Fictional Timeline:

While the show takes place mostly in the early 2000’s, it does not match up with the times the show aired, and any attempt to reconcile the two will fail.

For starters, The West Wing universe appears to diverge from history some time after Richard Nixon‘s presidency, although there is occasional overlap; for instance, in the second episode of the series’ second season “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” Toby Ziegler speaks to a Secret Service agent outside a building named for Ronald Reagan, although this may have just been a production oversight. Fictional Presidents who are shown to have served between Nixon and Bartlet include one-term Democrat D. Wire Newman (James Cromwell) and two-term Republican Owen Lassiter.

Leo McGarry is mentioned as being Labor Secretary in the administration that was in office in 1993 and 1995. In the first season, an outgoing Supreme Court Justice tells Jed Bartlet that he had been wanting to retire for five years, but waited “for a Democrat” because he did not want a Republican President to replace him with a conservative justice (the Justice then tells President Bartlet, snidely, “Instead, I got you.”). The season four episode “Debate Camp” features a flashback to the days just before Bartlet’s inauguration, as Donna Moss meets with her Republican predecessor, Jeff Johnson. In season six Leo says that the Republicans have been “out of power for eight years”, and Republicans at their convention say “eight (years) is enough”.

The passage of time on the show relative to that of the real world is somewhat ambiguous when marked by events of shorter duration (such as votes and campaigns). Sorkin noted in a DVD commentary track for the second-season episode “18th and Potomac” that he tried to avoid tying The West Wing to a specific period of time. Despite this, real years are occasionally mentioned, usually in the context of elections and President Bartlet’s two-term administration.

The show’s presidential elections are held in 2002 and 2006, which are the years of the midterm elections in reality (these dates come from the fact that in the season 2 episode “17 People”, Toby mentions 2002 as the year of the President’s reelection campaign). The election timeline in The West Wing matches up with that of the real world until early in the sixth season, when it appears that a year is lost. For example, the filing deadline for the New Hampshire primary, which would normally fall in January 2006, appears in an episode airing in January 2005.

In an interview, John Wells stated that the series began one and a half years into Bartlet’s first term and that the election to replace Bartlet was being held at the correct time.[81]However, the season 1 episode “He Shall from Time to Time” shows the preparations for Bartlet’s first regular State of the Union address, which would occur one year into his presidency. In the Season 1 episode “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet”, Josh Lyman asks Toby Ziegler, “Our second year isn’t going much better than our first year, is it?”

In the season 5 episode “Access”, it is mentioned that the Casey Creek crisis occurred during Bartlet’s first term and got his presidency off to a calamitous start, and network footage of the crisis carries the date of November 2001.

1998 presidential election

Bartlet’s first campaign for President is never significantly explored in the series. Bartlet is stated to have won the election with 48% of the popular vote, 48 million votes, and a 303–235 margin in the Electoral College. Of three debates between Bartlet and his Republican opponent, it is mentioned that Bartlet won the third and final debate, held eight days before election day in St. Louis, Missouri. Josh Lyman says that in the days prior to the election “Bartlet punched through a few walls” as the result seemed too close to call, before the result broke his way. Leo McGarry says the same thing in “Bartlet for America” when he says, “It was eight days to go, and we were too close to call”.

The campaign for the Democratic nomination is extensively addressed. In the episodes “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Part I”, “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen, Part II” and “Bartlet for America”, flashbacks are used to show Bartlet defeating Texas Senator John Hoynes (Tim Matheson) and Washington Senator William Wiley for the Democratic nomination and later choosing Hoynes as his running mate. The flashbacks also show Leo McGarry persuading Bartlet, then Governor of New Hampshire, to run for President.

2002 presidential election 

The West Wing‘s 2002 presidential election pits Bartlet and Vice President John Hoynes against Florida Governor Robert Ritchie (James Brolin) and his running mate, Jeff Heston. Bartlet faces no known opposition for renomination, though Minnesota Democratic Senator Howard Stackhouse launches a brief independent campaign for the presidency. Ritchie, not originally expected to contend for the nomination, emerges from a field of seven other Republican candidates by appealing to the party’s conservative base with simple, “homey” sound bites.

Bartlet’s staff contemplates replacing Vice President John Hoynes on the ticket with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Percy Fitzwallace (John Amos), among others. After it is clear that Ritchie will be the Republican nominee, Bartlet dismisses the idea, declaring that he wants Hoynes in the number two spot because of “four words,” which he writes down and hands to Hoynes and McGarry to read: “Because I could die.”

Throughout the season it is anticipated that the race will be close, but a stellar performance by Bartlet in the sole debate between the candidates helps give Bartlet a landslide victory in both the popular and electoral vote.

2006 presidential election

A speed-up in The West Wing‘s timeline, in part due to the expiration of many cast members’ contracts and a desire to continue the program with lower production costs, resulted in the omission of the 2004 midterm elections and an election during the seventh season. The sixth season extensively details the Democratic and Republican primaries. The seventh season covers the lead-up to the general election, the election, and the transition to a new administration. The timeline slows down to concentrate on the general election race. The election, normally held in November, takes place across two episodes originally broadcast on April 2 and 9, 2006.

