Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Election 2012

Source: US News & World Report
Next week, most American voters will make a choice between the incumbent president, Barack Obama, and the challenger, former Governor Mitt Romney. This election season has been as intense as any and offers Americans a distinct choice between two very different economic ideologies and two very different visions for the United States in the world.

This may indeed be one of the more consequential elections in history, especially if the results of November 6th are as close as the polls today suggest. If that happens, the country may need to be re-educated on the Electoral College as occurred in the contentious Election of 2000.  In fact, given the number of "states in play" this election, there is a very small possibility of a tie in the Electoral College.  Should that rare event happen, the House of Representatives would choose the President and the Senate would choose the Vice President (Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution).  That would certainly be an interesting event.  Another possibility given recent polling is that one candidate could win the popular vote, while another wins the presidency through the Electoral College.  We will have to wait and see what happens next week.

For more information on how the two candidates are polling compared to the Electoral College, see the Real Clear Politics Electoral Map.

For this post, I thought I would take a look back at some of the most significant elections in U.S. History:

Election of 1796 - This election marked the beginning of the two-party political system that we are accustomed to today.  However, because of how the original Electoral College system worked, the election resulted in a president of one party and a vice president of another party.  Federalist President John Adams and Democratic-Republican Vice President Thomas Jefferson hoped that their personal friendship could allow for a functioning government.  That did not happen and led to the first real contentious election fight in American History, the Election of 1800.

The Original Electoral College Vote of 1800 (National Archives)
Election of 1800 - This election season was as long as any and saw for the first time, a coordinated state-by-state effort by both parties to line up electoral votes. In the end, the "Jeffersonian Republicans" were the most effective. They were so effective at lining up disciplined electoral votes that the intended presidential candidate, Thomas Jefferson, received the same number of electoral votes as the intended vice presidential candidate Aaron Burr. With a tie in the Electoral College, the election went to the Federalist-controlled House which, after many threats and heated debates, selected Jefferson as President and Burr as Vice President. What made this election more significant than the electoral battle itself is that it marked the first transition of political power in American History. One ruling party stepped down peacefully while another gained power without making any drastic changes or witnessing any violence. This was remarkable for the time period, especially given recent European history.

Election of 1824 - After an eight year period of a one-party system, four candidates vied for the presidency in an election where some states were beginning to count the popular vote in elections. Furthermore, states were eliminating property requirements for voting ushering in the start of universal white male suffrage, known as an "era of the common man." In the final tally, Andrew Jackson emerged with more popular and electoral votes than any other candidate. However, he did not have a majority of all possible votes. By the Constitution, the election went to the House of Representatives. Under the leadership of Speaker Henry Clay who viewed Jackson as dangerous, the House chose John Quincy Adams instead. Jackson's supporters claimed a stolen election and the result was four years of misery for Adams.

Election of 1828 - Four years later, there was no electoral controversy in selecting Andrew Jackson as president. Two major developments came out of this election: (1) more "common men" now had the right to vote in an election where personal character attacks hit an all-time high and (2) the solidification of a distinct two-party political system.

Election of 1860 - Despite close electoral contests, partisanship or campaign controversies, every change in leadership has witnessed a peaceful transition of power - except this one.  Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860 without any southern electoral votes gave states like South Carolina an excuse to secede from the union.  That crisis led to four years of a bloody Civil War.  For more, see my related posts on the Civil War at 150. 

Election of 1876 - After bitter years of Civil War and Reconstruction, this election pitted Republican James Garfield against Democrat Samuel Tilden.  With a close campaign and a divided nation, the results were unclear.  Several states fielded disputed returns and without a clear winner in the Electoral College, the Congress convened a special electoral commission and by one vote, chose James Garfield.  It is reported that a deal was struck that in return for Garfield's election, he would remove the last remaining troops from the South officially ending Reconstruction.  With this "Compromise of 1877," Reconstruction faded away beginning an era of the "New South" and "Jim Crow." 

Election of 1896 - As the nineteenth century came to a close, Republican William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan who ran as both a Democrat and Populist.  This is one of the more fascinating races of the nineteenth century which served as a precursor to the types of campaigning that would take place in the twentieth century.  This was also the last election where the agrarian vote played a major role as the United States evolved into a mostly industrial economy. 

Source: RetroCampaigns.com
Election of 1912 - Similar to the current election battle, this election gave voters a distinct choice of differing economic visions for the future of the nation, albeit three choices.  Incumbent President William Howard Taft was challenged within the Republican Party by his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt.  When Republicans nominated Taft for a second term over "TR," Roosevelt joined the Progressive Party and ran as a third-party candidate.  This party was nicknamed the "Bull Moose Party" after a famous TR speech.  With the split among normal Republican voters, Progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the election with only 41% of the popular vote.  The major issue in this election, similar to today, involved the proper role of the federal government in the economy.  Wilson's election illustrates a general rule in the game of politics: when a traditional voting group is split in two, the other side usually wins (example: Bill Clinton's election in 1992 over George Bush and Ross Perot; exception to the rule: Truman's election in 1948).  Another notable fact, maybe an alarming one, is the 6% of the popular vote gained by Socialist candidate Eugene Debs. 

