“The Most Important Election of Our Lifetime:” Ranking All 58 Presidential Elections

It seems like every four years, someone is going to tell you that the upcoming election is the most important one we might ever have. Of course, importance is relative. Below, all 58 presidential (general) elections, ranked by their importance as Americans went to the polls, from least to most important.

Factors throughout include:

  • Number of candidates.
  • The extent philosophical differences between candidates. The closer the major candidates were, the fewer the consequences would have been had the election gone the other way.
  • The importance of these philosophical differences. Ethanol subsidies and slavery don’t hold equal weight.

  • Guesstimation was also a factor. This was not a scientific exercise and contradictions may occur. Feel free to point them out.

58. 1820: James Monroe defeats nobody

It was the “Era of Good Feeling,” and everyone was feeling so good that no one challenged incumbent James Monroe out of the remnants of the dead Federalist Party. Since Monroe’s reelection was inevitable, it is hard to consider any other election the least important in U.S. history. The only argument to the contrary is that the Monroe Doctrine was not established until 1823.

57. 1792: George Washington defeats nobody

By a similar token as 1820, there was also very little at stake in the second-ever election.

56. 1872: Ulysses S. Grant defeats Horace Greeley

The only way an election can be less critical than if there is no opposition is when the opposition dies (although Greeley did so after the election). Greeley did not run as a Democrat anyway, but as a “Liberal Republican.” Shows you how far apart the parties were at the time.

55. 1880: James Garfield defeats Winfield Hancock

The post-Civil War elections weren’t particularly important, even though voter turnout was high.

54. 1876: Rutherford B. Hayes defeats Samuel Tilden

This was a hugely contested race which Hayes “won” 185-184 in the Electoral College on March 2, two days before inauguration, after some major controversy. The ramifications were huge, as to get Hayes into office, the Republicans were forced to end Reconstruction. However, nobody could have known how tight the race would end up being as they went to vote.

53. 1816: James Monroe defeats Rufus King

The Federalist Party was at this point a total shell of an operation and would go on to lose its fifth straight campaign.

52. 1956: Dwight Eisenhower defeats Adlai Stevenson

51. 1936: Franklin D. Roosevelt defeats Alf Landon

50. 1944: Franklin D. Roosevelt defeats Thomas Dewey

49. 1984: Ronald Reagan defeats Walter Mondale

48: 1804: Thomas Jefferson defeats Charles Pinckney

47. 1832: Andrew Jackson defeats Henry Clay

46. 1904: Theodore Roosevelt defeats Alton Parker

45. 1996: Bill Clinton defeats Bob Dole

44. 1972: Richard Nixon defeats George McGovern

43. 1964: Lyndon B. Johnson defeats Barry Goldwater

These last ten listings (43-52) were all reelection efforts that everybody knew would succeed, and which did so without drama. 1964 and 1972 rank highest among these, because their losing candidates would have a massive impact on the future course of the Republican and Democratic Party, respectively, which the very fact of their nominations indicated might happen even at the time of the election. They still rank relatively low because of how much of a rout they were always going to be.

42. 1908: William Howard Taft defeats William Jennings Bryan

41. 1900: William McKinley defeats William Jennings Bryan

Bryan’s last two campaigns continued to represent strong differences with the Republicans, but decreasing strength of the same message led to difficulty recreating the level of consequence his first election effort achieved. 

40. 1868: Ulysses S. Grant defeats Horatio Seymour

39. 1980: Ronald Reagan defeats Jimmy Carter

38. 1952: Dwight Eisenhower defeats Adlai Stevenson

37. 1920: Warren G. Harding defeats James Cox

36. 1924: Calvin Coolidge defeats James Davis and Robert LaFollette

35. 1988: George H.W. Bush defeats Michael Dukakis 

34. 1932: Franklin D. Roosevelt defeats Herbert Hoover

These seven (34-40) were races where the winner was not yet president, and while some did include an incumbent on the ballot, the result still felt predetermined. 1932 ranks the highest because, although the differences between Hoover and Roosevelt were arguably not that stark, the possibility of Hoover’s term extending certainly seemed unbearable at the time.

