After covering a few very close elections (although not brave enough to read a book about the 2000 election yet), I switched over to an election that was not remotely close, Ronald Reagan’s big win over incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Busch, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, lays out all the problems that the United States faced heading into the 1980 election cycle. Carter had proven to be an ineffective president, facing opposition from within his own party on a variety of issues. There was an energy crisis. There was high inflation. There was high unemployment. The American embassy in Iran was occupied by protestors and embassy staff was taken hostage. (And Ben Affleck could only get some of them out.)
Late in 1979, Carter’s Vice President, Walter Mondale, thought of dropping off the ticket, fearing that Carter was doomed to a big defeat, but stayed out of loyalty. Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, after some false starts, decided to run against Carter in the primaries, potentially making Carter the first incumbent to be denied renomination since Franklin Pierce in 1856. (The Democrats opted to run James Buchanan instead, who pledged to serve just one term, not that anyone would have wanted him back. Rutherford Hayes pledged to serve just one term in 1876 after his controversial election.)
The frontrunner in 1980 was always Reagan. He narrowly lost out on the nomination in 1976 to President Gerald Ford. But, in 1980, he still faced some competition for the nomination. Continue reading →
Most of the previous books about the hotly disputed 1876 election focus on partisan matters. Both Democrats and Republicans think that their side back in 1876 was either robbed of the election by nefarious means or ended up winning in spite of the other side using nefarious means. The nuts and bolts of the election are laid out in Michael Holt’s book, who looks at the election in terms of the actual important political issues of the day, the most important one being one that would make little sense to us today.
Today, we think of the Reconstruction Era as one marked by: 1) Southern Republican governments propped up by Federal military force, 2) widespread corruption in government, and 3) the uneasy return of Southern Democrats into Congress. But, there was even more going on, especially with the economy, which was trying to regain its footing after the trauma of the Civil War. The national debt had soared and the method for the repayment of the debt to those holding securities was the hot button issue of the day.
During the Civil War, currency was issued without any gold to back it up, but after a massive recession in 1873, Congress passed the Specie Resumption Act, which would require the Treasury to accumulate gold reserves and pay back bonds with gold instead of more paper money. This issue turned out to be divisive. A gold-backed currency would greatly reduce the money supply, making it harder to lower class and middle class people to get access to capital. The issue of specie resumption turned out to be even more divisive than civil rights. Although it is far harder to explain. (See the paragraph above for proof!) Continue reading →
If you are an avid follower of this blog, and I mean you live and breathe it, you might remember that Charles W. Calhoun has already made an appearance on this blog in the biography of Benjamin Harrison. This time, Calhoun reprises his expertise on all things B Harrisonian, focusing on the often forgotten election of 1888, an election in which the candidate with the most popular votes didn’t win the election.
Calhoun starts off the describing how the Democrats and Republicans were so closely matched in strength in the House, Senate, and Electoral College, that choosing a President in the Gilded Age (as Mark Twain dubbed the era which roughly covers the last 25 years of the 19th Century) was a pretty dicey proposition for either party.
Each side had just a little under a half of the Electoral College sewn up. The Democrats controlled the South. The Republicans controlled most of the North. The only states that were usually up for grabs were: New York (home state of Democratic incumbent Grover Cleveland), New Jersey (which voted Democratic in 1864 against Abraham Lincoln), Indiana (home state of Benjamin Harrison), and Connecticut.
Cleveland had prevailed in 1884, ending a 24 years Republican hold on the White House, mostly because he was able to win New York with his reform-minded campaign. However, Cleveland’s first term in office proved to be pretty bad. The President often looked out of his element. He failed to satisfy Democratic patronage needs. He thought that vetoing Civil War pension bills would make him look like he was preventing malingering in the country.
The biggest miscalculation Cleveland had was that he thought that the best way for the United States to shrink its enormous budget surplus. At the time, the Federal Government was taking in nearly 30% more in revenue than it was spending. While this may seem to be fiscally sound, what it means was that the Federal Government was taking a sizable chunk out of the economy and basically doing nothing with it.
Cleveland thought the best way to shrink the deficit would to lower tariffs. This would also have the added benefit of increasing trade.
This issue turned out to be just what the Republicans wanted. They hated free trade at the time. They wanted protective tariffs. The Republicans would have preferred to see the surplus spent on large Federal projects. (Yes, times were different).
