10 US Elections that Created Big Change
When big change happens in the US, it often occurs through or because of elections. (The system at work!) Here are ten elections that reflected significant changes in the political or social makeup of the US.
Federalists versus Democratic-Republicans (1800)
The fourth presidential election in the new United States was the first to play out some of the electoral rules written by the framers. The two candidates running for election were the incumbent Federalist President John Adams and the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson.
The Constitution at this time enabled the Electoral College to vote for two candidates. And there was no separate election for the president and the vice-president, so, if you wanted two candidates from the same party to get both positions the elector would have to vote for them both.
The electors gave the same amount of votes (73) to Thomas Jefferson and his running mate Aaron Burr, who were both Democratic-Republicans. In these circumstances, the House of Representatives was responsible for deciding who got the presidency. This became a lengthy process, running to 36 separate ballots as the house wrangled over the two candidates before Jefferson was finally voted in.
This election led to a change in the Constitution, the 12th Amendment that had separate voting for the president and VP if this scenario were to play out again. It also ushered in a new era of politics with the decentralisation and states’ rights views taking centre stage.
Congressional mid-term elections and the anti-slavery victory (1858)
The 1850 mid-term election was the beginning of the end of the Democratic hold over national politics. Over the previous 60 years, the country had become divided between the pro-slave and anti-slave states. This divide led to the establishment of the anti-slavery Republican Party in 1854.
The 1858 congressional elections shifted the balance of power from the pro-slavery and rapidly fractured the Democrats. In the north, Republicans won all the seats in both chambers, illuminating the geographical dynamics of the conflict between the two parties. This was not just a divide between peoples in the two regions but a divide within local politics as well, for a Senator at the time was appointed by the state’s own legislature and not by popular vote.
In the 1858 Illinois Senate election between the Republican Abraham Lincoln and the Democrat incumbent Stephen Douglas, a series of debates discussed the question of slavery. Whilst Douglas won, Lincoln compiled his anti-slavery speeches into a book, which won him notoriety and the 1860 Republican nomination for the presidency. Lincoln’s vocal opposition to slavery led many Democrats to threaten secession if he won the election. He won, and the Southern states began leaving the Union.
Lincoln takes a stance on slavery (1860)
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States in an overwhelming majority in the popular vote and the Electoral College votes in the 1860. The victory of the anti-slavery Republican Party in the presidential and congressional elections signalled an end to the national dominance of the pro-state and pro-slavery Democratic Party. Republican presidents claimed 24 of the next 36; Republicans dominated the Senate all but four of those years, and for 20 years they dominated the House.
By February 1861 (a month before Lincoln took his oath), South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas politicians followed up on their promises and claimed secession from the US. And six of these set up a new country called the Confederate States of America, which was understandably rejected by US President Buchanan and the incoming President Lincoln. On April 12, the Confederate Army attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston and the Civil War began. A new era in American politics was born when the Unionists claimed victory in Civil War, and slavery was ended throughout the United States.
Congressional mid-term and presidential elections and the end of Reconstruction (1874 and 1876)
Republican Ulysses S. Grant was not that well-liked by the Southerners for his role in defeating the Confederate Army, ending slavery and granting rights to Blacks. At the beginning of his presidency he had signed the 15th Amendment that gave all Americans irrespective of race the right to vote. And in order to ensure that this right to vote was not infringed, he signed a number of acts, including the Ku Klux Klan Act that enabled the US government to declare martial law in those areas that the KKK were engaged in terrorist acts against the Black population.
This approach to dealing with Southern affairs did not bode well for bringing voters from this region into the Republican Party, and in fact Democrats were increasingly gaining control of Southern states. A series of corruption scandals in Grant’s Administration further complicated matters. His troubles included private contractors overcharging the government for railroad deals. And in 1875, the Secretary of the Treasury investigated and charged distillers for not paying federal tax; Grant’s private secretary was implicated in the fraud.
Small wonder Democrats massively gained seats in the elections for the 44th session of Congress. In the Senate, the Democrats gained 6 seats, meaning they had 26 seats out of 74, and in the House they took control by gaining 82 seats and having a total of 177 out of 292. It was the first time that the Democrats had control of the House since 1858.
This electoral victory enabled them to determine the outcome of the dodgy 1876 presidential election. In supporting the Republican candidate for president, Rutherford B. Hayes, the House Democrats were able to get a guarantee that the Union soldiers would withdraw from the South, spelling the end of Reconstruction.
Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition (1932)
The principal issue in the 1932 presidential election was the Great Depression, the financial and economic disaster that grew out of the 1929 stock market crash. Franklin D. Roosevelt won the Democratic Party nomination and campaigned against the Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover on a simple strategy of ‘Anything But Hoover’ whilst also telling the American people in campaign speeches that there was a new role for government in securing the rights of individuals to ‘make a comfortable living’ and ensuring private enterprise supported the common good, not financial speculators.
Roosevelt had a receptive audience in the millions of hungry, homeless and unemployed people for this new way of looking at federal power. Come the November general election, Roosevelt won 57.4 per cent of the popular vote and 472 out of 531 EC votes. He followed his campaign promises and ushered in an expanded role of the federal government in the day-to-day lives of businesses and people, a role whose legacy can still be seen in the size and scope of government today.
