How do we decide which Presidential elections were the least important? We have to acknowledge that any election had some importance, because it chose the United States chief executive for four years. So we need to ask which elections match this statement: “For all the effect the election had on history, we could have skipped it.” Here are my choices, counting down to the most meaningless election in American history:
The Democrats took 103 ballots at their convention to choose someone to oppose incumbent President Calvin Coolidge, who had succeeded Republican Warren G. Harding when Harding died in office in 1923. The factionalized Democratic Party could not even nominate a candidate capable of exploiting the scandal-ridden Harding Administration. Pre-depression prosperity reigned. The divided, contentious Democrats had no appeal to a complacent nation. The election was notable for one of the century’s strongest third party runs, by Progressive Robert LaFollette, who courted New Deal voter coalitions eight years before Franklin Roosevelt’s first victory.
9. 1832 – Another Term for Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson had little trouble capturing his second four-year term, even though his opponent was the venerable Henry Clay. “Old Hickory,” the hero of the War of 1812, was a popular President, and it is unlikely anyone had a chance to defeat him in 1832. One notable aspect of this election is that Jackson’s new running mate in 1832, Martin Van Buren, would go on to win the Presidency in 1836, and remain influential in American politics for thirty years, including a third party run in 1848 as the Free Soil Party candidate.
8. 1900 – A Rerun of 1896
The day after William Jennings Bryan lost to William McKinley in 1896, he started his campaign for the 1900 election! The key issue in 1896 for Bryan was expanding the gold standard to include silver as a mechanism for relieving the 1890’s economic depression. In 1900, he tried American imperialism as an issue, condemning the recently concluded Spanish-American War. When this failed, he went back to silver. McKinley won the second election by a wider margin than the first. But, this election was notable for McKinley’s Vice Presidential choice in 1900. After McKinley’s assassination in 1903, Theodore Roosevelt would assume office, and go on to be a prime-mover in early 20th Century American politics.
7. 1956 – A Rerun of 1952
Eisenhower enjoyed a landslide victory over Adlai Stevenson in 1952. To prove it was no fluke, he did it again in 1956, with only three states changing their choices. It could be that an older, frailer Eisenhower should have considered stepping aside in 1956. His reelection in 1956 was a major factor leading to the adoption of the 25th Amendment in 1965, specifying what should occur if a President becomes disabled in office. And, the election was notable for Eisenhower’s running mate Richard Nixon, who was also on both the 1952 and 1956 tickets. Nixon remained an important player in American politics until his resignation from the Presidency in 1974.
6. 1944 – Fourth in a Row
No one really had much of a chance against Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. The nation was finally triumphing over the two main challenges of the century-the Depression, and World War II. The election of 1940 ended the two-term tradition four years earlier, so this election broke little new ground in that area. The election was notable, however, for Roosevelt’s switch in running mates, to Harry S. Truman, considered by many to be one of the greatest Presidents of the 20th Century.
5. 1984 – “Well, There He Goes Again”
Walter Mondale was an affable, well-spoken, honest and sincere man with no skeletons in the closet, and still, he had no chance of defeating Ronald Reagan in 1984. Not only had Reagan turned around the so-called “malaise” attitude of the United States as a helpless giant, but he had also survived an assassin’s bullet with swaggering good humor. Ironically, he probably should have stopped after one term, as his second-term performance would tarnish his overall legacy.
4. 1848 – “Rough and Ready”. . . For What?
The Whigs wanted to win the White House. They had done it once before in 1840, with war hero William Henry Harrison (on his second try). So they ran Mexican-American War hero Zachary Taylor (“Rough and Ready”) against War of 1812 general Lewis Cass. Taylor was notable for having no discernable positions on the issues. So he had no ideas to offer about the pressing issue of how all the new territory, won through the leadership of generals like Taylor, would be integrated politically into a nation obsessed with tallying “free” and “slave” states. Taylor lasted just over a year before he died in office. His successor was Millard Fillmore, who did not even gain his own party’s nomination in 1852 (though he did run as a third party candidate on the “Know Nothing” party ticket in 1856).
3. 1852 – The Lesser of Two Non-Choices
Franklin Pierce, the eventual winner of the 1852 election, wasn’t even a major candidate when the Democratic Convention began. But when past candidate Lewis Cass, and future candidates James Buchanan and Stephen Douglas deadlocked, Pierce was chosen as the Democratic nominee on the 49th ballot. His main qualities were that no one was sure about his stand on the issues, and he had great looks! The Whigs should have had no trouble winning this contest. But they were a fading political force, and took 53 ballots to nominate 66 year old Winfield Scott (“Old Fuss and Feathers”). Pierce’s election meant four more years of denial and avoidance as the American government failed to face the issues that would lead to the Civil War in just eight years.
2. 1872 – Where, Oh Where Has the Candidate Gone?
Horace Greeley was not even well-regarded by the Democrats who nominated him. Though Ulysses S. Grant proved to be a poor President, running an administration that was widely known to be corrupt and incompetent, he was able to defeat the unpopular Greeley. And, it was just as well he did. Greeley died after the popular vote, but before the electoral votes were cast. This led to a very confused final count, but did not change the ultimate result of Ulysses S. Grant in office for another four years.
1. 1820 – What If Only One Candidate Shows Up?
Not since the days of George Washington, and never again after the election of 1820, did a candidate run unopposed. The Federalist Party had disappeared, and James Monroe was the third President in a row who would go for a second term. If the pattern of eight year, two-term Presidents had become ingrained into the American tradition, this might have become a more influential election. But the 1824 and 1828 elections ended that pattern. Monroe may have run unopposed, but he was not a unanimous victor. Three electoral votes were not cast, and one dissatisfied elector voted for John Quincy Adams.
The list is provided by Richard Warrenfield. Richard’s essay, “Exporting Freedom and Democracy – Three Factors Necessary for Success,” will be published in a book called OPPOSING VIEWPOINTS: AMERICAN VALUES, by Gale Publishing on November 21, 2008.