Sticks and Stones and Scandals – How the Election Process Got So Ugly

There are days when the 2016 Presidential election ends up resembling a Championship Cage Fighting Match. The rhetoric keeps getting nastier and the tricks keep getting dirtier. Tempers are rising as the talking heads on the news networks continue to polarize the two main camps competing for the White House.


Many people mourn for the “good old days” before political races became a nasty, unseemly brawl worthy of a third-world, banana republic. When we look more closely, however, were the political battles in the good old days any more civil than today? Maybe we should examine them a little more closely.


1788/1792George Washington, running unopposed, was elected the first President of the United States by a unanimous vote of the Electoral College. According to the election rules at the turn of the 19th Century, each member of the electoral College was required to cast votes for two different candidates. The reasoning behind this was that whomever got the most votes got to be President and the runner-up became Vice-President. Though Washington received votes from every Electoral College member, the votes for Vice-President in that election were distributed among 11 candidates with John Adams receiving the most. The scenario was repeated in 1792 with Washington and Adams being reelected to the top jobs. The 1792 election was the last time the Electoral College voted unanimously for a single candidate.


After that, things started to go downhill very rapidly.


1800 – The first election of the post-Washington days turned out to be a tie. Though the Electoral College was required to vote for two candidates to prevent a tie, obviously it wasn’t a foolproof plan. The Democratic-Republican Party (yes, that’s what it was called) nominated Thomas Jefferson for President while the Federalists ran John Adams. Aaron Burr, evenly matched with Adams, was also in the race. The fix was in and one of the electoral college voters was supposed to vote for someone other than Burr, but a mistake was made and Adams and Burr got the same number of votes. At that point, the House of Representatives was given a vote with the result to determine who became President. Unfortunately, the House was filled with anti-Adams and anti-Burr politicians and it took a week to finally hammer out an agreement that would put Adams in the White House. To prevent this from happening again, the 12th Amendment was passed in 1804, forcing the Electoral College to vote for two separate candidates for President and Vice-President.


1828Andrew Jackson lost a bitter election to John Quincy Adams in 1824 when Speaker of the House Henry Clay cast a tie-breaker vote for Adams. After his inauguration, Adams appointed Clay as Secretary of State causing Jackson to go ballistic and describe the appointment as a “corrupt bargain.” Rather subdued language by today’s standards, this was a major attack by Jackson as he planned his revenge for the 1828 election. In their rematch, Adams was accused of providing an American girl to the visiting Russian Czar and the anti-Jackson faction labeled Jackson’s wife, Rachel, a convicted adulteress. Information was circulated that Rachel had married Jackson before her divorce from her first husband had been finalized. Rachel passed away between Jackson’s victory and inauguration. At her funeral, Jackson blamed the bigamy rumors for her demise and stated, “May God Almighty forgive her murderers, as I know she forgave them. I never can.”


1872 – Ulysses Grant was the incumbent President and he was running against Horace Greeley. Grant, the great Civil War hero, was a shoo-in and was predicted to win by a landslide. In the end, it really wouldn’t even have been a problem even if they were neck and neck as Greeley died before the Electoral College could vote.


History reminds us how the election process got so ugly.



1876 – By the election in the Centennial year the Democratic-Republican Party had split into two factions. The Republicans, the party of Lincoln, pitted New York Governor Rutherford B. Hayes, against Democrat Samuel Tilden, Governor of New York. Tilden won the popular vote and was leading in the electoral college with a 184 to 165 lead in the vote count. The twenty electoral votes for Oregon, Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina, however, were being heavily contested in their respective states. Both sides were accused of fraud with supporters casting multiple votes and Republican ballots altered to make illiterate voters think they were voting Democrat. The factor that really turned the Southern states to Hayes though were backroom promises to remove Federal troops from the South and end Reconstruction. The Southern Democrats supported the Republican Hayes and he ended up with 185 to 164 advantage to win the election. In March, 1877, Hayes was declared the winner and in May of that year Federal troops left the South. That election also led to the eventual rise of the Dixiecrats, southern Democrats who voted almost lockstep with Republicans for the next 100 years.


1884 – This election became the poster child for mud-slinging in the late 19th Century. Democrat Grover Cleveland was victorious over Republican James Blaine, but the campaign was ugly. Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock with Maria Halpin, a widow. Though Cleveland openly acknowledged and supported the child, the Republicans felt it was a good weapon and made up a chant that went, “Ma! Ma! Where’s my Pa?” Blaine was not a particularly squeaky clean candidate himself and had been accused of being involved in a major railroad scandal. This was confirmed when a letter signed by Blaine surfaced concerning the accusations and closed with, “My regards to Mrs. Fisher. Burn this letter.” The Democrat’s response was to create their own chant which went, “Burn this letter. Burn this letter.”


1928 – Republican Herbert Hoover won his election against Democrat Al Smith by a landslide. The main cause for the resounding defeat was religion. Smith was Catholic and, as such, was not trusted by most of Protestant America. The Holland Tunnel in New York had just been completed the previous year. Republican operatives started a rumor that Smith had secretly agreed to build a 3,500-mile long tunnel starting in New York and ending at the Vatican. The GOP convinced voters that the Pope would then have a say in all presidential decisions if Smith was elected. On a side note, Babe Ruth was one of Smith most visible supporters. While normally that would be a great advantage for Smith, it actually ended working against him. Ruth had a habit of showing up for political rallies in his undershirt, drunk, and telling anyone who disagreed with him and Smith “The hell with you.”


1920 – Eugene Debs was a union organizer and an avowed socialist. He ran for President five times between 1900 and 1920. In 1918, Debs was arrested after giving an anti-war speech where he lambasted the “ruling class” for sending other people’s sons to war to make profit. He was arrested, convicted of espionage, and sentenced to 10 years in Federal prison. Debs conducted his 1920 Presidential campaign from the Atlanta Federal Prison and actually received almost a million votes. One year later, a victorious Harding commuted Deb’s sentence and he was released.


1960 – This campaign was unique because it was the first to be contested on television. In 1950, only 11% of households in the U.S. had a television. That figure had grown to 84% by 1960. John Kennedy, Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, was pitted against Richard Nixon, a two-time Republican Vice President. For the first time ever, the debates were broadcast on television. Before the debate, Nixon had been hospitalized. Looking thin and sickly, he refused to wear makeup while on camera. He also needed a shave and his gray suit blended into the background adding to his pallor. Kennedy’s handlers understood the importance of looking good on camera and had him dressed in a blue suit and blue shirt which really enhanced his tanned appearance. TV viewers declared Kennedy the winner while radio listeners gave the night to Nixon. Kennedy would go on to defeat Nixon by a mere 119,000 votes out of 69 million cast.


Dirty tricks, back room deals, shaming, and television appearances became the norm in those good old days and those traditions have been carried forward. One can only hope that, in the future, campaigning will be more civilized and today’s politics will be looked upon as the bad old days.