US Presidential Election Years: Adams vs Jefferson, Cleveland’s Defeat, Wilson vs Roosevelt, Truman’s Upset, Kennedy’s Fresh Face, Nixon vs McGovern, Reagan’s Re-Election

The US Presidential Election Years

Every four years, registered voters choose their preferred candidate for President. The winner of the most electoral votes becomes President.

During the election, candidates spend time and money reaching out to voters across the country with campaign rallies, national television ads, and debates. In most States, the winner of the popular vote wins all of its electoral votes.


The first contested election pitted Adams against Jefferson. The Federalists attacked Jefferson as a deist sympathizer and blamed the Embargo Act for hurting trade-dependent New England states.

Voters displayed “the unanimity of indifference,” and Adams won a victory in the electoral college. New Hampshire elector William Plumer cast his vote for Adams, a move that became the basis for the fable that only one person had ever cast a dissenting vote for president.


The election of 1896 was one of the most complicated in American history. Republicans won a majority of the electoral vote, but Democrat Grover Cleveland’s defeat set off a populist movement that would change American politics forever.

The Democrats met in Chicago and rallied around a young Nebraska attorney, William Jennings Bryan, who became a fiery orator. He urged farmers and workers to blame their economic woes on Eastern bankers, railroad monopolies, and distant politicians.


The election centered on progressive ideas such as banking reform and government regulation of monopolies. Wilson crisscrossed the country, speaking directly to voters and attacking Roosevelt for his cold, aloof manner.

A rift in the Republican Party opened as progressive elements of the party rallied behind New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson. Talk of a third party emerged, but Roosevelt did not withdraw.


The election featured a broad array of issues. La Follette’s Progressive party drew disaffected liberals, agrarians and Republican progressives to its cause and nominated him for president with Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana as his running mate.

The Democratic party nominated President Coolidge for president and Henry Wallace of Alabama as his running mate. The election centered on foreign policy and economic questions.


The election of 1936 confirmed the New Deal’s success and demonstrated its popularity. Republicans had few plausible candidates and settled on Alfred ‘Alf’ Landon, two-term governor of Kansas.

The huge Democratic vote forged an electoral coalition that would endure for decades: northern Protestants, southern Jews and Catholics, urban blacks, small farmers in Plains states, and progressive liberals. They kept control of Congress and the presidency.


The 1948 election marked one of the greatest upsets in American presidential history. Incumbent Democrat Harry Truman defeated heavy favorite Thomas Dewey and the Democratic splinter parties of Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond and Progressive Henry Wallace.

Clifford advised Truman to emphasize his support for urban black voters, arguing that the Negro votes in New York, California, and Ohio would more than offset any electoral votes lost to Dewey in the South. Truman won 303 electoral votes to Dewey’s 189.


This election was the most closely watched in history. Following two landslide defeats to Dwight Eisenhower, many Democratic leaders and delegates sought a fresh face to carry the party to victory.

John F. Kennedy, a Navy veteran and Massachusetts senator, crisscrossed the country seeking delegate votes in Democratic primaries. His rivals argued that he was too young and inexperienced to be president.


As the election approached, Nixon had a huge fundraising advantage and a strong lead in opinion polls. His campaign portrayed McGovern as the candidate of radical children, rioters, marijuana smokers and draft dodgers.

Early on, McGovern stumbled by choosing Thomas Eagleton for his running mate, then backing away from him after it was revealed that he had undergone treatment for mental illness. This proved a fatal mistake.


In 1980 the Republicans renominated Ronald Reagan, and George Bush again ran for a majority in the Senate. Former vice president Walter Mondale won the Democratic nomination after turning back challenges by Senator Gary Hart of Colorado and Reverend Jesse Jackson. He chose New York Representative Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.

Mondale argued that Reagan supported a social agenda out of touch with the mainstream and advocated fiscal policies that produced huge budget deficits. He emphasized his willingness to raise taxes.


Reagan romped to re-election over Democratic former Vice President Walter Mondale. He carried every state except Minnesota and won 58 percent of the vote to Mondale’s thirteen.

Jesse Jackson, the eloquent African American minister, challenged the Democratic nomination. He and Gary Hart gave Mondale a run for his money, but they did not unseat him. Mondale chose New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.

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