U.S. presidential election
The United States presidential elections determine who becomes the President of the United States.
For the latest U.S. election see U.S. presidential election, 2004
How elections are administered
The election of the United States President is governed by Section 1 of Article Two of the United States Constitution, as amended by Amendments XII, XXII, and XXIII. The President and Vice President are elected on the same ticket by the U.S. Electoral College, whose members are elected directly from each state; the President and Vice President serve four-year terms.
Elections take place every four years on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November (although in many states early and absentee voting begins several weeks before Election Day). The last election was held on November 2, 2004. See U.S. presidential election, 2004.
The next election will take place on November 4, 2008.
See also: U.S. presidential election maps.
In recent decades, presidential nominees of the Democratic and Republican parties have all been either incumbent Presidents seeking a second term or sitting or former Vice Presidents, state Governors, or U.S. Senators. The last nominee from either party who had not previously served in such an office was General Dwight D. Eisenhower who won the Republican nomination and ultimately the presidency in the 1952 election.
Contemporary electoral success has perhaps favored state governors. Of the last five Presidents (Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush), only George H.W. Bush had never been Governor of a state. Geographically, these Presidents were all from either very large states (California, Texas) or from a state south of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of Texas (Georgia, Arkansas). The last elected President from a northern state and sitting U.S. Senator elected President was John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1960.
Among past upsets and unexpected candidates were the following:
- 1860 - Abraham Lincoln was a little known Congressman from Illinois when he arrived in New York City for the Republican Convention in 1860. His speech at the Cooper Union immediately catapulted him into the nomination. The photographs of him taken by Matthew Brady in his signature tophat before his speech were distributed to newspapers around the country, making him an instant nationwide celebrity. The current nominating process makes convention surprises like this extremely unlikely.
- 1920 - Warren G. Harding was a little-known U.S. Senator from Ohio before receiving the Republican nomination in the presidential election of 1920. Considered the last true "darkhorse" candidate, he emerged from complete obscurity to become president in less than six months.
- 1924 - Calvin Coolidge was a little-known one-term governor of Massachusetts leading up to the presidential election of 1920. Following a deadlock at the 1920 Republican National Convention, he received the nomination after a delegate from Oregon shouted his name out into the crowd. After Harding's death in 1923, Coolidge received the nomination and easily won re-election in the presidential election of 1924.
- 1936 - Many people predicted that the presidential election of 1936 would be a close election, in part due to what was expected to be a strong challenge from the left by William Lemke and the short-lived Union Party, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Kansas Governor Alfred M. Landon in a landslide.
- 1948 - In 1944, Harry S. Truman was a little known U.S. Senator from Missouri. Picked by Franklin Roosevelt to replace the increasingly radical Henry Wallace as Vice President, Truman still languished in near complete obscurity during the first months of his term as Vice President and was never once invited to the White House by Roosevelt. Immediately after Roosevelt's death, Truman was catapulted into the Presidency. Later he was widely predicted to lose the presidential election of 1948, with Governor Thomas Dewey seen as the certain victor. This prediction, however, was largely based on telephone polling at a time when there was still a statistically very significant proportion of the population who did not have telephones, and who generally favored Truman.
- 1952 - Most Republican insiders, and many other observers, in 1952 felt that "Mr. Republican" Robert Taft would easily turn back the challenge of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, previously an apolitical soldier who had never so much as even voted; however it was "Ike", not Taft, who went on to the Republican presidential nomination and won subsequent election.
- 1964 - In 1964 it seemed to many that Senator Barry Goldwater would be too conservative to make major inroads into the ensconced "regular" Republican apparatus that had governed the party for generations. This perception was enhanced when the 1964 New Hampshire primary was won by Henry Cabot Lodge in a write-in campaign largely orchestrated by the Manchester Union-Leader. However, Goldwater came back to swamp his rivals, notably Nelson Rockefeller, in the later primaries and then withstood a "Anybody But Goldwater" movement which coalseced around Pennsylvania governor William Scranton in the runup to the 1964 Republican National Convention, and Goldwater received the nomination, but was swamped by Lyndon Johnson in the general election.
