Top 10 Controversial US Presidential Elections

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Every four years, Americans get bombarded with mudslinging, push polls, and the general unpleasantness that comes with the Presidential election. And then, there are those special election years – the years that go down in history for being the worst of the worst.  I will now endeavor to take an unbiased look at the 10 most controversial elections our country has faced. Only history will tell if the 2012 Election will find its way onto future lists of this ilk.

10. 2004: George W. Bush (R) vs. John Kerry (D)

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Winner: George W. Bush

After 2001, for many people, it was a given that George W. Bush would be re-elected.  He’d had a tough time getting into office, but the good mood of the country that united behind him in the weeks following 9/11 seemed unassailable.  Two wars later, and the Democrats had the material they would need to take him on with Senator John Kerry.  The weeks leading up to the election were met with propaganda from both sides: the Democrats used films by Michael Moore and attacked Bush’s National Guard service, while the Republicans took on Kerry’s service record in Vietnam. The result: Bush got re-elected and CBS anchor Dan Rather was forcibly retired from the news desk he’d sat at for 24 years.

9. 1912: William Howard Taft (R) vs. Woodrow Wilson (D) vs. Teddy Roosevelt (Progressive) vs. Eugene Debs (Socialist)

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Winner: Woodrow Wilson

From the Civil War up until the Great Depression, the Republican Party held a near-stranglehold on the Presidency, with only two Democrats being elected to the Presidency between 1860 and 1932.  The 1912 election gave us one of those Democrats, when the Republican Party split its nomination between sitting President William Howard Taft and former President Teddy Roosevelt.  Eventually, after some backdoor politicking, Taft emerged as the party nominee.  Teddy, not to be outdone, walked out with the progressive wing of the party and ran as a third-party candidate, along with Socialist Eugene Debs.  During the course of the campaign, Roosevelt was shot during a speech, which made him pause to inform the audience that he’d just been shot.  He said that it wouldn’t be a problem, since it would “take more than that to kill a bull moose“, and he finished his speech.

By the time Election Day rolled around though, Wilson secured victory by winning the electoral and popular vote, with Roosevelt coming in 2nd and Taft coming in 3rd – the last time a major party would not come in 1st or 2nd – and Debs coming in fourth; his was the best showing the Socialist Party would ever have in an American election.  Had the Republican Party not split its vote between two candidates, since many states that went to Wilson did so with less-than-50% majorities, the GOP candidate would’ve won in November, with 363 electoral votes.

8. 2008: Barack Obama (D) vs. John McCain (R)

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Winner: Barack Obama

The 2008 election still needs a few years to be fully evaluated in the hindsight of history, to find out if it was truly a shift in the political winds or simply a referendum on the Bush Presidency.  However, the election itself was not without its share of controversy.  Obama fought a long battle against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination – a race that remained uncertain until June.  There were questions regarding the natural-born citizenship of both candidates: Obama had been rumored to be born in Kenya, while McCain’s birth in the Panama Canal Zone, albeit at a US Naval Air Station, caused some questions.  Both Vice-Presidential picks were criticized, with Alaska Governor Sarah Palin receiving criticism for her reading habits and uber-conservative views, while Delaware Senator Joe Biden was criticized for controversial statements made during his campaign for the nomination for the Presidency. Later on, John McCain suspended his campaign, when the 2008 financial crisis became a major issue.  The election was further sullied by Election Day issues like Black Panther members guarding balloting locations, which was viewed as intimidation tactics by McCain supporters.

7. 1836: Martin Van Buren (Democratic-Republican) vs. William Henry Harrison (Whig) vs. Hugh White (Whig) vs. Daniel Webster (Whig) vs. Willie Mangum (Whig)

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Winner: Martin Van Buren

In 1836, the Democrat Party chose Vice President Martin Van Buren to run for President.  The upstart Whig Party (formed from the leftovers of the National Republicans), decided to counter with some an old-school political numbers game. They ran FOUR candidates for the Presidency, in the hopes that they would divide the country’s regions, and take enough votes away from Van Buren to send the election to the House. There, they hoped to have enough Whigs to elect one of their guys as President.  It failed miserably, with Van Buren and his fantastic hairdo winning the Electoral College outright, and the Whigs failing to win the House; thus, MVB became the last man until George H. W. Bush in 1988 to be elevated to the Presidency from the Vice Presidency by election.

Things got a little more interesting, though, when 23 of Van Buren’s Virginia electors threw their support for Vice President away from his nominee (Richard Johnson), and toward Andrew Jackson’s ally William Smith.  The Vice-Presidential race went to the Senate, where the Johnson was elected over Whig nominee Francis Granger on the first ballot.