33. 1808: James Madison defeats Charles Pinckney

32. 1836: Martin Van Buren defeats William Henry Harrison

31. 1840: William Henry Harrison defeats Martin Van Buren

These last three elections are presented without comment, not because their significance is self-evident, but indeed for the precise opposite reason.

30. 2008: Barack Obama defeats John McCain

29. 2012: Barack Obama defeats Mitt Romney

We’ll put the two most recent elections smack dab in the middle of the list and leave you to your own devices.

28. 2016

And because this one hasn’t happened yet, it goes higher than the Obama elections, but it’s also too close for comfort to rank any higher or lower. (What a cop-out, I know!)

27. 1992: Bill Clinton defeats George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot

A Perot win, as unlikely as it was given he ended up with 19% of the popular vote and no electoral votes, would have been a game changer. Overall, however, because this race was the first post-Cold War election, the stakes didn’t seem quite so high.

26. 1884: Grover Cleveland defeats James G. Blaine

25. 1888: Benjamin Harrison defeats Grover Cleveland

24. 1892: Grover Cleveland defeats Benjamin Harrison and James Weaver

Let’s group the Cleveland elections together. Weaver, leading the Populist Party ticket, was a serious third party candidate, ultimately winning 8.5% of the popular vote and 22 electoral votes in five states, making 1892 possibly the most important of these three campaigns.

23. 1928: Herbert Hoover defeats Al Smith

Although the race did not end up especially close and most expected a Hoover win, the Smith campaign represented a major precedent at the time as he became the first Roman Catholic nominee of a major party.

22. 1848: Zachary Taylor defeats Lewis Cass

21. 1852: Franklin Pierce defeats Winfield Scott

The slavery question was only getting increasingly tense as the 1840’s gave way to the 1850’s.

20. 1912: Woodrow Wilson defeats William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt

It’s hard to place this election, which featured the most realistically electable third party campaign in U.S. history. Ultimately, Wilson and Roosevelt were surprisingly close politically and Taft never stood a chance, so the 1912 election does not rank as highly as it could have.

19. 2000: George W. Bush defeats Al Gore

18. 1960: John F. Kennedy defeats Richard Nixon

1960 and 2000 were two incredibly close contests going in. They also featured popular incumbents giving way to their vice presidents, who would lose. Despite 2000 ultimately becoming more contentious and certainly more litigious, the international situation in 1960 was, as it seemed at the time (and probably as it also was in fact), exponentially more volatile, so its election clearly places ahead of 2000’s on this list. Frankly, 1960 could rank ten spots higher, but its parallels with 2000 are uncanny.

17. 1976: Jimmy Carter defeats Gerald Ford

Not a massively important election per se, but in the shadow of Watergate, it produced one of the weirdest campaigns in U.S. history, where Carter’s borderline-aw-shucks, you-can-trust-me campaign nearly wasted a 20-point edge against the man who during the debates denied that Poland was under Soviet control and whose stellar collegiate football career couldn’t save him from Chevy Chase’s wrath on TV for having fallen down a staircase. Because of Watergate, people thought they knew what they were voting for and why (even if they didn’t really), making this a moderately important election. If this were a list of the dumbest or shallowest elections in U.S. history, 1976 would be #1 by a mile, although if Donald Trump is the 2016 Republican nominee, this upcoming election will challenge 1976 for that hypothetical title.

16. 1948: Harry S. Truman defeats Thomas Dewey

While famous for the resulting edition of the Chicago Tribune, the question of the future of the New Deal still resulted in an important campaign that had real implications for the future of the country.

15. 1844: James Polk defeats Henry Clay

Although no one necessarily knew it at the time, Polk’s campaign promises would all be kept, including his proclaimed pursuit of a single term. Clay, who at 67 was 18 years older than Polk, was running his fourth and final campaign. It was America’s last chance to see what kind of president Clay might have been, but the nation was once again less than enthralled by the opportunity.

14. 1824: John Quincy Adams defeats Andrew Jackson, William Crawford, and Henry Clay

13. 1828: Andrew Jackson defeats John Quincy Adams

The uncontested 1820 election may have been the result of a so-called “good feeling,” but the two Adams-Jackson campaigns were the most vitriolic in U.S. history.

12. 1896: William McKinley defeats William Jennings Bryan

After the Democrats’ nomination of Bryan effectively co-opted the Populist Party (see 1892, #24), the chances of that movement placing a candidate in the White House grew, but the voters ultimately went with McKinley after his famous front porch campaign.

