The Most Peculiar Presidential Elections
Do you know the names of the two candidates who took part in the most disputed presidential election in U.S. history (hint—the names aren’t Bush and Gore)? Who was the first dark horse presidential nominee? What third-party candidate received the most votes recorded in the annals of American presidential contests (it wasn’t Ross Perot)?
Two weeks ago we presented in part one the first six of America’s 10 most peculiar presidential elections. These elections helped set the stage for the quirks in our modern-day presidential campaigns.
1896: Money Talks—
William McKinley versus William Jennings Bryan
The issue of currency dominated the 1896 election campaign. William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic candidate, supported the free coinage of silver. Republican William McKinley wanted a gold standard.
Bryan crisscrossed the country making personal appearances. McKinley stayed home and ran a front porch campaign where thousands of people came to his home and heard him speak. Bryan was accused of lacking dignity. He answered “I would rather have it said that I lacked dignity than that I lacked backbone to meet the enemies of the government who work against its welfare from Wall Street.”
Mark Hanna, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, raised an unprecedented $3.5 million for the McKinley campaign, which championed the gold standard, high tariffs, high wages, and renewed prosperity. Most of the money came from corporations that feared that Bryan’s more radical Free Silver policy would ruin the economy. McKinley outspent Bryant by a factor of ten.
Hanna’s campaign employed 1,400 people who provided a flood of pamphlets, leaflets, posters, and stump speakers for the general public. These efforts paid off. McKinley defeated Bryan by an electoral vote of 271 to 176. At the time, it was the most expensive campaign ever in U.S. politics. Today it is considered the forerunner of the modern political campaign for its skilled use of publicity, its overall national plan, its tactical use of issues, and particularly the candidate’s own speech making.
1912: Third Party Revenge—William Howard Taft versus Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson
William Howard Taft never wanted to be president, and he hated politics. What he really wanted to be was a Supreme Court Justice. But he ran for president in 1908 because Teddy Roosevelt, a great admirer of Taft, asked him to.
Problems arose as soon as Taft assumed the presidency. He alienated TR by not supporting Roosevelt’s progressive policies and he alienated the Conservative wing of the Republican Party by not consistently supporting their programs. When Roosevelt announced that he was going to enter the presidential race of 1912 as a third party candidate, it was obvious to everyone that Taft had no chance of being re-elected president.
The 1912 election was one of the liveliest in United States history. Roosevelt campaigned relentlessly and spoke everywhere. While campaigning in Milwaukee, a saloonkeeper named John Schrank failed in an assassination attempt on Roosevelt. Schrank shot the former President, but the bullet lodged in Roosevelt’s chest only after hitting both his steel eyeglass case and a copy of his speech he was carrying in his jacket. Roosevelt declined suggestions that he go to the hospital, and delivered his scheduled speech. He spoke vigorously for 90 minutes. His opening comments to the gathered crowd were, “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”
Taft was soundly defeated in the presidential election. He received 23 percent of the vote—the worst electoral showing by an incumbent president in U.S history. Roosevelt gained 28 percent of the vote—the best showing by a third party candidate in American history. Democrat Woodrow Wilson became president, garnering 42 percent of the popular vote.
In 1921, President Harding appointed Taft to the U.S. Supreme Court. Taft excelled in his new position, leading fellow Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis to comment, “It’s very difficult for me to understand how a man who is so good as chief justice could have been so bad as president.” Perhaps Brandeis was not aware of Taft’s frequently expressed motto—“Politics makes me sick.”
1948: A Great Comeback—Harry S. Truman versus Thomas Dewey
In the summer of 1948, the Democratic Party was split into three factions: the Progressives on the left, the Dixiecrats on the right, and Truman somewhere in the middle. The Republican Party was unified, nominating Thomas Dewey, the governor of New York, for president. Dewey had done well against Franklin Roosevelt in 1944, and he was now the frontrunner.
Truman received the Democratic presidential nomination, but everybody expected him to lose the election. Not so, Truman. In his acceptance speech he said, “I’m going to fight hard. I’m going to give ‘em hell.” And he did.
Truman called a special session of the Republican-controlled Congress as a political ploy. When the Republican Congress didn’t accomplish anything, Truman had his campaign issue, and he attacked the Republicans as a do-nothing party. He toured the United States by train, beginning his famous whistle stop tour. He stopped everywhere, giving up to 16 speeches a day.
Truman also gained support when the Soviet Union endorsed Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace. The endorsement killed Wallace’s candidacy and sent his backers to Truman.
Despite his growing approval, both polls and pundits wrote Truman off. The night of the election, many newspapers gave the victory to Dewey (the headline on the Chicago Daily Tribune read “Dewey Defeats Truman”). Were they ever wrong! When the election results came in, Truman had unexpectedly but decisively won by more than 2 million votes. The former haberdasher from the show-me state showed everyone that no matter what the media says, the people determine the outcome in presidential elections.
1960: Looks Make the Man—Richard Nixon versus John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Before the 2000 election, the 1960 election was the closest presidential election since the early days of the democracy. Nixon would have won had it not been for four nationally televised debates, the first television debates ever in presidential elections.
Nixon appeared old and tired during the first debate. He had just come out of the hospital after recovering from a life-threatening infection, and he looked ill—his mother called him afterwards and asked if he was all right. But despite his weary looks, Nixon refused to wear makeup to improve his color and lighten his perpetual “five o’clock shadow.” John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee, had been campaigning in California and was tan, confident, and well rested. He looked young and energetic in comparison to Nixon. (In substance, the candidates were much more evenly matched. Those who heard the first debate on the radio pronounced Nixon the winner.)
Kennedy went on to win the election by 112,803 votes out of almost 70 million ballots cast. In the face of charges of vote fraud in Illinois and Texas—states that Nixon lost by a few thousand votes—Nixon refused to go to court saying, “to drag out the decision would do incalculable damage throughout the country.” He simply congratulated Kennedy and returned to his law practice in California. Eight years later Nixon became president.