBAN LEGEND: Arnold Vinick was originally going to win the election until John Spencer died, and the producers decided they did not want Matt Santos to lose his running mate AND the election.

The West Wing was a critically acclaimed drama that ran for seven seasons from 1999 until 2006. For the vast majority of the series, the show was about the staff of President Josiah Bartlett (played by Martin Sheen) and the President himself.

The sixth and seventh seasons of the show, though, held the spotlight a bit more to the two men running to become the NEXT President of the United States (Bartlett, of course, still had plenty of plots on the show), Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits)


Arnold Vinick (played by Alan Alda)

Santos ended up choosing as his running mate Bartlett’s long-time Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry (played by John Spencer)…

John Spencer tragically passed away before the election storyline finished.

My pal Chad, wrote in with a rumor…

Arnold Vinick was originally going to win the presidency, but John Spencer’s death meant that Matt Santos would have lost both his running mate AND the election, and producers thought that would a bit too much to lay on the character, so they changed it to a Santos victory.


In a Jacques Steinberg’s 2006 New York Times article, he wrote the following:

Like many political campaigns, the presidential election depicted last night on “The West Wing” on NBC would have had a different ending had it been held four months ago.

But the reversal of fortune for Matt Santos — the Democratic nominee, played by Jimmy Smits, who was the victor — had nothing to do with any shift in opinion among voters.

Instead, Lawrence O’Donnell, an executive producer of the show, said he and his fellow writers had declared Santos the winner only after the death, in mid-December, of John Spencer, who portrayed Santos’s running mate, Leo McGarry. At the time of Mr. Spencer’s death, the plot for last night’s episode had been set: the election was to be won by Alan Alda’s Arnold Vinick, a maverick Republican (modeled a bit on Senator John McCain), whom many Democrats (including the Democrats who write the show) could learn to love.

But after Mr. Spencer died, Mr. O’Donnell said in a recent interview, he and his colleagues began to confront a creative dilemma: would viewers be saddened to see Mr. Smits’s character lose both his running mate and the election? The writers decided that such an outcome would prove too lopsided, in terms of taxing viewers’ emotions, so a script with the new, bittersweet ending — including the election-night death of Mr. Spencer’s character — was undertaken by John Wells, executive producer of “The West Wing” and “E.R.”

As it turns out, O’Donnell was speaking out of turn. John Wells noted that the Santos victory episode had already been written.

According to O’Donnell, the situation was more a matter of the writers still arguing for Vinick but the death of Spencer silenced them and confirmed that Santos would win. As O’Donnell later noted in a BBC documentary on fictional presidents:

We actually planned at the outset for Jimmy Smits to win, that was our .. just .. plan of how this was all going to work, but the Vinick character came on so strong in the show, and was so effective, it became a real contest … and it became a real contest in the West Wing writer’s room.

So I imagine that that is what O’Donnell was talking about in the New York Times article. That Vinick winning the presidency was gaining steam but Spencer’s death squelched it.

The legend is…

STATUS: Appears to be False

Thanks to Chad for the question!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

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One Response to “Was Arnold Vinick Going to Win the Presidency on The West Wing Before John Spencer’s Untimely Death?”

  1. Watch season season episode one it was taped and aired well before. Leo (John Spencer) died. Why would Josh be approaching Ex president Bartlett to alert him of President Venice ‘ s arrival at his library opening? Josh would be waiting with the rest of the staff had he lost.My biggest issue w I think season 7 was why wasn’t Sam at Leo’s funeral? Wouldn’t that have been a good time for Josh to ask about the Deputy job? Sam loved Leo so much he missed the funeral? Always bugged me

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