The New York Times on Critical Elections, 1854-2008


Edited by: Gerald M. Pomper

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    About TimesReference from CQ Press

    The books in the TimesReference from CQ Press series present unique documentary histories on a range of topics. The lens through which the histories are viewed is the original reporting of The New York Times and its many generations of legendary reporters.

    Each book consists of documents selected from The New York Times newspaper accompanied by original narrative written by a scholar or content expert that provides context and analysis. The documents are primarily news articles but also include editorials, op-ed essays, letters to the editor, columns, and news analyses. Some are presented with full text; others, because of length, have been excerpted. Ellipses indicate omitted text. Using the headline and date as search criteria, readers can find the full text of all articles in The Times' online Archive at, which includes all of The Times' articles since the newspaper began publication in 1851.

    The Internet age has revolutionized the way news is delivered, which means that there is no longer only one version of a story. Today, breaking news articles that appear on The Times' Web site are written to provide up-to-the-minute coverage of an event and therefore may differ from the article that is published in the print edition. Content could also differ between early and late editions of the day's printed paper. As such, some discrepancies between versions may be present in these volumes.

    The books are illustrated with photographs and other types of images. While many of these appeared in the print or online edition of the paper, not all were created by The Times, which, like many newspapers, relies on wire services for photographs. There are also editorial features in these books that did not appear in The Times—they were created or selected by CQ Press to enhance the documentary history being told. For example, in The New York Times on Critical Elections, 1854–2008, electoral and popular vote return boxes help readers crunch the numbers as they read about the highlights of each election.

    Readers will note that many articles are introduced by several levels of headlines—especially in pieces from the paper's early years. This was done to emphasize the importance of the article. For very important stories, banner headlines stretch across the front page's many columns; every attempt has been made to include these with the relevant articles. Over the years, The Times added datelines and bylines at the beginning of articles.

    Typographical and punctuation errors are the bane of every publisher's existence. Because all of the documents included in this book were re-typeset, CQ Press approached these problems in several different ways. Archaic spellings from the paper's early days appear just as they did in the original documents (for example, “employe” rather than “employee”). CQ Press corrected minor typographical errors that appeared in the original articles to assist readers' comprehension. In some cases, factual or other errors have been marked [sic]; where the meaning would be distorted, corrections have been made in brackets where possible.

    About the Author

    Gerald M. Pomper is the Board of Governors Professor of Political Science (emeritus) at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He also held visiting professorships at Tel Aviv, Oxford, Northeastern, and Australian National Universities. Among his twenty books and many articles, he was editor and coauthor of a quadrennial series on national elections from 1976 to 2000, and he contributed chapters on the presidential election to CQ Press's books The Elections of 2004 and The Elections of 2008. A new edition of his book On Ordinary Heroes and American Democracy, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, was reissued in 2007. Pomper has been honored for career achievement by the American Political Science Association; has served as an expert witness on campaign finance, reapportionment, and political party regulation; and provided commentary for CBS radio at the national party conventions in 2008.


    When the New York Daily Times began reporting on September 18, 1851, it covered American politics, world news, and local events in four pages and sold for a penny. When The New York Times ran a banner headline—OBAMA—on November 5, 2008, it covered American politics in a very different city and world, and it sold its hundreds of Sunday newsprint pages for $4.00 and freely distributed its reports in millions of computer bytes.

    This volume recounts the history of American politics during the 158 years of publication by The Times, combining analyses of critical elections during the period with extensive excerpts from the newspaper's reports and interpretations. The focus is on presidential and congressional elections that were historically critical in the evolution of the political parties, public policy, and national development in the United States. We examine fifteen presidential contests, from the triumphs of Lincoln to the promise of Obama, and six congressional campaigns, from 1854 to 1994. Together, they provide a chronological canvas of the American political landscape—with its varied leaders and voters, its changing shapes, its lights and shadows, and its vivid colors.

    The Parties

    American elections are not just contests among candidates; rather, they are disputes among political parties, reflecting the common views and strategic alliances of individual politicians. Although the framers of the Constitution feared what James Madison berated as “the mischief of faction,” parties became established institutions early in the new Republic.1 And Madison himself organized the first mass party. Originally termed “Republican,” it soon evolved into the modern Democratic Party.

