Is this year’s presidential election unique? In many ways, yes, for reasons that would fill many a page. In other ways, though, we can find echoes of certain previous elections. Here are the ones most like 2020:
1. 1864: Abraham Lincoln (R) vs. George McClellan (D). We’re trying to hold an election during a pandemic. Now imagine an election during a civil war. Granted, Confederates weren’t besieging the Northern states the way the virus is everywhere, but many problems were similar. With so many men away from home fighting the war, how could they vote? Of the 25 Union states, 20 passed laws allowing soldiers to vote absentee – the first widespread use of absentee voting. “The abrupt change in voting laws created a maelstrom in the 1864 election,” writes Military.com. Republicans generally backed absentee voting because they felt the soldiers’ vote would benefit them; Democrats were more skeptical. In nine states, legal fights over procedures went to state Supreme Courts, according to National Geographic. We remember Lincoln as being close to a saint, but the incumbent Republicans were not above certain lower political tactics. Historian Jonathan White at Christopher Newport University found that some Republican officers polled soldiers about whom they supported. If they backed Lincoln and were from a state that required in-person voting, they were allowed to go home. If they backed McClellan, they weren’t.
2. 1920: Warren Harding (R) vs. James Cox (D). The Woodrow Wilson years had been tumultuous ones. The nation adopted its first federal income tax. There was a world war. The great migration of Blacks from the South to the North changed the demographics of many cities. Then came race riots as returning Black soldiers expected better treatment and were greeted with harsher discrimination instead. Harding hit upon the perfect (if grammatically incorrect) slogan for an exhausted nation. He promised a “return to normalcy.” The Donald Trump years have been exhausting in their own way. Joe Biden is effectively playing Harding and promising a “return to normalcy.” That worked then; will it now?
3. 1896: William McKinley (R) vs. William Jennings Bryan (D). Until 1896, presidential candidates hadn’t campaigned the way they do now. That was considered impolite. Bryan was a tub-thumping populist who electrified supporters by embarking on an unprecedented train tour of the country. In response, McKinley hunkered down in Canton, Ohio, and did just the opposite – he invited voters to visit him. Trainloads did just that – many recruited from certain key constituencies, particularly immigrant communities in the industrial Midwest. In those years, Republicans were more enthusiastic about immigration than Democrats were. In today’s terms, Trump resembles the barnstorming Bryan, while Biden for awhile borrowed much from McKinley’s “front porch” campaign – just with Zoom.
4. 1968: Richard Nixon (R) vs. Hubert Humphrey (D). In a year rocked by riots and other social discontents, Nixon ran on law-and-order. Trump is borrowing from Nixon’s playbook. The main difference: The disorders of 1968 happened under a Democratic administration; the disorders of 2020 are coming under a Republican administration – with the Republican incumbent blaming Democratic governors, Democratic mayors or Democrats in general. Will that work? Or will voters ultimately blame Trump for straining the nation’s social bonds? That’s the argument Biden is making.
5. 1980: Ronald Reagan (R) vs. Jimmy Carter (D). Voters in 1980 had soured on Carter but weren’t convinced that Reagan was the answer. Some worried that he was too far to the right – and too old, 69 pushing 70 when he was elected. Age is a factor in this year’s election, with the 74-year-old Trump suggesting the 77-year-old Biden isn’t up to the job. The accusations that Biden is a closet radical aren’t convincing – during the primaries, Democrats thought he was too centrist – but he does represent a party that has moved further to the left, so Trump does have grounds on which to make that argument. In 1980, voters saw Reagan debate Carter and concluded he wasn’t too old or too far right, after all. What will voters conclude from this year’s debates?
6. 1844: James Polk (D) vs. Henry Clay (Whig). This was one of the most consequential but underrated presidential elections in our history – it literally determined the shape of the nation. Polk was enthusiastic in his belief that America’s Manifest Destiny required it to take over as much of the continent as possible. He favored annexing Texas and declared his goal to take over the disputed Oregon Territory with the slogan “54-40 or fight!” – a latitude that would have taken in much of today’s British Columbia. Clay wasn’t keen on either of those things, fearing war with Mexico and Great Britain, plus further upsetting the delicate balance of slave and free states. Polk eked out a narrow victory – just 1.4%. Polk wound up fighting Mexico but compromising with Britain. Still, that 1.4% margin made the difference between a U.S. that stretched to the Rio Grande and the Pacific, and one that didn’t. Polk made us a very different country; we wouldn’t look the same if Clay had won, although Clay was right about an ultimate civil war. Draw your conclusions about how that applies today.
7. 1800: Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican) vs. John Adams (Federalist). The election that 2020 most closely resembles might be this one, where Jefferson challenged (and ultimately defeated) the incumbent Adams. They had two very different visions for the country, and each had supporters who warned that if the other side won, the country would face dire consequences. That’s putting it mildly, actually. Federalists warned that if Jefferson were elected president, then “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest, will openly be taught and practiced.” That’s not that much different from what Trump and Biden are saying about each other regarding the unrest the nation has seen. Trump says that Biden will “hurt God.” That’s mild compared to Federalists who called Jefferson “a howling atheist” and a “mammoth infidel” who would ban the Bible. Some Democrats intimate that Trump is a tool of the Russians, but Democratic-Republicans then accused Adams of being a secret monarchist.
The catch is to avoid this being like 1860 – an election in which one side found the other so intolerable it was prepared to break up the country rather than accept the result.
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