By 1888, the Republicans were ready to take on Cleveland and use the tariff issue. The Democrats were not even fully behind Cleveland on the issue, although they renominated him because there was really no one else who was a viable candidate.
The Republicans had no shortage of candidates, but they were all waiting to see if the 1884 loser, former Speaker of the House and Secretary of State James Blaine, would run. Blaine was on an extended speaking tour of Europe and kept hinting that he would not run, but he would be open to nomination if EVERYBODY wanted him. And Blaine really wanted EVERYBODY to want him.
However, not all Republicans wanted to go down the aisle with Blaine again. The two leading candidates were Ohio Senator John Sherman (brother of General William Sherman), who was considered the Republicans leading expert on economics, and former Indiana senator Benjamin Harrison, who had similar credentials to Sherman, but with far more charisma.
The Republicans needed eight ballots to nominate Harrison. Levi Morton of New York was chosen as his running mate. Morton was a wealthy New York banker and he brought little to the ticket other than the ability to write large checks. That was a valuable skill.
Cleveland’s vice president, Thomas Hendricks, had died in office, so he had to find a new running mate, and he wanted 74-year old Ohio Senator Allan Thurman, who was a free trade supporter. Thurman showed nearly every day he gave a campaign speech that he was a man whose days were numbered, frequently bowing out of events with cholera, dyspepsia, neuralgia, and other age-related maladies. (However, Thurman would show them, living to age 82.)
Grover Cleveland felt it was beneath the dignity of the office to campaign for reelection. In fact, Cleveland would not even say he was “running.” He said he was “standing” for the office. He sent a letter to the Democratic Convention accepting the nomination and that was the end of his campaigning.
Harrison took a different approach, using a “front porch” campaign, where groups would come to visit him in Indiana by train and he would give speeches. The method proved to be quite effective.
The election would end up being decided in the largest state, New York. The Empire State had 36 electoral votes, nearly 18% of the necessary 202 for victory. Although Cleveland was succeeded in office by another Democrat as governor, that man, David Hill, hated Cleveland. Hill offered no public support of Cleveland and even worked somewhat secretly to raise money to allow voters to vote for Harrison while still voting for all the other Democrats on the ballot. (At the time, voters just turned in a ballot for one party, but you could choose to put a sticker [paster] over the name of a different candidate, if you were so inclined.) Hill was able to turn the tide in New York over to Harrison, who won the state by 15,000 votes.
Overall though, Cleveland won the popular vote by nearly 1%. What was the reason for this? Calhoun points to an obvious one. In the heavily Democratic South, the black vote was suppressed to the point to where it was essentially negligible. This eliminated several hundred thousand Republican votes. The Republicans would have still lost the states, but they would have likely prevailed in the popular vote. Also, even though black voters were turned away from the polls, they were not turned away by census takers, and Southern Democrats made sure to get their fair share of seats in Congress with the resulting number of Electoral Votes.
Harrison’s four years in office would not go smoothly. The Democrats railed against the Republicans profligate spending. The Republicans tried to pass a Civil Rights bill that would make it easier for blacks to vote in Congressional elections, but the measure died due to vehement Southern opposition.
The election of 1888 ended up not as a major turning point in American history, but more of a curiosity for people. But, there was a lot going on in the country at the time. It was a preview of what the country was going to be like in the 20th Century. And, at the time, the 1888 election had the highest percentage turnout of any election in U.S. history. It was the Centennial Presidential election. And it may not be remembered any better than the Bicentennial Election of 1988 between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.
Before America could develop a two-party system and hold contested Presidential elections, the nation had to endure an often bizarre, nearly completely opaque, and incredibly nasty election in 1796 when John Adams bested Thomas Jefferson by just three electoral votes. From the intellectual pinnacles of the Declaration of Independence and the framing of the Constitution, the United States decided the best way to pick a new president was for two men to have their operatives throughout the country sling mud at each other.
In other words, it wasn’t too much different from today.
Jeffrey Pasley recounts in interesting detail all the machinations that went on to creating a political culture in the United States where people could take sides and pick a candidate they wanted. (It helped a lot to be a property-owning white male to do this.) George Washington was chosen as the nation’s first president because it was just assumed that he was the only man with the stature to hold the job.
