5 Moments That Changed Presidential Election History
Furor and excitement surrounding Tuesday's election is really nothing new in American history, which has featured presidential contests accompanied by episodes tragic, comic, and foundational for our democracy, a UMD historian says.
Standing in line to cast your ballot while scanning other people’s “I Voted” selfies on Instagram may be tedious. The outcome, like everything else in 2020, might be momentous.
While next week’s election feels like the most consequential one in many current voters’ lifetimes, it’s hardly the first time that a presidential election has had enormous effects. Previous elections, both early and modern, tread uncertain ground to establish what a peaceful transfer of power from one party to another looks like, held existential implications for the rights and very lives of African Americans and gave birth to a new era of an image-obsessed politics.
Claire Dunning, assistant professor in the UMD School of Public Policy and a political and urban historian affiliated with the Department of History, points to a few moments from past American elections that highlight how campaigning, voting and political messaging have—and haven’t—changed.
The Election of 1800
If you’ve listened to the “Hamilton” cast album—or, lucky you, seen the show—you might be familiar with this one. The election sometimes referred to as the Revolution of 1800 marked the first time in the young nation’s history that the incumbent, John Adams of the Federalist Party, lost, in this case, to his friend and rival Thomas Jefferson of the Democratic-Republican Party. Aside from being an early example of one party handing over control to another without conflict, the election was also a “moment when parties, electioneering and campaigning became key features of American politics,” said Dunning.
The Compromise of 1877
The deeply contentious election of 1876, in which Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden faced off, was the second election in which the winner of the popular vote was ultimately ruled the loser. For months, the results were in dispute, eventually settled by the Compromise of 1877, an agreement in which the Democrats conceded the election in exchange for the formal end of the Reconstruction Era and a removal of the last troops from the South, leading to longstanding disenfranchisement of Black Americans. The agreement put an end to “the period after the Civil War where formerly enslaved African Americans were gaining political power,” said Dunning. “Removing Northern soldiers and enforcement from the South effectively let the south free after the Civil War and precipitated the rise of Jim Crow policies of segregation, violence, and disenfranchisement”
Dewey Defeats Truman...Not
We’ve all seen the famous 1948 photo of a victorious President Harry S. Truman holding up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune bearing the banner headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The embarrassing error came after a year of strikes from the workers who operated the printer’s linotype machines, a protest against the Taft-Hartley Act that restricted the power of labor unions. Without the linotype workers, the newspaper had to use a different method that required more time and therefore an earlier deadline to be sent to press. The episode raises questions of “media, journalism, print journalism, social media, deciding when to call an election,” said Dunning. “Certainly there’s lots of talk (about that) this year, and for reasons far more serious than a desire to avoid repeating a funny episode.”
The Revolution (or At Least the Debate) Will Be Televised
For the first TV presidential debate in 1960, John F. Kennedy wore makeup and looked youthful and healthy. By contrast, Richard Nixon, recovering from an infected knee injury, refused makeup and appeared tired and sickly. Viewers said he lost—but those who listened on the radio said he won. “Kennedy was much more comfortable on television,” said Dunning. She points to parallels in this year’s election in “thinking about how the two candidates are coming across visually on the debate stage, as well as the ways they communicate with voters via a broader array of media platforms” (Though a vice presidential debate, we all watched the famous fly steal the show from Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.)
Women Speak Up—and Stand Up
Women have a long history of participating in elections—as voters, activists, and candidates. Women in New Jersey were allowed to vote until 1807, when owning property became a requirement for voting; that essentially limited the vote to white men. In 1872, Susan B. Anthony was arrested for illegally voting in New York State. African American activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who helped organize Freedom Summer, gave an impassioned speech to the 1964 Democratic National Convention describing the “violence she’d experienced trying to register to vote in the Deep South,” said Dunning, who said the speech influenced the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act lifting impediments to Black enfranchisement. And Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, was also the first woman to run for a major party nomination in 1972. “As a woman of color, Senator Kamala Harris’s position on the Democratic ticket is a noteworthy first but also builds upon a much longer history in which white women and Black women have been key actors in presidential elections.”
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