The 2020 Presidential Election – in Historical Context


There can be little doubt that this Presidential election has been the bitterest and most divisive in modern U.S. History. However, argument and delay is not in itself new:  the 2016 election in which Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, winning a majority in the Electoral College despite Clinton’s popular majority, was contentious and largely negative in its tone, and 2020 has been little better.  The disputed outcome this year echoes that of 2000 when George W. Bush defeated the incumbent Democratic vice-president, Al Gore, by one of the narrowest margins ever and only after the Supreme Court had stopped a recount in Florida where the issue of “hanging chads” (computer card indentations) and the counting of absentee ballots dragged on into December. Bush won the Electoral College vote 277 to 266 despite Gore’s popular majority of just over half a million votes.  Gore did not finally concede victory to Bush until 13th December.

Al Gore (Democrat) and George W. Bush (Republican) in 2000.

Thus it is clear that challenged election outcomes are not new; indeed, it is worth bearing in mind that counting is still going on and being finalised in a number of states and that Biden’s victory is still strictly speaking based at this point on projected outcomes.  This is normal: the process of counting, checking and certifying results at state level can go on up until 8th December when the result must be submitted for the Electoral College to meet, vote, and ratify the final result (largely a formality) on 14th December.  Legal battles and the refusal of one contestant to concede before that point are, however, unusual.  Even Richard Nixon (often known by critics as “Tricky Dicky”) opted not to challenge the votes in Texas and Illinois in the 1960 election that helped to secure John F. Kennedy’s victory. 

Perhaps the last election result that was this contested was that of 1876.  Following a particularly nasty contest in which both candidates hurled personal insults at one another, the Democrat Samuel J. Tilden achieved a considerable majority in the popular vote over the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. However, the results in three southern states, (Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina) were disputed. With the legacies of the Civil War and Reconstruction still very present, the dispute threatened to re-awaken armed conflict between North and South.  The Democrats were not prepared to allow the Republican dominated Supreme Court to resolve the issue, so it was finally settled by a Congressional Electoral Commission that awarded the disputed votes to Hayes, giving him a majority of 185 to 184 Electoral College votes. In the famous Compromise of 1877 the Democrats accepted this outcome in return for the withdrawal of remaining Federal troops from the South and an end to the racial policies of Reconstruction. Hayes also agreed not to seek re-election in 1880. This settlement consigned the newly freed African American population to the horrors of “Jim Crow” and racial oppression for the next 100 years.

Democrat Samuel J. Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876.

Hopefully we shall not see anything like these events in this election – it is likely that the legal challenges to the results in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona will come to nothing, or at least will not prevent Biden’s victory.  Nonetheless, it is clear that America is again bitterly divided and one looks for a conciliatory spirit to prevail in order for some semblance of harmony to prevail.

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