In America, we like to wax lyrical about the wonders of our constitution and the wisdom of our founding fathers. But political elections, the way we staff that very same government, have been contentious, and ugly since the beginning. And yet, some presidential elections stand out even amongst all the finger pointing, name-calling, conspiracy theories, and vicious squabbling that defines most elections. Let’s take a look at some of the wildest, most chaotic presidential contests in US history.
It didn’t take long for the US to run into a serious political crisis that threatened the legitimacy of this whole “self government” experiment. In 1800, political parties were still evolving, and the bitter rivalry between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans set the stage for a chaotic showdown. Mudslinging was the name of the game, with opponents accusing each other of everything from godlessness to tyranny.
Adding to the confusion, the Democratic-Republicans had a factional frenzy of their own. While Thomas Jefferson ran for president, his running mate, Aaron Burr, created a puzzling scenario. The electoral system was also a mess (imagine that), leading to a tie between Jefferson and Burr, and thus disqualifying incumbent President John Adams. As a result, the House of Representatives had to decide the winner, taking an excruciating 36 rounds of voting before Jefferson finally emerged as president. Amid all the turmoil, the 1800 election exposed flaws in the young democracy but also demonstrated its resilience and capacity to evolve. So at least there’s that.
The presidential election of 1824 is often referred to as the “Corrupt Bargain” election, and for good reason. It was a tumultuous affair involving four major candidates, all from the same party, the Democratic-Republicans. The absence of a clear winner through the electoral process led to the election being decided by the House of Representatives.
The election ended with John Quincy Adams winning the presidency, but the circumstances surrounding his victory were highly controversial. Henry Clay, one of the other candidates, was also the Speaker of the House of Representatives. He used his influence to support Adams, who subsequently appointed Clay as his Secretary of State. Many saw this as a backroom deal, leading to accusations of corruption. This contentious election highlighted the need for a more transparent and equitable electoral system, which eventually resulted in changes to the nomination process and the rise of the Democratic Party.
The presidential election of 1860 took place at a time of intense sectional tensions between the North and the South, primarily over the issue of slavery. The Democratic Party (then representing southern white conservatives, and dominated by pro-slavery interests) was divided, resulting in two separate Democratic candidates running against the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, and John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party.
This ticket splitting led to Abraham Lincoln’s victory, without winning a single Southern state (none of whom even allowed his name on the ballot). Fearing Lincoln, the first president of the abolitionist Republican Party, was a threat to the institution of slavery, South Carolina seceded from the Union just a month after the election results. Over the following months, several other Southern states followed suit, leading to the formation of the Confederate States of America. Lincoln tried to appease the south, even promising not to challenge the institution of slavery where it presently existed, but it was no use. The American Civil War was about to begin.
The presidential election of 1872 wasn’t the most chaotic or contentious in history. But it had its fair share of drama and intrigue. Incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant sought re-election after his first term in office, marked by his efforts during the Reconstruction period. His main opponent was Horace Greeley, nominated by the newly formed Liberal Republican Party. However, one of the most significant twists in this election was that Horace Greeley, the Democratic and Liberal Republican candidate, actually died before the Electoral College could cast their votes. It didn’t particularly matter since Grant won easily.
But still, Greeley’s death left the electoral votes in a unique situation, as some electors had already pledged to vote for him. Ultimately, this led to a rather unorthodox Electoral College outcome. Despite the loss of their candidate, Greeley’s electors cast their votes for various other candidates in the electoral process. Ulysses S. Grant still won the election decisively, securing his second term in office.
The presidential election of 1876 was one of the most disputed and chaotic elections in US history. It featured a contentious battle between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. While Tilden won the popular vote, the electoral votes were mired in controversy. Several Southern states sent double sets of electoral votes, creating a perplexing situation with no clear majority for either candidate.
Amid the turmoil, the Compromise of 1877 emerged as a pivotal moment in American history. To prevent a constitutional crisis and the looming threat of yet another civil war, barely a decade after the first one ended, a political agreement was finally reached. The Democrats agreed to support Hayes as president in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the South. This compromise effectively marked the end of Reconstruction, permitting Southern states to regain control over their governments. However, the removal of federal troops also meant the abandonment of civil rights for newly freed African Americans, leading to the institution of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation in the South.
