Contested Elections and the Campaign Trail

Jack Turo

While the 2016 election was tumultuous it pales in comparison to the political turmoil that plagued the elections of 2000 and 1860.

The 2000 election famously pitted republican George Bush versus the democratic candidate Al Gore. Gore, a former senator out of Tennessee, came to national prominence while serving as Vice President under Bill Clinton. Bush on the other hand came from a family stoked in political prestige, as his father George H. W. Bush faithfully served as the forty-first President of the United States.

As the campaign got underway, all estimates favored a Gore victory, as incumbent President Bill Clinton held a “60-percent approval” rate. All that optimism quickly went up in smoke, as Gore struggled to control his demeanor during the first presidential debate. This proved particularly stunning as numerous democratic supporters felt as though they were going up against a political lightweight in Bush. Playing into the argument that he was selfish and over-confident, Gore was caught rolling his eyes in frustration multiple times, as the republicans got the gift they had been looking for.

At the same time the Gore campaign struggled with his increasingly strained relationship with Clinton. Gore was routinely seen “voicing disappointment over Mr. Clinton’s behavior with Monica S. Lewinsky.” With the stakes getting higher every passing day, the need for good press was paramount and the story of an affair in the White House provided the exact opposite for the Gore campaign. Just days out from the election, chaos again reared its ugly head, this time in the form of a past DUI conviction for Bush. Although the DUI occurred in 1976, the Bush campaign was nerveless stumped at the timing of the release. In the following days, Bush was adamant that he had been clear with the American people that he had a drinking problem in the past but that he had been sober for quite awhile. Eventually the source of the leak was revealed to be democratic strategist Tom Connolly, who immediately turned the blame to Bush by arguing that he should have been more forthright about his history of alcoholism.

This turmoil-filled election came to a fitting end with the controversial recount of the election results in Florida, which became the deciding factor in the election’s outcome. Florida, one of the most polarizing swing states during every election cycle, was swinging back and forth all night. While originally it was projected that Gore won the state, later it was announced that Bush had taken the lead. Around 3:00 in the morning Bush was shocked to learn that Gore had retracted his concession. As the margin in Florida grew closer a recount was initiated. As court challenges sprung up all over Florida the public became glued to the TV, as stories of hanging chads filled the airwaves. Hanging chads were ballots that weren’t fully punched. This led to incomplete votes, which proved consequential in an extremely close election. Proving controversial as well was the butterfly design used by Palm Beach County, which inadvertently lead to third-party candidate Pat Buchanan incorrectly receiving approximately 3,400 votes. Bush was the first President since 1888 to win the election without also winning the popular vote, which was awarded to Gore.

Another contentious election occurred in 1860. At a Spring meeting in Chicago, the Republicans choose Lincoln as their nominee. Attempting to capitalize off the turmoil of the Democratic selection, the Republicans wanted an individual who could carry the North, particularly someone who had the potential to win the Electoral College. Coming off the Douglass debates that turned Lincoln into a star, Republicans knew they had their man. The Democrats had much more difficulty choosing their nominee. Northern Democrats felt like the best path to victory was in choosing Stephen Douglass. Southern Democrats, believing Douglass to be a traitor because of his policy of popular sovereignty, stormed out of the meeting without selecting a nominee. It was only at a later convention that southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckenridge as their party’s nominee.

After accepting his role as his party’s nominee Lincoln ended his law practice for the time being and focused on the campaign, which he ran mostly out of his home. The Lincoln strategy focused on unity and he was successful in convincing reluctant party members into giving him their support. With Democrats split on their candidate, the Lincoln campaign knew it was important to avoid a similar quarrel. His opponent, Stephen Douglass, gave many speeches preaching the importance of preservation of a union that seemed to be falling apart over the issue of slavery.

Surprisingly, Lincoln was able to sweep the North, which in turn allowed him to win a majority of the Electoral College. With Lincoln capturing the presidency with less then forty percent of the vote, the country’s split became more pronounced. The seeds of secession began to sprout thanks to the election outcome in which Breckenridge and Douglass split the vote total in the South.

Work Cited

Zelizer, Julian. (2016, September). The 8 biggest unforced errors in debate history. Politico Magazine

Pomper, Gerald. (2001). The 2000 presidential election: Why gore lost. Political science quarterly

Henneberger, Melinda. Van Natta, Don. (2000, October). Once close to Clinton, gore keeps a distance. The New York Times

Kellman, Laurie. (2000, November). Bush once pleaded guilty to DUI. Associated Press

Britannica. (2016, July). United States presidential election of 2000. Encyclopedia Britannica

Independence hall association in Philadelphia. (2008-2016). The election of 1860.


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