Significant Presidential Elections in American History

In order to be included in this list of the top ten presidential elections, a significant event had to impact the election's outcome or the election needed to result in a significant shift in party or policy.

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Election of 1800

Portrait of President Thomas Jefferson. Getty Images

This presidential election is considered by most scholars as the most significant in U.S. history because of its far reaching impact on electoral policies. The electoral college system from the Constitution broke down allowing Aaron Burr (1756–1836), the VP candidate, to be in contention for the presidency against Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). It was decided in the House after twenty-six ballots.

Significance: Because of this election, the 12th Amendment was added to the Constitution changing the electoral process. Further, a peaceful exchange of political power occurred (Federalists out, Democratic–Republicans in.)

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Election of 1860

The presidential election of 1860 demonstrated that the institution of slavery was a dividing line in American politics. The newly formed Republican party adopted an anti-slavery platform that led to a narrow victory for Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) and also set the stage for secession. Individuals who once associated with the Democratic or Whig parties yet were anti-slavery realigned to join the Republicans. Those from other parties who were pro-slavery joined the Democrats.

Significance: The election of Lincoln took the country towards the abolition of slavery and was the straw that broke the camel's back, leading to the secession of eleven states.

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Election of 1932

Another shift in political parties occurred with the presidential election of 1932. Franklin Roosevelt's Democratic Party came to power by forming the New Deal coalition that united groups that previously had not been associated with the same party. These included urban workers, northern Black people, southern white people, and Jewish voters. Today's Democratic Party is still largely comprised of this coalition.

Significance: A new coalition and realignment of political parties occurred that would help shape future policies and elections.

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Election of 1896

The presidential election of 1896 demonstrated a sharp division in society between urban and rural interests. William Jennings Bryan (Democrat, 1860–1925) was able to form a coalition that answered the call of progressive groups and rural interests including the indebted farmers and those arguing against the gold standard. William McKinley's (1843–1901) victory was significant because it highlights the shift from America as an agrarian nation to one of urban interests.

Significance: The election highlights the changes that were occurring in American society at the turn of the 19th century.

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Election of 1828

The presidential election of 1828 is often pointed to as the "rise of the common man." It has been called the "Revolution of 1828." After the Corrupt Bargain of 1824 when Andrew Jackson was defeated, an up-welling of support arose against back room deals and candidates chosen by caucus. At this point in American history, the nominating of candidates became more democratic as conventions replaced caucuses.

Significance: Andrew Jackson was the first president not born of privilege. The election was the first time that individuals began to fight against corruption in politics.

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Election of 1876

This election ranks higher than other disputed elections because it is set against the backdrop of Reconstruction. New York governor Samuel Tilden (1814–1886) led in popular and electoral votes but was one shy of the necessary votes to win. The existence of disputed electoral votes led to the Compromise of 1877. A commission was formed and voted along party lines, awarding Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican, 1822–1893) the presidency. It is believed that Hayes agreed to end Reconstruction and recall all troops from the South in exchange for the presidency.

Significance: The election of Hayes meant the end of Reconstruction, opening up the country to the scourge of repressive Jim Crow laws.

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Election of 1824

The Election of 1824 is known as the 'Corrupt Bargain'. The lack of an electoral majority resulted in the election being decided in the House. It is believed that a deal was made giving the office to John Quincy Adams (1767–1829) in exchange for Henry Clay becoming Secretary of State.

Significance: Andrew Jackson won the popular vote, but lost because of this bargain. The election's backlash catapulted Jackson to the presidency in 1828, and split the Democratic-Republican Party in two.

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Election of 1912

The reason why the presidential election of 1912 is included here is to show the impact that a third party can have on the outcome of an election. When former president Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) broke from the Republicans to form the independent Bull Moose Party, he hoped to win back the presidency. His presence on the ballot split the Republican vote resulting in a win for the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924). Wilson would go on to lead the nation during World War I and staunchly fought for the "League of Nations," an idea not supported by Republicans.

Significance: Third parties cannot necessarily win American elections but they can spoil them.

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Election of 2000

The Election of 2000 came down to the electoral college and specifically the vote in Florida. Because of the controversy over the recount in Florida, the campaign of former vice president Al Gore (born 1948) sued to have a manual recount. This was significant because it was the first time the Supreme Court got involved in an electoral decision. It decided that the votes should stand as counted and the electoral votes for the state were awarded to George W. Bush. He won the presidency without winning the popular vote.

Significance: The after-effects of the 2000 election can still be felt in everything from constantly evolving voting machines to greater scrutiny of elections themselves.

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Election of 1796

After George Washington's retirement, there was no unanimous choice for president. The presidential election of 1796 demonstrated that the fledgling democracy could work. One man stepped aside, and a peaceful election occurred resulting in John Adams as president. One side effect of this election which would become more significant in 1800 was that due to the electoral process, arch-rival Thomas Jefferson became Adams' Vice President.

Significance: The election proved that American electoral system worked.

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Kelly, Martin. "Significant Presidential Elections in American History." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). Significant Presidential Elections in American History. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "Significant Presidential Elections in American History." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).