The Election of 1964


Lyndon Johnson (486 Electoral Votes)
Barry Goldwater (52 Electoral Votes)

Occasionally a presidential election reorients American politics, although not always in ways that are apparent at the time. At the time, Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964 over conservative Republican Barry Goldwater seemed to solidify a Democratic lock on the presidency. (From 1932 through 1964, Democrats won seven of the nine presidential elections.) Johnson used his victory, and the huge Democratic congressional majorities that came with it, to advance an ambitious liberal reform agenda that included civil rights, Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, and much more. However, the civil rights initiatives split the old Democratic Party as white southerners deserted to the Republicans. Goldwater pointed to a new path for the Republican Party by winning five states of the old Confederacy (outside the South he carried only his native Arizona) after he voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And actor Ronald Reagan’s stirring speech for Goldwater at the end of the campaign launched his political career as a conservative champion two years later. Of course, then there was Vietnam. Johnson slyly suggested that Goldwater would dangerously escalate the war. Johnson’s major, and ultimately futile, escalation of the war in 1965 and after split the Democrats even more, discredited them as a ruling party, and divided the country as a whole more deeply than anything since the Civil War. With a new southern strategy and rekindled conservative principles, Republicans were to win five of the next six presidential elections.

The Election of 1960


John Kennedy (303 Electoral Votes)
Richard Nixon (219 Electoral Votes)
Harry Byrd (15 Electoral Votes)

We view the election of 1960 so much through the double prisms of John Kennedy’s assassination and Richard Nixon’s later presidency that it’s hard, even for those of us who actually remember it, to see the campaign as it really was.  The issue of Kennedy’s Catholicism, for example, had a resonance among much of the electorate that is now hard to imagine.  Even mainstream Protestant leaders like Norman Vincent Peale expressed doubts about electing a Catholic.  (Ironically, of course, Kennedy’s Catholicism was actually more inherited and casual than personal and committed.)  Kennedy’s youth and inexperience were a concern for many.  As the incumbent Vice President, Nixon was the candidate with gravitas, although he was only four years older than Kennedy and they had entered politics the same year (1946).  It was an exciting campaign, highlighted by the famous debates.  These debates were not just the first televised presidential debates, but also the first direct presidential debates in any medium.  (Lincoln and Douglas, whose debates were often mentioned as a precedent, had actually debated as senatorial candidates in 1858 rather than when they were rival presidential candidates in 1860.)  There were, however, actually rather few issues in the campaign.  Nixon, in fact, played down his differences with Kennedy in the debates.  Kennedy’s allegations about a Soviet military lead, the famous “missile gap,” turned out to be false after the election.  The election was so close that one can’t help wondering how Nixon would have handled the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, and the civil rights movement.  Would Nixon’s obvious political skills have dominated his paranoia and vindictiveness, rather than the other way around, if he had won the presidency in 1960 rather than eight years (and two bitter defeats) later?

The Elections of 1952 and 1956


Dwight Eisenhower (442 Electoral Votes)
Adlai Stevenson (89 Electoral Votes)

Dwight Eisenhower (457 Electoral Votes)
Adlai Stevenson (73 Electoral Votes)

After twenty years out of power, and especially after the surprising loss in 1948, the Republican Party was hungry in 1952.  The Republican convention therefore turned to a venerable tactic in American presidential politics by nominating a successful and popular general, Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Eisenhower was able to win the nomination narrowly from conservative favorite Robert Taft because he was (unlike Taft) neither an outspoken opponent of the New Deal domestically nor an isolationist in foreign policy.  Eisenhower’s promise to end the unpopular Korean War (“I will go to Korea”), his World War II record, and his instant credibility as a potential president gave him an easy victory over the Democratic nominee, the eloquent governor of Illinois, Adlai Stevenson.  The only problem for the Republicans was the disclosure that the nominee for Vice President, a young Richard Nixon, had used a fund donated by California millionaires for personal expenses.  In one of the great “what-if’s” (we already wouldn’t have had Nixon to kick around any more) in American political history, Nixon had nearly lost his place on the ticket when he won over public sympathy with his notorious “Checkers” speech.  Despite a heart attack, Eisenhower easily won reelection four years later in a reprise of the 1952 campaign.  Otherwise, the only notable feature of the 1956 campaign was the emergence of John F. Kennedy as a national figure when he competed for the nomination as Adlai Stevenson’s running mate at the Democratic convention.