6. 1888: Grover Cleveland (D) vs. Benjamin Harrison (R)

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Winner: Benjamin Harrison

The Republicans entered their convention determined to defeat sitting President Grover Cleveland.  An early front-runner, James Blaine, left the race prior to the convention, so that a convention floor fight could produce the strongest candidate possible.  In early balloting, Senator John Sherman, brother of General William T. Sherman, held a commanding lead over his opponents.  The convention was a fight that featured big names Harrison, Sherman, William McKinley, and Frederick Douglass (who became the first African-American to be nominated for President). Harrison came out on top, while Sherman accused others of buying delegate votes.

When the election rolled around, issues like free trade and tariffs were the name of the game, but the real game was dirty politics.  Between vote buying, fake letters, and outright fraud, both parties fought to gain the lead in the Electoral College.  On Election Day, most Americans favored keeping Cleveland President…but that’s not how we elect our President.  The critical state of New York voted, by a 1% margin, for Harrison, and the election went to the man who lost the popular vote.  Four years later, the country would put Cleveland back in the Oval Office, making him the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms.

5. 1800: John Adams (Federalist) vs. Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican)

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Winner: Thomas Jefferson

The 1796 election was a hotly contested battle between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson wherein John Adams, Washington’s Vice President, took victory. This was back in the days when the majority of electors were chosen by their state legislature, and the runner-up in the race for President became the Vice-President.  1800 set up a rematch.  The problem was that there was a major flaw in the voting system: since the President became the man with the most votes and the Vice President became the man with the 2nd most votes, what happens when two men tie?  The vote went to the House when Adams lost to the running mates of Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who each got 73 electoral votes.

Now that the election was in the House, a majority of nine states was needed, but two of them, Maryland and Vermont, simply could not get their act together. For seven days and 35 ballots, eight states voted for Jefferson, and six voted for Burr, while Maryland and Vermont tied.  Alexander Hamilton begged the Federalists to back Jefferson over Burr, whom he felt was too dangerous of a man.  On the 36th ballot, Federalists from four states switched their votes to “present”, two of them Vermont and Maryland, which made Thomas Jefferson the 3rd President of the United States.

A few years later, while still sitting as Vice President, after it had became apparent that Jefferson did not want Burr back on the ticket, Burr had a conflict with Alexander Hamilton that ended in a duel, wherein Burr shot and killed Hamilton. The whole kerfuffle over the 1800 election led to the creation of the 12th Amendment, by which Vice Presidents and Presidents were elected as a part of a single ticket.

4. 2000: George W. Bush (R) vs. Al Gore (D)

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Winner: George W. Bush

Dubya makes a return to our list, this time for the mess that was the 2000 election.  Although the primary season was a bit dirty, both candidates ran a fairly clean election season, whose primary issue was the faltering economy following the dot-com bubble pop of the late 90’s.  However, both candidates had their issues.  Vice-President Gore refused to be seen with then-President Clinton, over fear that Clinton’s late-term sex scandals would hurt Gore’s election chances, and Bush faced late-election charges of cocaine and alcohol abuse during his college days.

The election was tight all the way to the end.  On election night, around 7:50 PM, news networks said that Gore had won Florida, ignoring the largely Republican Florida Panhandle that was still voting at the time.  By 10 PM, however, it had become apparent that Florida was not decided.  At 2:30 AM, the networks declared Bush the winner and Gore had called Bush to concede, but rescinded his concession later on.  The next few weeks involved multiple recounts, debates over ballot-counting standards, criticisms of the so-called “butterfly ballots”, rejected ballots and, most famously, hanging chads.  Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Bush ally, used Florida law to require all boards canvass their results by November 14. The Florida Supreme Court overrode this and extended the deadline to late November.  Furthermore, Gore contested the results in court.  A lower court disagreed with Gore, but the Florida Supreme Court overruled them, and ordered a recount of 70,000 rejected ballots and ultimately wanted a statewide recount.

The US Supreme Court halted that order, due to the fact that paper ballots degrade each time they’re counted.  Eventually, the whole recount went to the US Supreme Court, which ruled 7-2 that the Florida court unconstitutionally overstepped its bounds in changing the rules and requiring a statewide recount, and ruled 5-4 that the recounts should stop.  The result was that Gore’s case ended, and Florida’s electors went to Bush.  Later on, unofficial recounts of the ballots cast produced a variety of results.  To this day, the 2000 election brings up heated discussion on both sides of the political aisle in the US, but it also serves as a good, modern example of exactly how the Electoral College works.

3. 1876: Rutherford B. Hayes (R) vs. Samuel Tilden (D)

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Winner: Rutherford B. Hayes

The 1876 election was a mess, period.  It came on the heels of the Grant administration, one of the most corrupt in US history, and was a great opportunity for the Democrats to regain some power after the political fallout from the Civil War.  The election got ugly quickly, with Democrats focusing their attacks on the Grant administration, and the Republicans reminding everyone that there’d just been a Civil War thanks to the Democrats.  In the South, racist and confederate groups violently quelled the Republican and African-American vote.