This strategy in dealing with the Great Depression is referred to as the New Deal. Roosevelt could make his New Deal reality because of equally dramatic success in the congressional elections; the Democrats received a majority in the Senate with 59 Senate seats out of 96, and a dramatic increase of 97 seats in the House to have a majority of 313 out of 436. With a majority like that, the president could propose and pass the legislation required for this revolution.
President Johnson’s Great Society (1964)
In the 1964 presidential election, Lyndon Johnson won against the Republican Barry Goldwater in a landslide of 486 to 52 in the Electoral College and 61 per cent of the popular vote. This overwhelming Democrat majority was replicated in the House, where the party maintained a majority with 295 seats (an increase of 37 seats from the previous session), and in the Senate where it gained two seats to hold a total of 68.
President Johnson was thus in a position to introduce legislation that heralded dramatic changes in the relationship the federal government had with the states and individuals. Labelled by Johnson as the Great Society, his was a programme that continued Roosevelt’s New Deal and reflected optimism that government could resolve the problems of disadvantaged Americans.
The 89th session of Congress was one of the busiest and most significant in US history. Legislation was passed that provided poor and elderly people with free medical support, as were programmes designed to reduce poverty, protect the environment from pollution, support the educational needs of children, improve access to voting for all and reduce discrimination based on race and gender.
Congressional mid-term Elections and the Contract with America (1994)
The Democrat Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, holding a Democratic majority in the House and the Senate. Technically, in this scenario, it is easier for the president to pass legislation but for Clinton, things didn’t work out that way. By the time of the mid-terms, Clinton had already lost key battles with Congress, such as expanding access to healthcare and supporting the rights of gay people to openly serve in the military. With these failures in a Democratic Congress, the Republicans smelt blood in the mid-terms.
Under the leadership of the Congressman Newt Gingrich, the Republican Party presented a coherent and conservative political platform that appealed to Americans. Gingrich called this conservative revolution a Contract with America. This contract changed the direction and focus of America away from the liberal vision of Clinton.
With a commitment to reduce the size and excess of Congress itself, it also had a ten-point legislative plan to rid America of crime by killing more people through death penalty changes and building more prisons, deregulation, tax cuts, expand funding in the defence industry, tax reforms and a balanced federal budget.
The Republicans became the majority in both chambers by winning an extra 54 seats in the House to gain a majority of 230 and an extra 8 seats in the Senate to make it 52. Clinton modified the expanse of his unpopular political agenda, and Republicans continued to block Clinton’s political ambitions.
Bush versus Gore (2000)
With the surge in political polarisation during the 1990s through a culture war between the liberal progressives and the conservative traditionalists, this election was more than a battle between the Democrats and the Republicans. And whoever won the election got to dictate the future path of America.
In a close election, results in Florida (which would turn the election one way or the other) were so close as to trigger a mandatory recount. Concerns, irregularities, and the great stakes at play meant litigation surrounded those recounts and ultimately reached the Supreme Court. The drawn-out and controversial election knocked belief in a stable US democracy in which power could be smoothly transferred from one political party to another. It opened a window into the brute at-all-costs power and determination that parties had in winning an election. Bush’s victory was not at all smooth and straightforward, and it still is disputed by many people.
Congressional mid-term elections: Republican gains against the Grain (2002)
In mid-term elections, the party of the president often loses Congressional seats as support for the president wanes; mid-term elections are the first opportunity for the electorate to demonstrate dissatisfaction. However, in a time of national emergency, the normal rules for mid-terms do not apply. And 2002 is one such example, taking place as it did in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent ‘War on Terror’.
With approval ratings for President Bush still within the high 60s, the populace showed little dissatisfaction with the president. The Republicans expanded on their majority in the House by gaining eight seats, to have a majority with 228 seats, and in the Senate they gained a majority by winning two seats to have 51 at the start of the new congressional sitting.
Not only did this election buck the trend in terms of the president’s party picking up seats in the mid-term, but it also gave Bush a unified government and thus enabled him a greater opportunity to pass his legislative agenda.
A new era swings the country to the left (2008)
Whilst the 2008 election made history by electing the first Black president, Barack Obama, other important issues combined to show a much more important change, and that is the long-term swing towards the political left. Evidence suggests that this shift is due to demographic changes in the country, including increases in those groups that are more likely to vote Democrat than Republican. These changes impact the share of the vote that each ethnic group has and affects the Democrat and Republican shares of each ethnic group.
White non-Hispanics are more likely to vote Republican than Democrat but their proportion of the population is declining. In the 1976 presidential election between President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter 89 per cent of voters were White non-Hispanics (and of those 52 per cent voted Republican) whilst 9 per cent were Black (and of those 83 per cent voted Democrat) and 1 per cent was Hispanic (and of those 82 per cent voted Democrat).
Whilst the White non-Hispanics were a large percentage of those that voted the high levels of voting for Democrats amongst the minority groups did not have much of an impact in the outcome of the election; however, by 2008, this had changed. The White non-Hispanic vote went down to 74 per cent with the Republicans gaining only 55 per cent of those who voted, and Blacks were overwhelmingly supportive of the Democrats with an overall share of 13 per cent and a large percentage of the Hispanic vote (9 per cent) equally going to the Democrats. Whichever party wins these minority groups is likely to win the election.