The Most Controversial Elections In U.S History

Presidential elections in the United States have always been crazy. From the first proper presidential campaign in 1800 to whatever the hell is happening in 2016, choosing the Commander-in-Chief has been a controversial and all-around bonkers process, with mudslinging, backstabbing, bizarre characters, lies, conspiracies, and shady deals behind giant, expensive doors. But what were the most controversial elections? What were the closest elections in American history? How about the craziest elections? Or the utter disasters? The worst elections ever?

It’s hard to say which contest was the most controversial. Nearly every election in US history has had its share of odd, controversial moments - many thanks to the much-derided electoral college - and just about all of them have changed history significantly, upsetting wide swaths of people. Many of the closest elections ever - a far more objective topic, for sure - are also, by their very nature, super-controversial and crazy to watch. As far as the worst goes… well, you’ll have to make up your own mind about that. Read on for some of the most unusual, scandalous, rage-inducing, and just plain bizarro US presidential elections of all time.  

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Photo: Gage Skidmore / WikiMedia Commons / cc-by-sa-2.0

  • 1860: A Nation Ripped in Half

    No list of controversial elections would be complete without the election of 1860. Why? It basically triggered the Civil War, which is just about the most inflammatory thing you can imagine an election doing (though it is, admittedly, much more complicated than that). But the election of 1860 also split the Democratic Party in half, motivated more Americans than ever before to vote, and forced an American President to elude assassins (via disguises and sneaky train-switching) even before his inauguration.

  • 1876: Reconstruction Ends and Race Relations Sour

    Some historians think 1876 was the “ugliest, most contentious and most controversial presidential election in U.S. history.” That’s saying a lot. Here’s why: Rutherford Hayes (R) lost the popular vote to Samuel Tilden (D) by about 250,000 votes. That was for certain. Everything else, however, was a giant, unprecedented mess.

    At one point, Tilden was just one electoral vote shy of clinching the presidency (winning 184 out of the 185 he needed) while Hayes was 20 short. There were still exactly 20 electoral votes uncounted, split across four states, meaning that if Hayes swept these states, he’d win it all. But both parties ended up disputing the results and accusing each other of fraud, forcing the government to improvise and form a 15-member committee of Congressmen and Supreme Court justices to decide the election. Only one committee member - Justice David Davis - was independent, with the rest evenly split between the parties. Davis, however, was elected to the Senate before the vote took place and resigned from his position as a Supreme Court justice, leaving only Republican justices left to replace him on the committee. Guess how his Republican replacement voted?

    The whole debacle nearly triggered another Civil War, but a behind-closed-doors compromise ultimately handed Hayes the “win.” In exchange, “Southern Democrats could reverse with impunity the gains that blacks had made during Reconstruction,” a move that ultimately led to the infamous Jim Crow laws.

  • 2000: Everybody Hates Chad

    The election of 2000 was one of the closest ever and was made even harder to call by hanging, dimpled, and pregnant "chads" and confusing butterfly ballots in Florida. The fate of the whole shebang, ultimately, had to be decided by the Supreme Court, which ruled that George W. Bush (R) was the winner.

    Many critics think the election was “stolen” from Al Gore (D), including Hillary Clinton, who told this to a crowd in 2015: “When [George's brother] Jeb Bush was governor, state officials conducted a deeply flawed purge of voters before the presidential election of 2000." This so-called “purge” allegedly removed 12,000 eligible voters from the rolls in Florida (Bush won by only 537). Regardless, the whole mess brought voter's rights into the spotlight in a major way and led to the Help America Vote Act (which has had, unfortunately, mixed results).

  • 1824: Jackson Wins Popular and Electoral Vote (But Still Loses the Election)

    How could Andrew Jackson win the most popular votes and the most electoral votes in 1824 and still lose the election? Because the Electoral College requires that a president receives the majority of the electoral votes (i.e. more than half), and Jackson simply didn’t because there were four candidates on the ballot. Jackson received 99 electoral votes, John Quincy Adams received 84, William Harris Crawford received 41, and Henry Clay received 37. To have a majority, 131 votes were needed.

    Per the Twelfth Amendment, the House of Representatives had to decide the winner, and they chose John Quincy Adams instead, which made Jackson understandably furious. Speaker of the House Henry Clay didn’t like Jackson at all: "I cannot believe that killing 2,500 Englishmen at New Orleans qualifies for the various, difficult, and complicated duties of the Chief Magistracy,” he wrote to journalist Frank Preston Blair, referring to Jackson’s military experience. To make things worse, Adams chose Clay as his Secretary of State just a few days after his inauguration, which Jackson called a “corrupt bargain.”

  • 1948: Truman Defeats Dewey and "Dewey Defeats Truman"

    If you think 21st-century discourse about presidential candidates is ugly and childish, well, it’s pretty much always been that way. The Chicago Tribune, for example, called Harry S. Truman a “nincompoop” during the 1948 election. Truman later got his revenge, in a roundabout way, when the Tribune famously published “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” prematurely on its front page. The paper was just relying on the major pollsters of the day, including George Gallup. George’s son George Gallup Jr. told The Los Angeles Times in 1998 that the pollsters simply “stopped polling a few weeks too soon.” The Gallup company lost 30 newspaper clients following the debacle. 

  • 1836: One Party, Four Candidates

    The now-defunct Whig party had an interesting “strategy” in 1836. Instead of having a convention and choosing one candidate to represent them, why not divide and conquer? The Whigs chose a whopping four nominees to do battle with Larry David’s hair twin Martin Van Buren (pictured). They ran in different parts of the country, hoping to force the House to ultimately decide the Presidency. It didn’t work: Van Buren edged by in the popular vote but won the electoral vote 170 to 124. The Whigs having “no real consensus or policies” and “no political platform” unsurprisingly worked against them.