- 1968 - Following his defeat in the 1960 election, few imagined that Richard Nixon would become the Republican nominee, let alone the Republican victor, in the 1968 election, nor were they prepared for the shock assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy and the decision of President Lyndon Johnson to drop out of the 1968 race. These events resulted in an electoral battle that no one had expected. In mid-1967 the conventional wisdom was that Michigan governor George Romney would be the Republican nominee, or that New York governor Nelson Rockerfeller would finally be successful in obtaining the nomination on his third attempt. It hardly seemed likely that Romney would drop out of the race in December, 1967, three months before the first primary was held in New Hampshire, or that Rockerfeller would again be overwhelmed in the primaries by the unsucessful nominee from eight years prior. Later the "convention wisdom" became that George Wallace, Democratic governor of Alabama running for President on the ticket of his self-created American Independent Party, would carry most or all of the eleven states of the old Confederacy, probably forcing the election into the United States House of Representatives and becoming something of a "kingmaker" who could make strong demands upon the major party candidates in exchange for Southern support. However, in the end he wound up receiving only about 13% of the popular vote and 46 electoral votes, which was not enough to force the election into the House or otherwise disrupt anything about Nixon's plurality popular vote win and large Electoral College majority.
- 1972 - It was widely predicted that the 1972 Democratic nominee would be either 1968 vice presidential nominee Edmund S. Muskie or his old boss, 1968 Democratic presidential nominee Hubert H. Humphrey. Few thought that it would be George McGovern, a Senator from a state with only three electoral votes (South Dakota) which usually supported Republicans in presidential elections, and who was little-known by the public at large outside of Democratic Party inner circles until the 1972 primary season.
- 1976 - After the 1972 election, few could have predicted that the 1976 presidential election would involve Congressman Gerald Ford, who suddenly became Vice President and then President after the resignations of Vice President Spiro Agnew and President Nixon. Likewise, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter was largely unknown politician prior to his 1976 run, and not expected to be a large player in the race. In fact, the announcement that he was running was met with yawns by most political pundits and the mainstream media of the time, and this perception did not change until his upset win in the Iowa caucuses. Conversely Senator Edward Kennedy was widely predicted as destined to be the Democratic candidate in either 1976 or 1980. However, after the depth to which the 1969 Chappaquiddick scandal had damaged his credibity with much of the public at large, including many Democratic primary voters, at least those outside of Massachusetts, became readily apparent, Kennedy's name was taken off the table temporarily. After an attempt to seek the Democratic nomination in the 1980 election revealed just the depth to which this scandal and the damage it had done to his reputation had lingered, and the general public's perception of him of being, unlike his brothers, an "ultraliberal", Kennedy has never again sought the presidency.
- 1984 - Gary Hart was a little-known U.S. Senator from Colorado at the time he lauched his bid in 1983. Few political commentators had been prepared for the initial shock of Hart beating former Vice President Walter Mondale in the 1984 New Hampshire Primary and challenging Mondale for the Democratic nomination. Hart was later considered a frontrunner for the 1988 Democratic nomination before the Donna Rice affair in 1987.
- 1988 - Michael Dukakis was not widely predicted to be candidate for the 1988 election until his challenge was launched.
- 1992 - After the 1988 election, Bill Clinton (then Governor of Arkansas) was not regarded as serious contender for the 1992 election. His long-winded and roundly ridiculed opening night address at the 1988 Democratic National Convention was generally thought to destroyed whatever small amount of credibilty he might have possessed at the national level. At the time, many people believed that New York governor Mario Cuomo would be Democratic candidate in 1992. When the Gennifer Flowers affair was then exposed in early 1992, it was at first assumed that it would destroy Clinton's chance for the nomination in the same way that the Donna Rice affair had destroyed those of Gary Hart five years previously. Likewise Paul Tsongas, Bill Clinton's main challenger for the 1992 nomination, was a little known former U.S. Senator from Massachusetts at the start of the 1992 campaign.
- 2004 - Howard Dean, governor of the small state of Vermont when he launched his bid in 2003, was not then considered a serious contender. Conversely, he later held commanding leads in both fundraising and opinion polls during the months prior to the Democratic primaries in the 2004 presidential election, but his campaign fizzled after considerable surges from John Kerry and John Edwards in the weeks prior to the earliest primaries.
Conversely, early serious contenders, excluding sitting presidents, who turned back their challengers and later went on to receive their party's nomination as initially expected include:
- Herbert Hoover in 1928. Although never elected to office, he had served as Secretary of Commerce and was widely known as an "engineering genius" for his relief efforts in Europe in World War I. He was widely considered as Coolidge's heir apparent who would continue the prosperity of the 1920s.
- Thomas Dewey in 1944. Although he had lost to Franklin Roosevelt in the waning days of World War II in 1944, he was later considered the frontrunner for the nomination in 1948.
- Adlai Stevenson in 1956. He had been the nominee in 1952, losing to Dwight Eisenhower.