When the results came in, it was a gigantic mess, with Tilden winning more than 50% of the popular vote, but the Electoral College vote up in the air, thanks to widespread voter fraud and tampering with electors.  Oregon Governor La Fayette Grover declared a Republican elector invalid, and replaced him with a Democrat elector, an order the Republicans in the state ignored, resulting in two ballots from Oregon – one that gave Tilden the win, and one that did so for Hayes.  In Washington DC, there was a debate over how the electors were to be counted in the Senate.  Eventually, a backroom compromise was worked out where the Democrats would concede victory to Hayes, in exchange for the end of Reconstruction in the South, the appointment of a Southerner to Hayes’ cabinet, and the construction of the Texas-Pacific railroad.  Hayes served one term, and then stepped aside.

2. 1824: John Q. Adams vs. Andrew Jackson vs. William H. Crawford vs. Henry Clay (all Democratic-Republicans)

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Winner: John Quincy Adams

I get a personal chuckle whenever someone talks about modern elections being the “worst ever”.  This is why it’s important to study history, folks: the 1824 election was, without a doubt, the most confusing and infuriating election in United States history.  This election featured four candidates, each of whom with a significant amount of popularity among both the citizens who could vote for President, and the electors chosen by state legislatures.

On Election Day, Andrew Jackson gained support from Pennsylvania and rural and Southern areas, while Adams had a lot of support in the Northeast and in more urban areas.  Henry Clay gained a lot of support from what would one day be called the Midwest like Kentucky and Ohio, while William Crawford controlled Virginia.  At the end of the day, Jackson won the popular vote with 41.3% over the 2nd place Adams, with 30.9%.  He also walked away with more electoral votes than anyone else…but not enough to win.  This caused the election to be thrown to the House of Representatives where, according to the 12th Amendment, only the top three electoral vote-getters would compete: Jackson, Adams, and Crawford.

Fourth-place finisher Henry Clay, who just happened to be the Speaker of the House, was now left out of the election and campaigned against Jackson, whom he detested, throwing his support behind Adams. The House voted by state delegation and, when it was done, 13 states voted for Adams, 7 for Jackson, and 3 for Crawford.  John Quincy Adams was the new President of the United States.  Andrew Jackson resigned from the Senate, and would spend the next four years campaigning for the Presidency, which he would win in 1828.

1. 1860: Abraham Lincoln (R) vs. Stephen Douglas (D) vs. John Breckinridge (Southern Democrat) vs. John Bell (Constitutional Union)

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Winner: Abraham Lincoln

Some elections are controversial because of how they were conducted.  This one was controversial because of what happened around and after it.  The issue of the day, as it had been for over a decade, was slavery.  In 1856, the South had threatened secession and Civil War if the Republicans won, and so James Buchanan was elected.  The weakening union forever marred Buchanan’s Presidency and, when the 1860 election rolled around, he wasn’t even a candidate.

With the South again threatening war, the campaign came down to two separate races: the Northern race and the Southern race.  The Northern race featured Abe Lincoln against Stephen Douglas, while the Southern race was between Douglas, Breckinridge, and Bell.  Nine states in the South (almost the entire Confederacy) didn’t even have Lincoln on the ballot. In the North, New York returned the favor by having zero Democrats, while Rhode Island removed Breckinridge and Bell, and Pennsylvania removed Breckinridge. On Election Day, Lincoln won just under 40% of the popular vote and 180 electoral votes: more than the 152 needed to win).  He lost the border states (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware), but had a commanding lead in the North, especially in the electoral-vote-heavy states of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

As promised, the South seceded from the Union. By the time Lincoln took office, seven states had broken away.  After Fort Sumter, four more states left the Union.  The South followed through on its promise, and fought a Civil War that saw over 625,000 killed and another 400,000+ wounded.  Eventually, the Union would be reunited, the slaves would be freed, and Lincoln would be assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, an actor so well-known that it’d be similar to Brad Pitt or Alec Baldwin doing the same thing today.


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18 Comments

  1. Dan Rather was NOT forced to quit because of Republican attacks on Kerry’s record. He was forced to quit because he tried to smear Bush with an obviously fake document. Get the facts straight.

    • Thanks for your comments. Looking at the wording of what I typed, I now realize I didn’t type it out correctly (I was balancing 2 different ways to approach the lines and ended up getting them a bit mixed up). My apologies. Here’s what it should say:

      The Democrats used films by Michael Moore and attacked Bush’s National Guard service, while the Republicans took on Kerry’s service record in Vietnam. The result: Bush got re-elected and CBS anchor Dan Rather was forcibly retired from the news desk he’d sat at for 24 years.

