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Friday, 22 March 2019 08:17 pm

US presidential vote follows long line of election drama

What stands out most about this year’s Presidential battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? The personalities? The scandals? The rollercoaster nature of the polls?

America’s history contains 57 presidential elections decided over 227 years, each one bringing its own touch of colour and distinctive character.

So as the United States prepares to consign the 2016 campaign to the past, I opened the history books (and websites) and found myself on a journey through mudslinging, firsts, landslides, upsets, scandal and personalities.

The tales of electoral drama will be added to in the days leading up to the close of voting:


The assassination of a Presidential hopeful shook the nation during an election year defined by conflict and unrest.

The civil rights movement and US involvement in the Vietnam War divided America, sparked protests and violence, and influenced the 1968 elections.

In March, Robert Kennedy, right, whose older brother John F. Kennedy had been assassinated five years’ earlier, announced he would run for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

400-bobby-kennedyThe 42-year-old opposed the war, supported the extension of civil rights for African-Americans, and had a good chance of winning the party contest.  says: “Kennedy was perceived by many to be the only person in American politics capable of uniting the people.”

He won the California primary but shortly after midnight on June 5, just minutes after giving his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Kennedy was shot three times by Palestinian immigrant Sirhan Sirhan.  He died the next day.

The Democrats nominated Vice-President Hubert Humphrey to run against Republican Richard Nixon.

A third party candidate, Alabama Governor George Wallace, campaigned for segregation and withdrawal from the war and secured five states, 46 Electoral College votes, and 9,906,473 popular votes in the final tally.

Nixon was elected President by a narrow margin in the popular vote and 302 electoral votes to Humphrey’s 191.



On September 26, 1960, millions of Americans turned on the TV to watch a ground-breaking innovation in Presidential campaigning.

About 70 million people watched the first-ever televised Presidential debate, which pitted Republican Vice-President Richard Nixon against media-savvy Massachusetts Senator, John F. Kennedy.

You can watch what happened here:

Nixon, injured and recovering from illness and hospitalisation, backed his political experience and debating skills to carry him through.

Kennedy’s preparation included quizzing the show’s producer, according to  and it paid off on the night.

Kennedy’s performance heralded the significance of public image and viewer engagement: he appeared composed and confident, and communicated with voters through direct-to-camera speeches in a debate that made a huge impact on the campaign.

While those who heard it on radio felt Nixon had either bettered or equalled Kennedy, television viewers believed Kennedy won it hands-down.

Nixon worked on his appearance and upped his game for the remaining three debates, but the damage of first-impressions had been done, and viewer numbers dropped.

Kennedy became the nation’s youngest elected President when he secured 303 Electoral College votes to Nixon’s 219, and claimed a 119,450 vote lead in the popular vote.

“It was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide,” he said.

But the power of the television debate scared-off Presidential contenders for a while, according to Time , and no more debates were held until Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford duelled in 1976.

By that time, Kennedy had been assassinated (in 1963) and Nixon had run two successful Presidential campaigns, beating Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972.


george_washington-abWith George Washington, pictured, calling time, the 1796 Presidential election was the first one contested, and the battle lines were drawn over fledgling-party values.

Two distinct political factions had emerged by then: the Federalists and the Republicans.

In the black-and-white Federalist corner stood Vice-President and Massachusetts lawyer John Adams; in the red corner, Republican nominee Thomas Jefferson, the Virginian who served as America’s first Secretary of State from 1790-1793.

“The first Presidential contest in American history turned out to be exuberantly venomous,” writes Paul L. Boller, in his book Presidential Campaigns.

According to, the candidates themselves were gentlemen and the campaign was fought mainly through the printed word.

There was much name-calling as the Federalists attacked Jefferson for being an anarchistic atheist who sympathised with France’s violent revolutionaries, and the Republicans denounced the Federalists as British-loving Monarchists.

The election was decided solely by the Electoral College, and Adams squeaked past Jefferson by just three votes.

As runner-up, Jefferson automatically became his rival’s Vice-President, showing the new system needed tweaking.

However, the country’s two top posts have never been held by opposing sides since, thanks to the 12th Amendment of 1804 which provided separate College votes for President and Vice-President.


AmericanflagcategoryIn 2000, George W. Bush asked America to install him in the White House, where his father had lived for one term, but he had to sweat it out a while before he got his answer.

Bush entered the 54th Presidential election as Governor of Texas and Republican nominee. His rival was Democratic Vice-President, Al Gore.

Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush or ‘Bush the Elder’, had served as Ronald Reagan’s Vice-President from 1981-1989 before moving into the Oval Office himself, on the back of a comfortable win over Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election.

But for the younger Bush election night on November 7, 2000 turned out to be a nail-biter. At one point that night, Gore conceded defeat, but at night’s end the vote was still running neck-and-neck in New Mexico and Oregon, and Gore retracted his concession at 3am on November 8 after seeing Bush’s slender lead slipping in what became the pivotal state of Florida.

The Florida result was tight, triggering an automatic two-day machine recount, as required by state law.

The recount favoured Bush, but Gore’s side argued errors had been made and demanded a manual recount in three key counties.

Bush countered the move, legal battles ensued, and eventually, on December 12, the Supreme Court closed the matter when it overturned the Florida Supreme Court’s decision to recount the votes, handing Bush the Florida victory.

The win nudged Bush over the magical number of 270 votes required to win in the Electoral College, and he finished there just five points ahead of Gore who tallied 266.

Gore actually captured the majority of popular votes cast by the American public but it was Bush who took up office in the White House.

Bush had an easier time of it when he stood for re-election in 2004, securing both the popular and Electoral College votes against the current US Secretary of State, John Kerry.

1944: Franklin D. Roosevelt puts his hand up for fourth term

When the 1944 election rolled round, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, below, had been sitting in the President’s chair since beating Herbert Hoover by a landslide in 1932.

fdrHe had easily dispensed with his 1936 election rival, Alfred M. Landon, and in 1940 Roosevelt became the first president to win a third term when he triumphed over Wendell L.Wilkie.

Four years later and FDR, the fifth-cousin of Theodore Roosevelt who served as president from William McKinley’s assassination in 1901 until 1908, had signed up his country to the Allied cause in World War II and was asking Americans to return him to office yet again.

“Don’t change horses in midstream” was one of his well-known campaign slogans, according to

Roosevelt’s compatriots obliged and he defeated Thomas E. Dewey in the 1944 election, but he died of a cerebral haemorrhage the following year.

Soon after FDR’s death, America ensured no president would ever be in charge for that long again – in 1947 Congress passed the 22nd Amendment which forbids a president serving more than two terms.

The amendment was ratified in 1951.

1920: Lopsided battle between newspaper men and a prisoner

It wasn’t so much that the Republicans won the 1920 Presidential campaign, but that President Woodrow Wilson helped the Democrats lose it.

In 1920 the American people were angry, writes Paul F. Boller, Jr. in Presidential Campaigns.

They were angry about living in a post-war society of unemployment, high living costs and wartime controls imposed by the Democratic government led by Wilson, who had suffered a stroke in 1919.

So the Republicans hitched the campaign of their nominee, Warren G. Harding, on criticising Wilson’s policies, according to and on the promise of a “return to normalcy”.

(You can hear Harding touch on that slogan in this speech:

Harding and his Democratic rival, James M. Cox, both entered the 1920 Presidential race as newspaper owners holding political posts in Ohio (as Senator and Governor, respectively).

They were up against Eugene Debs, a Socialist Party nominee throwing his hat in the Presidential ring for a fifth and final time while serving time in Atlanta prison for speaking out against World War I.

In the end, Harding romped home with the widest-ever margin in the popular vote, securing 60% to Cox’s 34%, and taking 404 Electoral College votes against Cox’s 127.

Boller writes that less than half of America’s eligible voters turned out on Election Day 1921, partly because Harding’s victory seemed so assured many people didn’t bother casting a ballot.


1789: Clean sweep as America finds its first president


He led the American forces against the British during the Revolution, then the team that wrote the Constitution – but the logical choice for the nation’s first president was reluctant to take the top job.

George Washington, right, was a hero and a farmer, and by 1789 he was happily back on his land at Mount Vernon, Virginia.

When it came to the thought of running the country, writes Paul F. Boller Jr. in his book Presidential Campaigns, Washington had mixed feelings: he wanted the fledgling nation’s new government to start well but was not sure he was up to the task.

According to, the 56-year-old felt it would be dishonourable to seek office, and only agreed to run at the last minute, when Alexander Hamilton and others persuaded him it would be dishonourable to refuse.

Back then there were only a dozen or so states in the union and voting happened solely through the Electoral College which was made up of electors chosen by their state.

As expected, on January 7, 1789, the Electoral College unanimously voted for Washington.

The clean sweep was repeated in 1792 when Washington stood unopposed once again and was elected for a second and final term.

You can watch more about the first president through this video:




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