The Election of 1948


Harry Truman (303 Electoral Votes)
Thomas Dewey (189 Electoral Votes)
Strom Thurmond (39 Electoral Votes)

World War II ended just a few months after Harry Truman assumed the presidency on the death of Franklin Roosevelt.  Few presidents, however, have faced more economic, diplomatic, and political problems than Truman.  Pent-up consumer demand produced double-digit inflation.  Pent-up wage demand provoked a series of major strikes.  The wartime alliance of communist and capitalist to defeat fascism deteriorated into crisis and “Cold War.”  The opposition party won control of Congress for the first time in years.  And just to top things off, the Democratic Party suffered defections from the left and the right when Truman sought election in his own right in 1948.  Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party candidacy drew away some liberal votes from the Democratic candidate.  More serious was the walkout of the young — only 45!! — Strom Thurmond and the Southern “Dixiecrats” over the strong civil rights plank adopted in the party platform.  Thurmond’s walkout, and his 39 electoral votes in the general election, foreshadowed the mass withdrawal of white southerners from the party over civil rights twenty years later.  With one national campaign under his belt (the respectable showing against Roosevelt in 1944), Republican nominee Thomas Dewey seemed a shoe-in.  Instead, he wrote the political playbook on how to blow a big lead, while Truman became the hero of every politician trailing in the polls.  The result was a newspaper photo that our descendants may still be marveling at when Truman’s presidency is as remote as the Roman Empire is to us.  Truman’s problems, however, certainly did not end with his victory.  His next term in office featured the first Soviet test of an atomic bomb, the Korean War, and a national steel strike in the middle of the war.   He retired in 1953 to become the hero of every president leaving office with low approval ratings in the polls.

The Elections of 1940 and 1944


Franklin Roosevelt (449 Electoral Votes)
Wendell Willkie (82 Electoral Votes)

Franklin Roosevelt (432 Electoral Votes)
Thomas Dewey (99 Electoral Votes)

“Washington wouldn’t, Grant couldn’t, and Roosevelt shouldn’t.”  Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to break George Washington’s old precedent by seeking a third term in office was one major issue of the 1940 election.  The other was the crisis posed by outbreak of World War II in Europe and Japanese expansion in the Pacific.  Roosevelt responded to the international crisis by leading America slowly away from isolation toward inevitable intervention against Germany and Japan.  The electorate clearly sympathized with Great Britain and France, but just as clearly wanted to stay out of war.  Wendell Willkie, the surprise Republican nominee, focused on the first issue in his campaign.  Although Roosevelt’s margin in the popular vote declined significantly, the electorate preferred to break the Washington precedent rather than to turn the country over to inexperienced hands in a dangerous time.  Roosevelt responded to their trust by steering a fractious Allied coalition to the brink of victory over Germany and Japan.  He died just two months into his fourth term.  New York Republican governor Thomas Dewey made a respectable showing against Roosevelt in 1944, paving the way for what was expected to be a successful run in 1948 against Roosevelt’s Vice President and successor, Harry Truman.

The Elections of 1932 and 1936


Franklin Roosevelt 472
Herbert Hoover 59

Franklin Roosevelt 523
Alf Landon 8

It’s hard for an American president to win reelection during an economic recession.  It’s well nigh on impossible for a president to win reelection in a full-blown depression.  And if the incumbent, however competent, fails to communicate empathy with the plight of the unemployed or otherwise fails to point the way out of the economic crisis, the challenger can win a sweeping victory even if, like Roosevelt in 1932, he fails to say much specifically about what he actually intends to do.  Roosevelt did, of course, embark on an ambitious reform program just after his electoral victory over Herbert Hoover.  And if much of the New Deal was improvised, experimental, and quickly abandoned, Roosevelt’s first term produced most of the few enduring features of America’s social welfare state, including Social Security and bank deposit insurance.  Roosevelt’s activism enabled him to win a record landslide against Alf Landon in 1936 even though the economy had not yet improved dramatically.  An important development in the 1936 election was the dramatic increase in the African American vote for the Democratic Party.  Despite Roosevelt’s alliance with the segregationist Democrat organizations of the South, black Americans who could exercise the franchise (mostly in the North) had benefited from New Deal programs, and voted their pocket books for the Democrats even before the party gave them other reasons to do so with the civil rights planks of 1948 and later.  After Roosevelt’s first victory in 1932, Democrats held the White House for 28 of the next 36 years.

The Election of 1928


Herbert Hoover (444 Electoral Votes)
Alfred Smith (87 Electoral Votes)

Perhaps no candidate has ever had better credentials for the presidency than the Republican nominee in 1928, Herbert Hoover.  Hoover had earned a fortune as an engineer and businessman, organized relief for World War I victims in Belgium and Russia, and served as an innovative Secretary of Commerce in the Harding and Coolidge administrations.  Democratic candidate Alfred E. Smith faced two handicaps: his Catholicism and his thick New York accent (this was the first election in which radio was a major factor).  It may have been impossible for Smith to overcome the Republican advantage in a period of unprecedented prosperity, but anti-Catholicism definitely hurt his candidacy.  He won only the heavily Catholic states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island and six states of the solidly Democratic South.  (Even so, he won fewer electoral votes in the South than any Democratic candidate since the Civil War).  Nevertheless, Smith attracted to the Democratic column voting blocs like Catholics and urban workers that became solid parts of the Roosevelt coalition just four years later.