11. 1812: James Madison defeats DeWitt Clinton

With the war already underway (which war, you were about to ask before noting the year of this election), its course would be greatly determined by the outcome of this race, and everyone was aware of it. In the end, Pennsylvania or Virginia, each with 25 electoral votes, went with Madison; either one for Clinton, and he would have won.

10. 2004: George W. Bush defeats John Kerry

Unlike 2000, held just before things got really serious again after the seeming afterglow of the end of the Cold War, the stakes in 2004 were obvious to everyone, not just partisans. The direction of Iraq, and indeed the entire U.S. post-9/11 national security apparatus, would be highly shaped by the outcome of this race.

9. 1968: Richard Nixon defeats Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace

The future of the U.S. effort in Vietnam was at stake, and while Humphrey as president probably could not have ended the effort as quickly as some of the fiercer anti-war elements might have wanted, the ’68 campaign was still highly contested with much at stake.

8. 1796: John Adams defeats Thomas Jefferson

7. 1800: Thomas Jefferson defeats Aaron Burr/John Adams

The first two contested campaigns in U.S. history were hugely important. The United Kingdom and France continued to exert major influence on the country, and the Federalists and Republicans truly were far apart on important matters. Obviously, the 1800 race became important afterwards by leading to the situation that would ultimately produce the 12th Amendment and modern presidential campaigns.

6. 1940: Franklin D. Roosevelt defeats Wendell Willkie

At stake was the most important precedent in U.S. history: the self-imposed two-term limit initiated by George Washington and kept by every other future president (despite efforts by some such as Ulysses S. Grant, who tried but failed for the 1880 Republican nomination). Additionally, while World War II was still Europe’s problem at the time, it was clearly a major issue of this campaign as well.

5. 1916: Woodrow Wilson defeats Charles Hughes

Wars, or the specter thereof, greatly increase the stakes of any election, which is why wartime races dominate the upper quarter of this list. Not only was U.S. entry into the Great War the question of this campaign, but it was a nail-biter of a race, decided by 23 electoral votes. It was Wilson, of course, who campaigned on staying out of the war, only to change course in 1917.

4. 1856: James Buchanan defeats John Fremont and Millard Fillmore

With the Republican Party still in its nascence, this election was not quite as important as some that were to come very soon. However, a Fremont win would have made things really interesting, and a Fillmore win could have given us a foreshadowing of what President Donald J. Trump’s “reign” (as he frighteningly often uses to mean administration) might look like.

3. 1789: George Washington

At the beginning of this exercise we established the uncontested 1820 election as the least important in U.S. history, in large part because it was uncontested. And Washington’s reelection ranked 57th, next-to-last. Although there were technically other candidates in the first-ever presidential election, it was well-known that Washington would be picked. So why rank this election second near the top of the list? Well, one reason everyone knew Washington would be elected is because everyone knew how important it was to get this decision correct. Pick the wrong first president and the country may not survive for very long. That said, future events would prevent this race from always being the most important in history.

2. 1860: Abraham Lincoln defeats John Breckinridge, John Bell, and Stephen Douglas

1. 1864: Abraham Lincoln defeats George McClellan

It’s really pretty clear what the two most important presidential elections in U.S. history were. These races could really be 1A and 1B, but the stakes were arguably higher in 1864 because a McClellan win would have basically made the whole war for naught. Lincoln spent much of the year despondent, convinced he would lose. Imagine where U.S. history would have gone had a conciliatory President McClellan ended the war with little to no consequences whatsoever.

An argument could nonetheless be made for 1860, where it was pretty certain that a Lincoln win would have massive consequences, even if some in the south, where Lincoln was of course not on the ballot, held out hope a different candidate might win. The splintered Democratic Party ultimately got Lincoln into office with 39% of the popular vote, unleashing the greatest tragedy in U.S. history, despite the positive outcomes that eventually rose out of it after the Emancipation Proclamation forced everyone to understand that whether it was at the outset, slavery was now the seminal issue of the war.

Either way you rate these two campaigns, Lincoln’s elections were clearly the most consequential in U.S. history, and Americans certainly understood them as such before the votes were cast.

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