When Jay returned to the U.S. in 1795 with a treaty that was favorable to the British (mostly because he had a poor negotiating position and Britain was the preeminent naval power in the world), the country was in an uproar. The treaty was approved by the Senate, which met in secret at the time. (Soon after that, the Senate would meet in public. Not long after that, the public realized that the Senate was a pretty boring place.) However, the treaty’s terms were eventually leaked to a nascent partisan press. Everybody started taking sides. Opponents of the treaty even started to throw blame at Washington. And if George Washington had a personnel file, it would have in its performance evaluation “Does not take criticism well.”
Washington decided not to run for a third term in 1796. His vice president, John Adams, was the heir apparent. Or was he?
Adams could not say that he actually wanted to be president because that was considered ill-mannered at the time. Thomas Jefferson wanted to be president, but he was in the same bind. In fact, Alexander Hamilton tried to campaign for Adams, by spreading the word that Jefferson wanted to be president, making Adams look more virtuous and Jefferson like an overly ambitious man.
Since the process of choosing electors was different in every state (they pretty much just made up the laws as they went along back then), it was hard to figure out just how to become president. To complicate matters, at the time, there was no separate balloting for president and vice president. Electors just wrote down two names. The person with the majority of the votes was president and the runner-up was vice president. The Nate Silver of 1796 would have called his site 276, although the winner needed just 70 votes, since there were just 138 ballots.
Each side in the election, which didn’t have formal names but are generally referred to as Federalist (Adams) and Republican (Jefferson) didn’t wish to campaign on the issues. Overt campaigning in public by a presidential candidate would not become acceptable behavior until 1840, and did not become expected behavior until the 20th Century.
Federalists accused Jefferson of being an effete snob, who spent too much time engaged in scientific debates. And Jefferson was accused of cowardice because he had to flee the Virginia state capital to avoid capture by British troops during the Revolution. Jefferson was branded as someone who would destroy Christianity in the country and turn the country into a version of the now extremely violent France. Most of the accusations were written by a somewhat obnoxious South Carolina Representative named William Houghton Smith.
Adams, who helped Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence, was accused by Republicans of being a royalist, who wanted to start a hereditary monarchy in the United States. And since Adams had a son, he could start a dynasty! (Jefferson could not because he only had daughters.) Some higher-minded Republicans just thought Adams should not be president because he was a little bit fat.
States chose electors on different dates in different methods. Some states had direct election statewide. Some used districts. Some had the state legislature pick. When it came time for the electors to vote, nobody was quite sure who was going to win because many states slates were up in the air.
In the end, Adams nosed out Jefferson by three votes, picking up key votes in Maryland and one each in Virginia and North Carolina, to put him over the top. Although the New Englander Adams did not wish to garner support from slave states, his plan for a strong central government appealed to a certain type of Southern plantation owner. Some Federalists, most notably Andrew Hamilton, were trying to maneuver South Carolinian Thomas Pinckney into either the presidency or vice presidency, but could not coordinate voting efforts well enough to do that.
On Inauguration Day, Jefferson made a conciliatory speech and vowed to work well with Adams. They never did and the two men were estranged for about 20 years.
And the mood of the country was best summed up by New York Governor George Clinton, a staunch Republican, who hated Adams. When he heard Jefferson’s speech, he was filled with anger and wrote in his diary, that Jefferson had effectively told his supporters “I am in. Kiss my ass and go to hell.”
So, whatever you’ve seen in American politics in your lifetime is likely nothing that hasn’t happened before in some form before. Americans have a long history of hating the people on the other side of the political spectrum. That is the most important thing to take away from this fascinating book.
In 1961, journalist Theodore White ushered in a new genre of nonfiction: the intimate presidential campaign diary. White would win a Pulitzer Prize in 1962 for this book, which, was for the first time, gave Americans an inside look at how presidential campaigns actually operated. Even though most American voters were not so naive to think every aspect of a campaign was entirely noble, this was the first time when people got to see how even the most well-run campaigns often flew by the seat of their pants. Candidates were described with most of their flaws. This book changed the way politics was written about it in the United States.
In addition to the small things, White managed to portray the often highly romanticized 1960 campaign in a larger than life style. The race for the White House is portrayed as one of the most important races ever. White’s book was also helped out by the fact that the 1960 race was one of the closest ever and also featured two of America’s larger than life political figures: John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
The book opens with the Kennedy family nervously following returns on Election Day, 1960. Candidate Kennedy goes to bed around 4 am, but Bobby Kennedy stays up all night monitoring the situation. White obviously picked the right side to sit with on Election Day, because we never do find out what Nixon was doing that night. Continue reading →