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When Did U.S. Politics Become So Crazy?

Nov. 9, 2016
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It seems like everyone is really upset with the 2016 election.

We’ve probably all heard some friends threatening to move out of the country if their chosen candidate doesn’t win, and possibly even more who are simply not voting because they're unhappy with the candidates on the ballot. Overall, many Americans are frustrated with the political process in general. 

But just sixteen years ago, Americans were going through a similar situation. In the election of 2000, George Bush lost the popular vote by over half a million ballots and still managed to win the presidency (thanks to the electoral college and a Supreme Court decision a month after the election). 

To say some Americans were outraged would be an understatement. 

The most amazing thing of all is that the craziness of the elections of the modern day (2000 and 2016, specifically) aren’t completely unprecedented. In fact, many U.S. Presidential elections have had some bizarre or controversial aspects that left voters frustrated and angry with the political system. 

In 1800, John Adams ran for re-election against Thomas Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr. The election ended with Adams falling short with 65 electoral votes to the 73 earned by Jefferson and Burr. At the time, whichever candidate had the most electoral votes was president with the runner-up becoming vice president. So Congress was forced to break the tie and decide between Jefferson and Burr for the presidency.

As famously portrayed in the smash-hit musical Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton stepped in to convince the electoral voters to side with Jefferson. His convincing worked, as, after a period of intense debate, Jefferson was voted into the Presidency, and Burr into the Vice Presidency. The election was so outlandish that it forced lawmakers to amend the Constitution (the twelfth amendment clarified the procedure by which the President is elected). 

One of the biggest controversies of today’s election is the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. But in 1920, there was a candidate who was in even more trouble: Eugene V. Debs (representing the Socialist Party) ran for president from his prison cell. While the election wasn’t completely exciting-- Warren G. Harding won in a landslide and took 37 of the 48 states over James Cox-- the fact that a man actually ran his campaign from prison is kind of amazing. 

Today, the debates are a very significant aspect of each candidate’s campaign. They have long been a deciding factor in elections, but the importance of debates increased significantly with the popularity of television. In 1960, the presidential debates were televised in households across America for the very first time. Some listened on the radio, but many watched as John F. Kennedy used his notorious charisma to defeat Richard Nixon. 

Nixon, who had just recovered from a hospital visit, appeared gaunt and sickly. It also didn’t help that, unlike Kennedy, he spoke to his opponent and not to the camera. On the other hand, Kennedy appeared healthy and youthful. As a result, those who watched the debate on TV believed Kennedy won the debate, while those who listened on the radio sided with Nixon. 

JFK not only managed to win his own election, but set a historic precedent on the importance of debate performance. Before 1960, it was unthinkable that a candidate's appearance on television could have such a significant impact on the success of his campaign. He instilled so much fear in future candidates that a presidential debate was not televised for another sixteen years. 

A similarly fascinating yet jaw-dropping debate story centers around the fortieth President—Ronald Reagan. Reagan was preparing to debate incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980 when Carter’s debate prep papers mysteriously went missing. It was later discovered that the papers had been “found” by an aide for Reagan’s campaign and were used to help him prep for the debate. Obviously, he went on to destroy Carter in the debate and ultimately won the election. Nevertheless, it’s still strange to imagine something like this happening in a Presidential campaign. 

So, as we can see, the insanity of today’s election is (somewhat) understandable considering the tumultuous history of presidential elections. And surely, the 2016 election will not be the last bizarre or absurd election Americans will face.

Cover Image via ShutterStock