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Memorable Elections

With the chance to serve as chief executive of the world’s premier power at stake, the race for the U.S. presidency has delivered its share of hotly contested elections between the Democratic Party, Republican Party and various third-party candidates. 

Donald Trump became the fifth president to win despite losing the popular vote in 2016, joining the ranks of George W. Bush (2000)—who didn’t win until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a Florida recount to be unconstitutional; Benjamin Harrison (1888); Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), who moved to the White House only after a controversial electoral commission helped him overcome a massive popular-vote deficit in 1877; and John Quincy Adams, whose 1824 election was the first year the popular vote was counted. 

These presidents aren’t alone in unusual election stories; Harry S. Truman won in 1948 despite the publication of a newspaper that announced otherwise. Here are some of the United States’ most memorable presidential elections.

2016

Candidates: Hillary Clinton (Democrat), Donald Trump (Republican), Jill Stein (Green Party), Gary Johnson (Libertarian)

Winner: Donald Trump

Popular Vote: 65,844,610 (Clinton) to 62,979,636 (Trump)

Electoral College: 227 (Clinton) to 304 (Trump)

  • The 2016 election was one of five elections in U.S. history in which the winner of the electoral votes did not carry the popular vote.
  • Hillary Clinton was the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major party.
  • Trump was the first president in more than 60 years with no experience serving in Congress or as a governor (the only others were Dwight Eisenhower and Herbert Hoover).
  • At the age of 70, Trump was the oldest president in U.S. history (Ronald Reagan was 69 when he was sworn in).
  • Slogans: Clinton’s "I'm With Her" vs. Trump’s "Make America Great Again”—a slogan that was immortalized on red “MAGA” baseball hats.
  • "Lock her up" and The Clinton email scandal: Clinton’s opponents, referring to her as “Crooked Hillary,” watched carefully as the FBI investigated Clinton’s possible improper use of her personal email server during her time as secretary of state. The FBI concluded in July 2016 that no charges should be made in the case. But days before the election, FBI Director James Comey informed Congress the FBI was investigating more Clinton emails. On November 6, two days before the election, Comey reported to Congress that the additional emails did not change the agency’s prior report.
  • Historic upset: In the days leading up to Election Day, Clinton led in nearly all polls. According to exit polls, however, Trump won thanks to his ability to consolidate the support of white voters and minority and lower-income groups.
  • The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a report in January 2017 concluding that the Russians interfered with the election. Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey. Then former FBI director Robert Mueller was appointed as special counsel to investigate possible collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign.
  • Mueller submitted his report to the Justice Department in March 2019, finding no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, but concluding Russian interference occurred "in sweeping and systematic fashion." 

2000

Candidates:Al Gore (Democrat), George W. Bush (Republican), Ralph Nader (Green Party), Patrick Buchanan (conservative populist), Harry Browne (Libertarian)
Winner: George W. Bush
Popular Vote: 50,996,582 (Gore) to 50, 465,062 (Bush)
Electoral College: 271 (Bush) to 266 (Gore)

  • The 2000 election was one of four elections in U.S. history in which the winner of the electoral votes did not carry the popular vote.
  • Gore conceded on election night, but retracted his concession when he learned that the vote in Florida was too close to call. A recount of the Florida votes ensued, but was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Ralph Nader has formally run for president four times; the first time was in 1996. He was also a write-in candidate in 1992.

1960

Candidates:John F. Kennedy (Democrat), Richard M. Nixon (Republican)
Winner: John F. Kennedy
Popular Vote: 34,226,731 (Kennedy) to 34,108,157 (Nixon)
Electoral College: 303 (Kennedy) to 219 (Nixon)

  • With his victory by a scant 120,000 votes, the 43-year-old Kennedy became the youngest-ever U.S. president. Nixon was 47–only four years older.
  • Voters feared that Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, might be controlled by the Catholic Church. He was the nation’s first–and only–Catholic U.S. president. (in 2009, Joe Biden became the country’s first Catholic vice president.)
  • Kennedy’s relaxed demeanor and telegenic looks gave him the edge in four televised debates; many credit these debates for his eventual victory.

1948

Candidates: Harry S Truman (Democrat), Thomas E. Dewey (Republican), J. Strom Thurmond (States’ Rights Democrat or “Dixiecrat”), Henry Wallace (Progressive), Norman Thomas (Socialist)
Winner: Harry S Truman
Popular Vote: 24,179,345 (Truman) to 21,991,291 (Dewey)
Electoral College: 303 (Truman) to 189 (Dewey)

  • Thomas Dewey, the governor of New York, had run for president once before, against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, and lost in a close race.
  • Truman, FDR’s vice president, became president on April 12, 1945, after Roosevelt’s death.
  • Truman was seen as an underdog going into the 1948 election–so much so that the Chicago Tribune printed newspapers with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” A picture of the victorious Truman holding the newspaper is one of the most famous photos in U.S. history.
  • Thurmond won 39 electoral votes.

1888

Candidates:Benjamin Harrison (Republican), Grover Cleveland (Democrat), Clinton Fisk (Prohibition), Alson Streeter (Union Labor)
Winner: Benjamin Harrison
Popular Vote: 5,534,488 (Cleveland) to 5,443,892 (Harrison)
Electoral College: 233 (Harrison) to 168 (Cleveland

  • Harrison lost the popular vote by about 90,000, but was able to win the Electoral College, thanks largely to victories in two swing states: New York and Indiana.
  • Although Grover Cleveland, the 22nd president, lost his re-election campaign in 1888 against Harrison, he returned to the White House in 1893 as the 24th president.
  • Benjamin Harrison was the grandson of President William Henry Harrison, who died of pneumonia in 1841, just one month after taking office.

1876

Candidates:Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican), Samuel Tilden (Democrat), Peter Cooper (Greenback)
Winner: Rutherford B. HayesPopular Vote: 4,286,808 (Tilden) to 4,034,142 (Hayes)
Electoral College: 184 (Tilden) to 165 (Hayes) – with 20 votes disputed 185 (Hayes) to 184 (Tilden) – final tally

  • Because of disputed returns from several states and accusations that one Oregon elector was ineligible, neither candidate was able to capture the 185 electoral votes needed for victory. The Senate and House of Representatives deadlocked on how to count the votes and finally agreed to establish an electoral commission, which after an independent member had to drop out, was made up of eight Republicans and seven Democrats. The commission gave the election to Hayes (8-7). Congressional Democrats then used a series of stalling tactics to delay confirmation of the vote. Eventually, in what many believe to be a compromise in which the Republicans agreed to a conciliatory attitude toward the South (in the midst of Reconstruction) in return for a Hayes presidency, some Democrats began to support Hayes. Congress confirmed his election on March 2, 1877.
  • Angered by the results of the election, some Northern Democrats referred to Hayes as “his Fraudulency.”
  • After becoming president, Hayes announced he would serve just one term, and was true to his word.


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