Election of 1932 - This election serves as the most famous example of the economy playing the deciding role in selecting a president.  In the depths of the Great Depression, voters overwhelming turned out Republican Herbert Hoover in favor of the eloquent Democrat from New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his "New Deal."  The New Deal initiated a dramatic change in the role of the federal government and led to the creation of dozens of government programs and regulatory agencies.  These initiatives relied on planned deficit spending, an idea still debated today and resulted in the doubling of the national debt.  Though many New Deal programs were temporary, some major reforms remain in place today - most famously, Social Security.  Unfortunately, the New Deal did not resolve the Great Depression and in fact, the economy got worse by the mid-1930s.  It would take the mobilization for World War II to finally lift the economy back to pre-1929 levels. 

Election of 1940 - Though Roosevelt's popularity declined in his second term, the overwhelming issue in this campaign was the outbreak of World War II in Europe.  As a result, voters chose to retain FDR for an unprecedented third term instead of selecting businessman Wendell Wilkie for the Oval Office. The possibility of a third term would be removed later by the Twenty-Second Amendment.

Election of 1948 - In another three-candidate race, President Harry Truman unexpectedly defeated Republican Thomas Dewey.  In this race, Truman was challenged from within his own party by Strom Thurmond who gained the nomination of the southern States Rights, or Dixiecrat, Party.  This election proved that the party split rule does not always apply.  Journalists had expected that the split in the Democrat vote would easily hand the election to Dewey.  Some newspapers ran the headline "Dewey defeats Truman" ahead of receiving the final results, now made famous by the image to the left. 

Election of 1952 - In this election, television played a major role for the first time as voters selected General Dwight Eisenhower over Democrat Adlai Stevenson.  For the influence of television in presidential campaigns, see the Museum of the Moving Image's site, The Living Room Candidate (www.livingroomcandidate.org).  This site archives hundreds of campaign commercials from every election, 1952 to 2008 (and soon, 2012).

Election of 1960 - Television continued to play an influential role in politics as this election witnessed the first televised debate between Democrat Senator John F. Kennedy and Republican Vice President Richard Nixon.  Kennedy's appeal on television boosted his image and aided in his eventual electoral victory, though the election was very close and is somewhat clouded with later reports of voter fraud. Kennedy is the first Catholic to be elected to the presidency.

Election of 1968 - This election served as one of the most divisive in history.  With the height of the controversial war in Vietnam, the stunning announcement that incumbent President Lyndon Johnson would not seek a second term and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, this election produced another three-way split.  In a contentious nominating convention in Chicago with violent protests outside the convention hall, Democrats nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey.  Republicans selected former Vice President Richard Nixon and southern Democrats formed the American Independent Party nominating former Alabama governor George Wallace for president.  Nixon easily won the election promising "peace with honor" in Vietnam. 

Election of 1980 - Ronald Reagan's election over Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980 marked a change in the political landscape of the United States.  While the nation experienced what historians have labeled a "conservative revolution," the South began the transition from a Democrat stronghold to a mostly Republican region, at least in national elections.  Also, the politics of this era helped define the terms "conservative" and "liberal" used today. 

Source: CBSNews.com
Election of 1992 - As referenced earlier, this election helps support the party-split rule where Democrat Bill Clinton won the presidency with a minority of the popular vote over Republican George H.W. Bush and Independent Ross Perot. 

Source: USA Today
Election of 2000 - In one of the closest races in history, the results of this election between Republican Governor George W. Bush and Democrat Vice President Al Gore were unknown after election night.  As the results came in state-by-state, the race was "too close to call" in the Electoral College.  The final tally came down to the state of Florida where the race was also too close to call.  The first results indicated that George W. Bush had won Florida, but only by a small number of votes.  By state law, this close of an election result mandated a recount by hand.  This launched a media and legal circus in Florida lasting weeks as the physical recount took place.  In the end, the recount determined that Bush won Florida by 537 votes and thus, won all of Florida's 25 electoral votes placing him above the required 270 to win.  This result was later upheld by the United States Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore (2000).  George W. Bush won the presidency because he won in the Electoral College, even though Al Gore had won the popular vote.  The controversy did, however, serve to educate the public on the constitutional process of selecting a president. On a personal note, this was my first presidential election as a voter.

To understand the Electoral College system, see my handout linked here. 

Election of 2008 - Barack Obama is the first African-American elected to the presidency, certainly a historic moment.  Whether or not he has achieved his campaign promises will be decided by voters in this election.
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