Most Significant Presidential Election in US History?

By significant, I mean an election in which the policies and beliefs of the winner vs. the policies and beliefs of the loser would have drastically altered the history of this nation had the loser instead won the election.

My nomination is the election of 1864. Lincoln ran for re-election on his well-known platform of restoring the union and freeing the slaves. McClellan, his opponent, ran on a Copperhead (Peace Democrat) platform that called for the end of the war and the acceptance of Southern independence. Southern independence by definition would have meant the continuation of slavery.

Had McClellan prevailed, (and until Sept. 1864, Lincoln and most other observers felt that he would) the United States quite simply would have ceased to exist after only 88 years. I cannot think of another election in which so much was riding on the outcome?

Thoughts? Other nominations?

I’d go four years earlier and nominate the election of 1860.

That’s my pick, too.

What about the 2000 elections? If Gore was in office on 9/11 (and I think it still would have happened), I seriously doubt we’d be in the quagmire that is Iraq today, and our world prestige would not be in the toilet.

Doesn’t compare with 1860 or 1864, but one of the most significant elections was 1896. History would have gone very differently if Bryan had defeated McKinley.

Why? what was so significant about that one?

But the election of Lincoln was one of the significant points that led many in the South seriously to consider secession. If one of the other candidates had won in 1860, the U.S. might have still been able to stumble along, trying to keep the lid on the slavery issue. Lincoln’s election helped bring the issue to a head. A Gore victory wouldn’t have had such a different effect domestically than the Bush victory.

In the 1896 election, the Republicans represented the interests of industry, commerce, finance, the Northeast, creditors, “sound money”. The Democrats (as represented by Bryan, and more or less in coalition with the Populists) represented agrarian populism, debtors, “free silver.” Historians generally consider 1896 one of those decisive elections the outcome of which sets the tone for politics and policy for several election cycles to come. Another such would be 1932, which put an end to the pro-business Republican ascendancy that had obtained (even during Wilson’s Democratic administration) since 1896.

I think a case could be made for 1932. If by some miracle (or some assistance from Diebold :wink: ), Hoover had defeated Roosevelt, the US would be a very different place, in terms of both our domestic economics and our foreign policy.

Apparently, I wasn’t the first with this idea.

The Revolution of 1800 which saw Thomas Jefferson elected was pretty darn important and helped lead to the destruction of the Federalist.


I third 1932. That’s the year I always think of when someone says “may you live in interesting times.”

Someone will surely say 1980, when the backlash began against that nasty old New Deal.

They could have been even more interesting. FDR effectively marginalized the Socialists and Communists by co-opting the most moderate and broadly acceptable planks of their platforms (Social Security, minimum wage, protection of organized labor, etc.) and ignoring the truly radical elements. If Hoover had won, there might have been a revolution, or something pretty near.

I’d say it was the election of 1796, in the sense of Washington not running.

He not only could have run for a third term (which he almost certainly would have won) he could have declared himself king or emperor and seized power indefinitely. No other victorious General in history, having attained supreme office after an armed revolution, had ever voluntarily relinquished it. For this alone he not only deserves the moniker ‘Father of our country’, but the father of the modern liberal democracy.

I considered making a joke here that it will be 2008, but then I thought it would be more expedient to agree with Captain Amazing and choose 1860. Lincoln’s election was something of a surprise, and considering the secessions and war that were a direct consequence, I doubt that (even in the current political climate) we’ll see anything that matches the importance of presidential politics in 1860.

Communism has arrived. It used to be a bad thing.

Actually, I agree that the 1860 election was more significant. I just thought we could make a top 10 list or something. And I also agree that everyday life at home would be more or less the same if Gore were in office. However, I still believe we would not have had this little misadventure in the Middle East, and that is something that will affect our world standing for many decades. The following is an excerpt from a speech Gore gave back in 2002, on why he was against our going to war:

There’s more, but the point is that Gore predicted a lot of the mess we find ourselves in now.

  1. If we’d had a clear electoral winner, or if the shameful deal hadn’t been struck in the House to make Hayes President instead of Tilden, then Reconstruction would have continued and Jim Crow would have been kept in check. We wouldn’t still have been fighting the Civil War a century later.

I wish that it were so, but the erosion of Northern support for Reconstruction was too deep-seated to have turned on a single election. By 1876 Republicans had been violently ousted from power in every Southern state except South Carolina and Louisiana, and it would have been too late even for an energetic and determined Hayes administration to do much about it.

I’ll add my vote for 1864 over 1860, for this reason: If Lincoln hadn’t won in 1860, the Republicans would have had another chance in another four years. (Who remembers or cares that they lost in 1856?)

But by 1864, we were at war, and there was only one chance to win. If a McClellan presidency had led to a negotiated peace, and either recognition of the Confederacy or reunion with slavery, there would have been no second chance. History would be irreversibly changed, almost certainly for the worse.

Among elections not mentioned, the election of 1800 was a biggie. Given another four years to prosecute seditionists and stack the judiciary, the Federalists might have made this country into something uncomfortably close to a one-party state.

FTR, historians have identified a (controversial) number of “party systems” in American history, each beginning and ending with a decisive election:

First Party System: 1792-1816. Federalists (Hamilton, Adams) vs. Democratic-Republicans (Madison, Jefferson).

Era of Good Feelings: 1816-1824. Democrat-Republicans ascendant, Federalists marginalized.

Second Party System: 1837-1852. Democrats (Andrew Jackson) vs. Whigs (Henry Clay).

Third Party System: 1854-1896. Republicans (mainly Northeastern and Midwestern power base) vs. Democrats (in control of the “Solid South” from 1874).

Fourth Party System: 1896-1932. Republicans (McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt; in the ascendant) vs. Democrats (Woodrow Wilson).

Fifth Party System: Began in 1933, but whether it came to an end in the 1960s, or the 1990s, or is still with us, is controversial. I incline to the theory that the failure of Goldwater in 1964, followed by the growth of Goldwater’s wing of the party into “movement conservatism,” which ultimately triumphed in 1980 with the election of Reagan, represents the emergence of the

Sixth Party System: Which we’re living in now. Includes the “Republican Revolution” of 1994.

An excellent history of post-Goldwater “movement conservatism” can be found in Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, by John Micklethwaite and Adrian Wooldridge; and another in The World Turned Right Side Up: A History of the Conservative Ascendancy in America, by Godfrey Hodgson.

The Sixth Party System, BTW, has been characterized by a wholesale exchange of the Dems’ and Pubs’ geographical-regional bases, following the success of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” which broke the “Solid South” and transformed the GOP into a predominantly Southern party (which would have bemused both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis to no end). This realignment has resulted in making both parties more ideologically homogeneous than they were before – conservative “Southern Democrats” and liberal “Rockefeller Republicans” have alike been marginalized; however, in the process, both parties somehow have shifted their political center-of-gravity to the right.