Congressman Matt Santos (D-TX) (Jimmy Smits) is nominated on the fourth ballot at the Democratic National Convention, during the sixth-season finale. Santos, having planned to leave Congress before being recruited to run for the presidency by Josh Lyman, polls in the low single digits in the Iowa caucus. He is virtually out of the running in the New Hampshire primary before a last-ditch live television commercial vaults him to a third-place finish with 19% of the vote. Josh Lyman, Santos’s campaign manager, convinces Leo McGarry to become Santos’s running mate.

Senator Arnold Vinick (R-CA) (Alan Alda) secures the Republican nomination, defeating Glen Allen Walken (John Goodman) and the Reverend Don Butler (Don S. Davis), among others. Initially, Vinick wants Butler to become his running mate. However, Butler does not want to be considered because of Vinick’s stance on abortion. Instead, West VirginiaGovernor Ray Sullivan (Brett Cullen) is chosen as Vinick’s running mate. Vinick is portrayed throughout the sixth season as virtually unbeatable because of his popularity in California, a typically Democratic state, his moderate views, and his wide crossover appeal. Vinick, however, faces difficulty with the anti-abortion members of his party as an abortion rightscandidate, and criticism for his support of nuclear power following a serious accident at a Californian nuclear power station.

On the evening of the election, Leo McGarry suffers a massive heart attack and is pronounced dead at the hospital, with the polls still open on the West Coast. The Santos campaign releases the information immediately, while Arnold Vinick refuses to use Leo’s death as a “stepstool” to the presidency. Santos emerges as the winner in his home state of Texas, while Vinick wins his home state of California. The election comes down to Nevada, where both candidates need a victory to secure the presidency. Vinick tells his staff repeatedly that he will not allow his campaign to demand a recount of the votes if Santos is declared the winner. Josh Lyman gives Santos the same advice, although the Santos campaign sends a team of lawyers down to Nevada. Santos is pronounced the winner of the election, having won Nevada by 30,000 votes, with an electoral vote margin of 272–266.

According to executive producer Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr., the writers originally intended for Vinick to win the election. However, the death of Spencer forced him and his colleagues to consider the emotional strain that would result from having Santos lose both his running mate and the election. It was eventually decided by John Wells that the last episodes would be rescripted.[82] Other statements from John Wells, however, have contradicted O’Donnell’s claims about a previously planned Vinick victory. The script showing Santos winning was written long before the death of John Spencer. In 2008 O’Donnell stated to camera, “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.”[83]

Similarities to 2008 U.S. presidential election

Similarities between the fictional 2006 election and the real-life 2008 U.S. presidential election have been noted in the media:

  • The Democratic candidate is a young ethnic minority representing a populous state: Matthew Santos of Texas on the show, Barack Obama of Illinois in real life.
  • He has a gruelling but successful primary campaign against a more experienced candidate: Bob Russell on the show, Hillary Clinton in real life.
  • A third candidate has been damaged by claims of infidelity: John Hoynes on the show, John Edwards in real life.
  • The Democratic nominee chooses an experienced Washington insider as his running mate: Leo McGarry on the show, Joe Biden in real life.
  • The Republican contest is determined early in the primary season with an aging “maverick” senator of a western state being the nominee: Arnold Vinick of California on the show, John McCain of Arizona in real life.
  • The nominee defeats a staunchly pro-life opponent with pastoral experience, among others: Reverend Don Butler on the show, Mike Huckabee in real life.
  • He then chooses a younger, socially conservative running mate in the midst of their first term as governor of a sparsely populated, resource-rich state: Ray Sullivan of West Virginia on the show, Sarah Palin of Alaska in real life.[84][85]

According to David Remnick’s biography of Obama, The Bridge, when writer and former White House aide Eli Attie was tasked with fleshing out the first major Santos storylines, he looked to then-U.S. Senator Obama as a model. Attie called David Axelrod, with whom he had worked in politics, “and grilled him about Obama.” While Attie says that he “drew inspiration from [Obama] in drawing [the Santos] character,”actor Jimmy Smits also says that Obama “was one of the people that I looked to draw upon” for his portrayal of the character.[88] Writer and producer Lawrence O’Donnell says that he partly modeled Vinick after McCain.[89] Obama’s former Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, is said to be the basis of the Josh Lyman character, who becomes Santos’s Chief of Staff. However, O’Donnell denied this claim.[92]

Santos transition[edit]

As the series sunsets with Bartlet’s final year in office, little is revealed about Matt Santos’s presidency, with the last few episodes mainly focusing on the Santos team’s transition into the White House. Santos chooses Josh Lyman as Chief of Staff, who in turn calls on former colleague Sam Seaborn to be Deputy Chief of Staff. In need of experienced cabinet members, Santos taps Arnold Vinick as Secretary of State, believing the senior statesman to be one of the best strategists available and respected by foreign leaders. Santos eventually decides on Eric Baker, the Democratic Governor of Pennsylvania and at one point the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, as his choice for Vice President, and submits his name to Congress under the terms of the 25th Amendment. While the show ends before he can be confirmed, it is implied he may face little opposition from Republicans due to the backing of Secretary of State Vinick.

President Bartlet’s final act as President of the United States is pardoning Toby Ziegler, who had violated federal law by leaking classified information about a military space shuttle. The series ends with Bartlet returning to New Hampshire. Having said his goodbyes to his closest staff, former President Bartlet tells President Santos, “Make me proud, Mr. President,” to which Santos responds, “I’ll do my best, Mr. President.”