The Elections of 1920 and 1924

Warren Harding (404 Electoral Votes)
James Cox (127 Electoral Votes)

Calvin Coolidge (382 Electoral Votes)
John Davis (136 Electoral Votes)
Robert LaFollette (13 Electoral Votes)

By his own admission (“I am not fit for this office and should never have been here”), Warren Harding was unsuited for the presidency.  He owed his overwhelming (a record 60.3 percent of the popular vote) election in 1920 to the conjunction of two factors.  One was complete deadlock between three strong candidates at the Republican nominating convention, which made the selection of a safe non-entity like Harding an attractive compromise.  The other was public revulsion at the wartime hardships, political turmoil, and ultimately the political repression of the Wilson administration.  (Wilson’s Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, rounded up over six thousand suspected radicals in the notorious raids that began in January 1920).  Ohio Democratic governor James Cox might have been an attractive candidate in another year, but he had no chance on the heels of Wilson’s presidency.  Socialist candidate Eugene Debs won almost a million popular votes from the jail cell where he was serving a sentence for opposing American involvement in World War I.  (Harding pardoned him after taking office.)  Harding’s performance as president was at best mediocre, at worst negligent.  His death in 1923 came just before the exposure of several scandals involving members of his cabinet.  (Several years later more personal scandals, including a mistress and a child born out of wedlock, were revealed.)  Calvin Coolidge was both untainted by the Harding scandals and the fortunate beneficiary of an unprecedented (until the 1990’s, that is) wave of prosperity.  He won a sweeping victory in 1924 against Democrat John W. Davis, perhaps the most obscure man ever nominated by a major party (after 103 convention ballots!), and Progressive Party candidate Robert La Follette.  Perhaps Coolidge’s greatest bit of luck was his decision not to run for reelection in 1928, as stock market speculation built to the heights from which it came crashing down in October 1929.

The Elections of 1912 and 1916


Woodrow Wilson (435 Electoral Votes)
Theodore Roosevelt (88 Electoral Votes)
William Howard Taft (8 Electoral Votes)

Woodrow Wilson (277 Electoral Votes)
Charles Evans Hughes (254 Electoral Votes)

The crucial factor in the election of 1912 was the rupture between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.  The break came over antitrust policy, when Taft’s attorney general filed suit to break up a trust that the “trust-buster” Roosevelt had personally approved during his second term.  Roosevelt tried to wrest the Republican nomination away from Taft, and entered the general election as a third party candidate when the party bosses stayed with Taft.  The Democratic nominee, New Jersey governor and former Princeton president Woodrow Wilson, benefited from the Republican split to win an easy electoral victory with only a plurality of the popular vote.  Internationally, Wilson advocated democracy and national self-determination, although his numerous interventions in Latin America were often designed to secure good financial order, which meant repayment of loans to American banks.  At home he pursued a reform agenda of lower tariffs, stronger antitrust legislation, greater regulation of business, and creation of the Federal Reserve to stabilize the banking system and regulate the currency.  But he was also a white supremacist who imposed segregation on the District of Columbia and in federal offices throughout the country.  He praised D. W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation, which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as the heroes of the Reconstruction era, as “history written with lightning.”  World War I dominated his second term after he won a close reelection campaign in 1916 against Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, ironically on the theme that “He Kept Us Out of War.”  At the end of his presidency, Wilson undertook a strenuous effort to marshal public opinion against the Republican Senate in support of U.S. membership in the new League of Nations.  He suffered a stroke during a speaking tour and never fully recovered.

The Elections of 1904 and 1908


Theodore Roosevelt (336 Electoral Votes)
Alton Parker (140 Electoral Votes)

William Howard Taft (321 Electoral Votes)
William Jennings Bryan (162 Electoral Votes)


America had never known a president like Theodore Roosevelt – “TR.”  The youngest man to reach the presidency (John F. Kennedy later became the youngest man elected to the office), Roosevelt was energetic and activist.  He exploited – indeed, he practically invented – the office’s potential as a “bully pulpit.”  He took more initiative in developing public policy than almost any of his predecessors, both by using executive powers (such as using the Sherman Anti-Trust to bring suit against trusts) and by promoting a vigorous legislative agenda in Congress (such as the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906).  Much of what we now take for granted about the exercise of presidential leadership originated with “TR.”  Roosevelt so dominated the office and the country that the Democrats resorted to nominating the Chief Justice of the New York Court of Appeals (not usually a stepping stone to the presidency) for the hopeless race against him in 1904.  In 1908, Roosevelt decided to follow the Washington precedent and step down from office after two (almost full) terms.  His chosen successor, the hefty William Howard Taft, easily defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan in 1908.  Bryan became the only major party nominee to lose three presidential elections.  (Franklin Roosevelt won four elections, while Grover Cleveland and Richard Nixon each won two of the three times they were nominated.)  Taft served for one undistinguished term as president, but was later appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the only man to hold both offices.