- While it may seem each presidential election is more shocking than the one before, American politics has a long history of memorable moments.
- Some elections have dramatically changed the course of history — just weeks after Abraham Lincoln's inauguration in 1861, the Civil War began.
- The election of 1800 marked the first peaceful transition of power in the new country.
- More recent elections have also seen historic firsts: In 2008, Barack Obama became the first Black president.
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Although the 2020 presidential race between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden may seem unprecedented, American politics has a long history of shocking and memorable moments.
Dating back to the 1800s, presidential races have been riddled with scandals, neck-and-neck polls, and voting recounts. Others have seen historic firsts, like the first Black president or the first female presidential nominee.
Take a look back at some of the most memorable elections in American history.
The election of 1800 marked the first peaceful transition of power in the US … after a tie and the efforts of Alexander Hamilton.
America was still a fairly new nation during the 1800 election, so it was unclear how it would handle a transition from one party to another. The election came down to incumbent Federalist John Adams and Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson (pictured).
Because of a constitutional flaw, votes were cast separately for the presidential and vice presidential nominees, resulting in a tie between Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr. To settle the tie, the decision went to the House of Representatives. Still, neither candidate received a majority.
Enter Alexander Hamilton, a Federalist party leader who had long rallied against Burr. He convinced Federalists that Jefferson was the better pick and, finally, in 1801, the House named Jefferson the third president of the US. He took peaceful control of the government from his opponent.
The election was also significant because it prompted the addition of the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, which requires separate electoral votes for the president and vice president.
When Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860, it tore the nation apart.
On May 16, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was named the nominee of the Republican party. Early on, he made it clear that he opposed slavery and wanted to abolish it. He quickly gained the support of the North.
The Democratic party was deeply divided on issues around slavery and states' rights. Eventually, slave supporter John Breckinridge was named the Democratic nominee and went up against Lincoln, along with the Constitutional Union Party's John Bell.
On Election Day, Lincoln won the race because he had the full support of the North, which fully controlled the Electoral College. As a result, 11 Southern states seceded from the union. Just weeks after Lincoln's inauguration, the Civil War began.
Theodore Roosevelt started a third party in the 1912 election and took a bullet to the chest at one campaign stop.
After serving as president for two terms, Theodore Roosevelt attempted to step away from politics, but he made a return during the 1912 election after believing Republican frontrunner William Howard Taft had failed to deliver on previous promises.
When Roosevelt didn't earn enough votes to take the Republican nomination from Taft, he started his own party known as the Progressive Party — it was nicknamed the Bull Moose Party.
Despite not being on a major party ticket, Roosevelt campaigned hard, and even once delivered a campaign speech in Milwaukee after being shot in the chest. He continued talking with the bullet inside him for almost 90 minutes.
On Election Day, the Republican vote was split between Roosevelt and Taft, and the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, was able to win the election.
In 1948, Harry Truman shocked the nation — and Truman himself — when he won the presidential election.
Vice President Harry Truman took over the presidency after Franklin D. Roosevelt died in 1945. In 1948, Truman was largely disliked by Americans and even those in his own party — he was criticized for supporting civil rights for African Americans and his stance on the Soviet Union, according to the Truman Library.
He was down in the polls in the race against Republican Thomas Dewey, and no one expected him to win — not even Truman himself, who later said he went to sleep on election night thinking there was no way he could win. The president was awoken around 4 a.m. and learned he had won the election.
Truman famously posed for pictures while holding up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune that read "Dewey Beats Truman" after the paper — which had to print its first edition before all the results had come in — followed the predictions of its veteran Washington correspondent. Unfortunately, he was wrong.
The 1960 race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon featured the first televised debates, signaling a more modern campaign.
Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy challenged Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960, making for a memorable race. For starters, this was the first race in history that had televised debates, allowing the candidates to be in most Americans' living rooms. Analysts believe Kennedy used this new medium to his advantage, looking directly into the camera and talking directly to Americans. Nixon did not fare so well, CNN reported.
Still, the election results were extremely close. Kennedy only won 118,000 more votes than Nixon.
In 1984, Ronald Reagan won every single state except one, making it one of the biggest landslides in history.
The 1984 presidential election pinned Republican Ronald Reagan, who was the incumbent, against Democrat Walter Mondale.
At first, the race made history because Mondale named congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro to be his vice presidential nominee. It was the first time a woman was ever named to a presidential ticket.
Yet, come election night, Reagan won every state except Mondale's home state of Minnesota. To put that in perspective, Reagan won 525 electoral votes and Mondale won just 13. The New York Times called it "a landslide."
The Supreme Court had to decide the results of the 2000 election after a close call in Florida.
In 2000, Republican George W. Bush went up against Democratic nominee Al Gore. Leading up to Election Day, the race was neck and neck, foreshadowing a difficult and bitter end.
On election night, the results for Florida were so close that media outlets first announced Gore won the state. Later, they said Bush won. Although Gore gave a concession speech, he eventually rescinded it, and the state went into a recount.
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which decided the recount was unconstitutional. Florida's electoral votes went to Bush, giving him the election.
"The court divided along ideological lines with the conservatives backing Bush, the more conservative candidate, and the liberals backing Gore, the more liberal candidate," Richard Hasen wrote in his book, "The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown." "The case presented difficult questions about court intervention in a process that both sides thought was infected with politics from the opposing side."
In 2008, Barack Obama was elected to office, becoming the nation's first Black president.
Barack Obama, a first-time senator, went head-to-head with seasoned Senator John McCain in 2008.
However, one of the most memorable players in the race was McCain's vice presidential pick: Alaska's governor, Sarah Palin. In fact, the vice presidential debate broke records when it brought in 70 million viewers, according to Reuters. Tina Fey's impersonation of the governor on "Saturday Night Live" went viral and raised Palin's profile even more.
When Election Day came, Obama won the race.
"The election ended what by any definition was one of the most remarkable contests in American political history, drawing what was by every appearance unparalleled public interest," the New York Times wrote in 2008. "Throughout the day, people lined up at the polls for hours some showing up before dawn to cast their votes. Aides to both campaigns said that anecdotal evidence suggested record-high voter turnout."
He was sworn in as the country's first Black president on January 20, 2009.
The 2016 election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton became the most talked-about race in recent history.
Clinton was the first woman to win the nomination of a major political party in American history, while Donald Trump became the first nominee in decades to earn the nomination without any experience in politics. But the historic election didn't end there.
Trump's campaign hit multiple speed bumps when he was accused of sexual harassment — accusations he's denied — and was even caught on tape talking about women in a derogatory manner. Clinton wasn't unmarred by scandal, either. It emerged she had used a private email server for official, classified communications while Secretary of State. (An investigation concluded in 2019 that "no persuasive evidence of systemic, deliberate mishandling of classified information.")
On election night, most analysts predicted a landslide victory for Clinton, as she led most national polls, according to the Pew Research Center. But Trump won the Electoral College and became the 45th president.
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