Five Crucial US Presidential Elections

The current US Presidential election will come to a head in the next few days – and it has without doubt been one of the most controversial campaigns in US history. Even younger pupils will be aware of the vote and taking an interest in what is still the most important election on earth. Many teachers will be talking to their pupils about it and those elections that have taken place in the past – and many parents will be doing the same. With this in mind, we have produced a very short guide to some of the other crucial elections in the history of the United States, with some ideas on where to get more information.

1789: George Washington vs. Various

The first US Presidential election was almost unrecognisable from the system we know today. There were no political parties, and everyone involved presumed that Washington would essentially be given the role of President. The real race was for the Vice Presidency (given to the runner up), and whilst it was eventually won by John Adams (who would succeed Washington as President), the nature of the system meant that those vying for the Vice Presidency were candidates against Washington.

Voters (only white men who owned property were given this right) chose state electors, who then voted for the President, in a manner not dissimilar to the Electoral College today. Each elector had two votes, and it was the second that helped choose the Vice President; every elector chose Washington as one of their votes. At the time it was one of the greatest democratic statements in history, though it was still a far cry from the elections we see today.

For more on this election and the events leading up to it, read Founding the American Presidency, edited by Richard Ellis.

1860: Abraham Lincoln (R) vs. Various

This election was arguably the most crucial one in US history, with the immediate consequences of the vote leading directly to the Civil War. The two-party system briefly collapsed, meaning that four candidates got electoral votes – in addition to Lincoln there was John Breckinridge of the Southern Democrats, John Bell of the Constitutional Unionists, and Stephen Douglas of the Northern Democrats. The Democrat party, who had provided the previous President James Buchanan, split along geographical lines largely due to disagreements over slavery, arguably helping Lincoln win the election; the Northern Democrats carried just one state despite coming second in the popular vote, whilst Lincoln did not win a single slave-holding state.

However, it is the aftermath of this election that is the most interesting. Following Lincoln’s victory several southern states resolved to secede from the union, angered in the face of his promises of expanding anti-slavery laws and refusal to acknowledge a state’s right to secession. This in turn led to the US Civil War, one of the bloodiest conflicts in modern history.

For more on this election and Lincoln’s rise to power, read Lincoln and the Election of 1860 by Michael Green.

1940: Franklin Roosevelt (D) vs. Wendell Willkie (R)

Roosevelt’s historic decision to seek a third term is what makes this election so memorable, though it obviously came at a time of great turmoil for the wider world. Ever since Washington stepped down after his second term (though privately he had wished to do so after his first due to poor health), it had been tradition that a sitting President step down after their second term in office. Roosevelt had seemingly been willing to follow this principle, and even reportedly told others in private that they were free to seek the nomination.

However, the rise of Nazi Germany and the outbreak of war in Europe convinced Roosevelt that only he had the necessary experience to guide the US through such troubled times, a view he felt was justified when the Republicans nominated Willkie, who had never run for public office before, even though they both agreed over the need to help the allies as much as possible short of going to war themselves. Roosevelt ultimately won a third term fairly comfortably, and was able to secure a fourth in 1944, before passing away three months in. After Roosevelt’s death, the Twenty-Second Amendment was passed to prevent anyone taking more than two terms in the future.

For more on this election and the wider political climate at the time, read 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler–The Election Amid the Storm by Susan Dunn.

1960: John Kennedy (D) vs. Richard Nixon (R)

This was the first election with the full fifty states eligible to vote, and the closest election since 1916, but is most famous for the first ever Presidential debates, heralding the birth of the modern US election. Infamously, it is claimed the pale and sickly-looking Nixon (he refused makeup and insisted on campaigning until a few hours before the live broadcast) was seen to have lost the first debate in the eyes of television viewers, whilst those who listened on the radio said that he had won, illustrating the importance of a candidate’s image in modern campaigns. However, whilst the lesson is still pertinent, this effect has been disputed, and the samplings of the polling that came to this conclusion are sketchy at best.

Nixon, who was the Vice President at the time, is more likely to have lost because of his poor campaign strategy, whereby he insisted on visiting all 50 states rather than concentrating on swing states that could hand him the election. He also failed to capitalise on the popularity of President Eisenhower, and his central message preaching his experience fell on deaf ears. By contrast, Kennedy was hailed as charismatic, gained votes because of his Roman Catholic heritage, and repeatedly highlighted the recession that had occurred in 1957 and 1958. Kennedy won 49.72% of the popular vote to Nixon’s 49.55%, but his Presidency was tragically cut short by his assassination in 1963.

For more on this election and how it changed the landscape of US politics, read The First Modern Campaign: Kennedy, Nixon and the Election of 1960 by Gary Donaldson.

2000: George Bush (R) vs. Al Gore (D)

This election was one of the tightest in US history, and the first since 1888 where the winner had failed to gain the popular vote (47.9% to Vice President Gore’s 48.4%); Bush gained 271 electoral votes to Gore’s 266, thanks to the infamous result in Florida. In exit polls Gore was claimed to have carried the state by most major news outlets, but Bush’s wide lead in the early vote count led to most networks recanting and calling it in favour of Bush; this belief was so widespread that Gore privately conceded the election to Bush, before withdrawing it after he narrowed the margin to around 2000 votes. Florida law demanded a recount, which dwindled Bush’s lead to just over 300 votes.

A debate later arose over Gore’s request for hand recounts in four counties, due to the issue of ‘hanging chads’, whereby voter cards with a hole punched in favour of a candidate did not punch the hole correctly, leading the machine recount to not count it as a vote. An unrealistic deadline was set by Florida’s Secretary of State, which was then overturned by the Florida Supreme Court; however, their decision was again overturned by the US Supreme Court, in what can be argued to be one of the strongest examples of judicial activism in US history. The victory for Bush stood, and many Democrats blamed Green Party candidate Ralph Nader (who gained 100,000 votes in Florida) for splitting the left-wing vote and giving Bush the election. The US media sought to get to the bottom of who would have won the election had the US Supreme Court not effectively ended any formal recounts, with most analyses suggesting that Gore would have won by a slim margin.

For more on this election and the controversial aftermath, read Too Close to Call: The Thirty-Six-Day Battle to Decide the 2000 Election by Jeffrey Toobin.