The US presidential election of 1912 was an exceptional and chaotic contest featuring four significant candidates: Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Eugene V. Debs. Wilson, a Democrat, eventually emerged victorious, but the campaign was marked by a significant divide within the Republican Party.
The election became a vicious battle of progressive policies and ideologies. Theodore Roosevelt, former President and a Republican, ran as a Progressive Party candidate, splitting the Republican vote in half, slamming the door on his former friend Taft’s reelection chances, and turning the two into bitter, lifelong enemies. This division allowed the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, to secure a decisive victory in the Electoral College, while Debs, representing the Socialist Party, earned a substantial number of votes. The election of 1912 led to important reforms and the continued shift toward progressive policies in the United States, marking a significant moment in the nation’s political history.
The US presidential election of 1972 itself wasn’t too nuts. Incumbent President Richard Nixon, a Republican, won reelection overwhelmingly against Democrat George McGovern. Nixon convinced the nation to rehire him after boasting significant accomplishments in foreign policy, including détente with the Soviet Union and the opening of diplomatic relations with China.
However, the shadow of the Watergate scandal, in which some of Nixon’s supporters broke into the DNC headquarters to steal information at the Watergate hotel, loomed large over the nation following the election. It was a complex web of political espionage, cover-ups, and illegal activities orchestrated by members of Nixon’s administration. As information regarding the scandal unraveled, it was revealed that while Nixon had not authorized the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, but had participated in efforts to obstruct the investigation. The scandal ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974, making him the only U.S. president to step down from office.
The presidential election of 2000 was one of the most controversial and longest-lasting, as well as the closest contest, in American history. The major candidates were Republican George W. Bush, governor of Texas and son of former President George H.W. Bush, and Democrat Al Gore, the sitting vice president under Bill Clinton.
The most significant and contentious issue of this election was the vote recount in the state of Florida. Florida’s electoral votes were crucial for both candidates, and the outcome was so close that it hinged on literally 537 votes. Yes, you read that right – 537 votes would decide the leader of the free world. Legal battles ensued over the recount process, with the Florida Supreme Court ordering a recount of disputed votes. The US Supreme Court, in the landmark case Bush v. Gore, intervened to stop the recount, effectively awarding Florida’s electoral votes and the presidency to George W. Bush. This decision was highly controversial and remains a subject of debate, with some critics arguing it was a politically motivated decision. George W. Bush won the Electoral College while losing the popular vote, making him the fourth president in US history to do so.
The 2016 US presidential election was a historic contest in many regards. On one side, there was Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State and first woman to be nominated for president by a major party. On the other side, the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, a real estate mogul and reality TV star, who had never held public office. Nobody thought an outrageous candidate like Trump, who had a knack for making offensive comments and unforced errors, had any chance against a seasoned statesman like Clinton.
But then Trump won the Electoral College, securing the presidency, while Hillary Clinton garnered more of the popular vote. This outcome led to ongoing debates about the US electoral system and raised questions about foreign interference, specifically Russian efforts to influence the election. More notably, an era of norm-shattering democratic backsliding and ever-intensifying political polarization followed, with global headlines being dominated by Trump and members of his administration for years.
The 2020 US presidential election was a momentous event, marked by one of the most chaotic backdrops since the 1864 election during the Civil War. There was of course the raging Covid-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter protestors following the murder of George Floyd, and fallout from the first impeachment of incumbent Donald Trump following an extortion scheme to dig up dirt on Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden.
When the Democratic ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won in November, Trump and his team continued insisting, without evidence, that the election had been rigged — something his supporters lapped up with their “stop the steal” chants when the votes were still being counted and the rapid proliferation of related conspiracy theories after the race had been called for Biden. After Trump’s attempts to overturn the election both via the courts and by illegally pressuring officials in swing states to do so unilaterally, his supporters stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, leading to five deaths, Trump’s second impeachment (he was acquitted once again), and global concern about the state of American democracy.