You Gotta Know These United States Presidential Elections
Every U.S. presidential election is fair game for quiz bowl questions, but some elections are asked about very frequently, either for the unusual nature of the election (e.g., 1876), for the extraordinary significance of the election in American history (e.g., 1860), or for the people involved (e.g., 1912).
- 1800: Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson narrowly beat the incumbent Federalist John Adams 73–65, marking the ascent of that party’s power. At the time, one electoral vote each was cast for president and vice president, so Democratic-Republican VP candidate Aaron Burr also had 73 votes, but Burr refused to step aside. In the House of Representatives, neither man won the necessary nine state delegations outright until the 36th ballot, when James Bayard of Delaware changed his vote to Jefferson. The debacle led to the passage of the 12th amendment in 1804. The Federalists never recovered; Alexander Hamilton’s opposition to Adams led to a permanent split between the two, and Hamilton’s opposition to Burr was one cause of their 1804 duel, in which Burr (then the vice president) killed Hamilton. This was the first peaceful transfer of power from one party to another.
- 1824: The candidates were John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, William Crawford, and Andrew Jackson, all Democratic-Republicans. After John C. Calhoun decided to seek the vice presidency and Crawford (from Georgia) had a stroke, Jackson took most of the South and won the popular vote. Jackson had 99 electoral votes, Adams 84, Crawford 41, and Clay 37, but since none had more than 50% of the vote, the House decided the election. Adams won in the House with support from Clay, and Jacksonians cried foul when Clay was made Secretary of State (the so-called “corrupt bargain”), giving fuel to Jackson’s victorious 1828 campaign. Jackson is the only candidate to lose a presidential race despite having the most electoral votes, and he is one of five (with Tilden, Cleveland, Gore, and Hillary Clinton) to lose despite winning the popular vote. The election also led to the founding of the Democratic Party.
- 1860: Another four-candidate election, with Republican Abraham Lincoln, (northern) Democrat Stephen Douglas, (southern) Democrat John C. Breckinridge, and Constitutional Unionist John G. Bell. The Republican Party, founded in 1854, won in its second election (its first candidate being John C. Frémont in 1856), aided by the fragmenting of the Democrats. Bell took Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia, Breckinridge swept the other slave states, and Lincoln nearly swept the free states. Though winning under 40% of the total popular vote, Lincoln dominated the electoral count with 180 to a combined 123 for his opponents (Breckinridge 72, Bell 39, Douglas 12). Seven southern states seceded before Lincoln even took office, and war soon followed.
- 1876: Republican Rutherford B. Hayes faced Democrat Samuel Tilden, best known for battling Tammany Hall and the Tweed Ring in New York. Tilden won the popular vote and seemed to win the election, but results in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana were contested, as was one vote in Oregon; if Hayes swept these votes, he would win the electoral count 185–184. In Congress, an informal bargain was reached (often called the Compromise of 1877) in which Hayes won the election in exchange for Reconstruction being brought to an end.
- 1896: In the election itself, Republican William McKinley swept the North and Northeast to beat Democrat William Jennings Bryan, but the campaign was the interesting part. The most prominent issue, the gold standard versus free silver coinage, led to Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech. Shunned by Eastern press, Bryan — a legendary orator — traveled 18,000 miles through 27 states and was heard by some three million people. McKinley would not accept Bryan’s challenge to debate, comparing it to putting up a trapeze and competing with a professional athlete. McKinley instead had a “front porch” campaign, as railroads brought voters by the thousands to hear him speak in his hometown, Canton, Ohio. Mark Hanna, McKinley’s campaign manager, is often considered the first modern campaign manager. The election also represented the demise of the Populist Party and ushered in a 16-year period of Republican rule. The gold question would disappear soon after the election with gold strikes in Australia and Alaska.
- 1912: Three presidents — Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson — earned electoral votes. Roosevelt, displeased with his successor Taft, returned to lead the progressive Republican faction; after Taft got the Republican nomination, Roosevelt was nominated by the Progressive Party (nicknamed the “Bull Moose” Party). Wilson won with 435 electoral votes to Roosevelt’s 88 and Taft’s 8, making Taft the only incumbent to finish third in a re-election bid. Though Wilson did set forth his New Freedom program, his dominating win must be credited largely to the splitting of the Republican vote by Roosevelt and Taft.
- 1948: In the most recent election with four significant candidates, Democrat Harry Truman beat Republican Thomas Dewey, contrary to the famous headline of the Chicago Tribune, which was printed before results from the West came in. Dewey dominated the northeast, but Truman nearly swept the West to pull out the victory. Former vice president Henry Wallace earned over a million votes as the Progressive candidate, and Strom Thurmond took over a million popular votes and 39 electoral votes as the States’ Rights (or Dixiecrat) candidate.
- 1960: John F. Kennedy defeated vice president Richard Nixon 303–219 in a tight election, winning the popular vote by just two-tenths of a percent. The first Kennedy-Nixon debate (September 26, 1960) is a classic in political science; those who saw the calm, handsome Kennedy and the tired, uncomfortable-looking Nixon on television were more likely to select Kennedy as the winner than were those who listened on radio. (Theodore White’s notable The Making of the President series began with the 1960 election.) Voting irregularities in Texas and Illinois (especially in Richard Daley’s Chicago) led to allegations of fraud, but a recount would not have been feasible, and Nixon did not press the issue. Nixon would go on to lose the 1962 California gubernatorial race (occasioning his famous statement “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around any more”).
- 1968: After Lyndon Johnson declined to run for re-election, and after Robert F. Kennedy was killed in California, the Democratic nomination went to Hubert Humphrey. Richard Nixon, gradually returning from political obscurity over the past six years, gained the Republican nomination. Alabama governor George Wallace ran as the American Independent candidate, becoming the last third-party candidate to win multiple electoral votes. Nixon edged Humphrey by half a million popular votes and a 301—191 electoral count, while Wallace won nearly ten million votes. Wallace’s presence may well have tipped the election to the Republicans, who, after being out of power for 28 of the last 36 years, would hold the presidency for all but four years through 1992.
- 2000: The closest election in American history. Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote to George W. Bush by a final count of 271—266 (one Gore elector abstained). Ralph Nader of the Green Party won an important 2.7% of the vote, while Pat Buchanan of the Reform Party placed fourth. New Mexico and Oregon were initially too close to call but went to Gore, and Florida became the center of attention. Ballot confusion in Palm Beach County, intimidation of vote recounters in Miami-Dade County, and absentee ballots throughout Florida became significant issues, as Americans had to hear about butterfly ballots, hanging chads, and Florida Secretary of State Katharine Harris for the next five weeks. Gore officially conceded the election on December 13, 2000.
Other notable election events include James K. Polk’s win as a “dark horse” candidate in 1844, Grover Cleveland’s loss in 1888 despite winning the popular vote, Woodrow Wilson’s narrow victory in 1916, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s defeats of Herbert Hoover in 1932 and Wendell Willkie in 1940, Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, and Bill Clinton’s win in 1992 over George H. W. Bush and Ross Perot.