      • I have made the change in the article. And I also want to thank 5mintues (Scott) for submitting this article. He has been a long-time reader and commenter (over 100 comments) so it is always gratifying when someone steps up and and writes for us after being a fan of the site. At least I assume he is a fan. 😉

  2. Here’s my query. Four United States Presidents in History were assassinated and died. Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy. Most of us know that Ronald Reagan was shot but survived, Gerald R. Ford had two attempts made on him and I did not know that Theodore Roosevelt was shot yet survived as I read this list. It would be interesting to find out how many Presidents had an assassination attempt on them, including the aforemention 4 who perished. I figured beforehand when I began reading the title of this list that for sure No. 4, Bush vs. Gore would be No. 1. But the one that made my jaw drop to the floor was No. 3, Hayes vs. Tilden. Man that’s as corrupt as it gets !!

    • There’s been tons of plots that never came to pass and several attempts that failed. A quick list of the failed attempts:

      Andrew Jackson: a house painter (Richard Lawrence) tried to shoot him with 2 pistols. Both failed and Jackson proceeded to beat the guy with his walking stick.

      Teddy Roosevelt: shot in the middle of a speech. He shrugged it off and finished his speech before getting it looked at. They couldn’t remove the bullet, so he just let it be.

      Herbert Hoover: while out of the country, anarchists in South America tried to assassinate him, but failed.

      FDR: Giuseppe Zangara fired 5 shots at FDR about 3 weeks before he was supposed to be sworn in as the new President. He missed FDR but killed the mayor of Chicago. He was executed just over a month later.

      Harry Truman: Puerto Rican independence twits broke into the Blair House (which a distant cousin of mine was the architect of) where Truman was staying during the White House renovations. Big gun battle ensued killing one twit and one Secret Service agent. The remaining twit was sentenced to life in prison, but later released by Jimmy Carter.

      Richard Nixon: Samuel Byck thought he could steak an airliner and crash it into Nixon. Upon being informed that the plane couldn’t take off with the blocks still on the wheels, he shot and killed the pilots before being shot by an officer. He then shot himself.

      Gerald Ford: 2 assassination attempts, one attached to the Manson family, one attached to the SLA (who “kidnapped” Patty Hearst).

      Reagan: shot by John Hinkley, Jr. so that Jodie Foster would fall in love with him. Bonus points: Jodie Foster is a lesbian.

      Bush: Saddam Hussein attempted to assassinate Bush via car bombs. Failed when the Kuwaitis found the bombs.

      Clinton: 3 attempts. A guy flew a Cessna into the White House, another fired shots at the White House from PA Ave, and another planted a bomb on a bridge in Manila.

      Bush 2: 3 attempts. Robert Pickett fired shots at the White House from the perimeter fence. Al Qaeda targeted the White House in the 9/11 attacks. Finally, Vladimir Arutyunian tried to grenade him and the President of Georgia and their first ladies, but failed because of a misplaced handkerchief.

      Obama: He became the third President in a row to have shots fired at the White House from the fence when Oscar Ortega-Hernandez did so.

      • @ 5 minutes. Thank You very much for adding to the list that I inquired about. I had this feeling that Andrew Jackson had an attempt on him. And Teddy Roosevelt, well, leave it up to him to do his courageous act. Reagan, I am familiar with. And FYI the Manson Family member who made the attempt on President Ford, her name was Lynette Fromme, also known as “Squeaky” Fromme. Again Thank You for the info.

        • I believe Abraham Lincoln had his hat shot off during a ride to the soldier’s home in August of 1864. Lincoln didn’t want to make a fuss of it. I think that qualifies as an assassination attempt.

  3. In case anyone is curious… #10 is gone and #9-5 move down a spot to make room for….

    5. 2012: Barack Obama (D) vs. Mitt Romney (R) vs. Gary Johnson (Libertarian)
    Winner: Barack Obama

    A particularly unpleasant election as both sides unleashed big money and loud supporters in a seemingly unending wave of electoral madness. The Republican Party spent 2 years nominating a candidate who was widely criticized from the right wing of the party who simply couldn’t get their act together behind a single candidate. When election time came around, Obama faced constant criticism for his poor performance on the economy, while Romney faced criticism over social issues. Further election day issues clouded the election ranging from voting machines selecting the wrong candidates to charges of racial intimidation on both sides to questions of how Hurricane Sandy would affect voting. The race was expected to be tight, but ultimately, Obama pulled out the victory. On a side note, Gary Johnson performed the best of any Libertarian candidate since 1980, pulling in just over 0.9% of the vote.

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