- Richard Nixon in 1960, the sitting Vice President.
- John F. Kennedy in 1960. Although not considered the frontrunner in part because of his relative youth (many thought Stevenson would win a third nomination), he was widely considered to be a possible candidate at some point. His victory over Hubert Humphrey in the West Virginia primary established him as a serious candidate to challenge party insider Lyndon Johnson, who later became Kennedy's Vice President.
- Hubert Humphrey in 1968, the sitting Vice President. His most serious challenger, Robert Kennedy, entered the race late but was assassinated after winning the California Primary less than two months before the convention.
- Ronald Reagan in 1980. He had mounted a serious and hard-fought challenge to Gerald Ford in 1976. Early in the campaign, however, few anticipated his landslide victory over Jimmy Carter.
- Walter Mondale in 1984, former Vice President, who turned back the unexpected challenge from Gary Hart.
- George H.W. Bush in 1988, the sitting Vice President. Although he received an early challenge from televangelist Pat Robertson, he drive for the nomination was never seriously threatened.
- Al Gore in 2000, the sitting Vice President, who turned back a challenge from Senator Bill Bradley.
- George W. Bush in 2000. His early heavyweight status was based partly on name recognition. He received the lion's share of early fundraising support in the Republican Party in 1999 and later turned back a serious challenge from John McCain to seal the nomination on Super Tuesday in March 2000.
- John F. Kerry in 2004. His early frontrunner status was due to several factors: his lengthy Senate career, his inclusion in 2000 on Al Gore's VP "short list", and his well-known military service in Vietnam. In the pre-voting, fundraising phase of the primary process, his campaign stalled and Vermont Governor Howard Dean became the leading candidate in the eyes of the media and many enthusiastic volunteers. Kerry reshuffled his campaign staff, won the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, and almost every primary thereafter.
* "Major Opponent" is defined as a candidate receiving greater than 1% of the total popular vote for elections including and after 1824, or greater than 5 electoral votes for elections including and before 1820. (This column may not be complete).
† Denotes a minority President—one receiving less than 50% of all popular votes.
‡ Denotes a (minority) President who did not receive a plurality of the popular votes and the opposing candidate who did.
** Denotes an election in which a losing candidate received an absolute majority of the popular votes.
Note: Presidents John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur and Gerald Ford served as president but never won an election for president; Ford was never elected vice-president. Tyler and Johnson never ran, not even as incumbents; Fillmore ran later, but not as an incumbent.
Voter turnout in Presidential elections has been on the decline in recent years, although it bounced back sharply during the 2004 election from the 1996 and 2000 lows. While turnout has been decreasing, registration has been increasing. Registration rates varied from 65% to 70% of the voting age population from the 1960s to the 1980s, and due in part to greater government outreach programs, registration swelled to 75% in 1996 and 2000. Despite greater registration, however, turnout in general has not greatly improved, save the sharp bounce back in 2004.
|Election ||Voting Age Population ¹ ||Turnout ||% Turnout of VAP |
|2004 ||~217,800,000 ||~122,032,263 ||55 to 60% |
|2000 ||205,815,000 ||105,586,274 ||51.30% |
|1996 ||196,511,000 ||96,456,345 ||49.08% |
|1992 ||189,529,000 ||104,405,155 ||55.09% |
|1988 ||182,778,000 ||91,594,693 ||50.11% |
|1984 ||174,466,000 ||92,652,680 ||53.11% |
|1980 ||164,597,000 ||86,515,221 ||52.56% |
|1976 ||152,309,190 ||81,555,789 ||53.55% |
|1972 ||140,776,000 ||77,718,554 ||55.21% |
|1968 ||120,328,186 ||73,211,875 ||60.84% |
|1964 ||114,090,000 ||70,644,592 ||61.92% |
|1960 ||109,159,000 ||68,838,204 ||63.06% |
Sources: Federal Election Commission, Office of the Clerk, U.S. Census Bureau
¹ It should be noted that the voting age population includes all persons age 18 and over as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau, which necessarily includes a significant number of persons ineligible to vote, such as non-citizens or felons. The actual number of eligible voters is somewhat lower, and the number of registered voters is lower still. The number of non-citizens in 1994 was approximately 13 million, and in 1996, felons numbered around 1.3 million, so it can be estimated that around 7-10% of the voting age population is ineligible to vote.
Note that the large drop in turnout between 1968 and 1972 can be attributed (at least in part) to the expansion of the franchise to 18 year olds (previous restricted to those 21 and older). The total number of voters grew, but so did the pool of eligible voters- so total percentage fell.
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