    Even before The Times began publication, the United States had passed through two stages of party development. Soon after the implementation of the new Constitution and the unanimous selection of George Washington as president, political leaders divided between Federalists and Republicans, who held power for a quarter of a century beginning with the victory of Thomas Jefferson in 1800.

    The second American party system emerged in 1824–1828, reflecting the extension of mass suffrage among white men. 1 The Democratic Party's successors to Jefferson competed vigorously with the new Whig Party, and both factions were active throughout the expanding nation. Although Democrats won most presidential elections, the results were close, and power alternated frequently between the two major parties.

    This party system was fated to die as the nation faced “irrepressible conflict” on the issue of slavery, just as The Times began publication. Soon a new Republican Party—whose leaders included the paper's first editor, Henry Raymond—would challenge the extension of slavery to western territories and, with Abraham Lincoln in the White House, lead the nation in the causes of union and emancipation.

    Since then, the history of American elections has been the story of the Republican and Democratic Parties and how, over time, voters created different party balances between these opponents. For the rest of the nineteenth century, amid intense competition, Republicans won all the presidential elections, except for Grover Cleveland's two victories, and they usually controlled Congress. A new party alignment emerged in 1896, leading to another streak of Republican victories interrupted by Progressives' successes, most notably in the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.

    Party fortunes reversed with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, as Democrats became the country's majority party and defined a new national agenda. Led by Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal, the Democrats won seven of the next nine presidential elections and held majorities in Congress in all but four years from 1930 to 1994. During those decades, national policy continued to reflect the Democratic heritage of the New Deal and the turn of the United States to world leadership.

    Eventually, Democratic dominance faded.1 Republicans began to win the White House again in 1968 and regained congressional control in 1994. New issues, new voting alignments, and new leaders, such as Ronald Reagan, repainted the political landscape during this era. But neither party could fully dominate politics. After each presidential contest or congressional overturn, observers would see the emergence of a new long-term majority party, only to witness the vanquished soon reclaim the seats of power. As the twenty-first century began, the only certainty was continued and vigorous competition.

    Even as they have alternated in power, the parties also have changed their character considerably. In their prime, the nineteenth century, party organizations dominated elections. In almost militaristic fashion, they selected candidates, raised funds, organized campaigns, spread party messages, and herded devoted voters to the polls.

    During the twentieth century, parties became weaker in some respects. Altered electoral laws and the adoption of primary nominations loosened their control over candidate selection. New funding developed from interest groups, individual contributors, wealthy aspirants, and through public financing, even from government. Campaign communication came to be dominated by mass media independent of the parties. Elections centered on candidates, who still shared their party's identity, but who bore their allegiance as voluntary obligations, not as compulsory fealty.

    Nevertheless, the parties continued to be the major institutional drivers of electoral combat and have even strengthened as the nation entered its third century of competitive elections. The parties have become more centralized in contrast to past loose alliances of state organizations. They raise large amounts of money and provide campaign expertise for candidates running on their tickets. Voters have become more open-minded but also more committed to their chosen party's doctrines, and representatives evidence strong cohesion in their legislative votes and programs. American politics remains party politics.

    The Patterns of American Elections

    American political history is diverse. It evidences combinations of bedrock stability, long-term changes, and rapid transformations.

    Stability is particularly characteristic of the formal electoral system. As laid out in the Constitution, the president is chosen by electoral votes distributed among the states, each allotted the number of votes equal to its combined representation in the Senate and House. Each state decides the method of determining its electoral vote. For almost all presidential contests, each state casts its ballots for the candidate who receives a plurality of its statewide popular votes. A majority of all the states' ballots is required to choose the president; if no candidate receives a majority, the president is chosen by the House of Representatives.

    This electoral system has been the foundation for the stability of party competition. To win the single national office of the presidency—to gain the required electoral majority—politicians must form multistate coalitions. Their best chance of success comes when they consolidate in only two competing parties; defections and splits are punished by the electoral math. A similar effect is seen in congressional elections, which have long required single-member districts with winners chosen by plurality vote.

    These structural constraints have made the history of U.S. elections principally the story of two strong, competitive, and skilled political parties. Every one of the campaigns presented in this volume was primarily a contest between the Republican and Democratic Parties. In the fifteen reported races for president, Republicans won six outright and two in dubious circumstances (1876 and 2000), and Democrats won seven. The parties evenly split the six congressional contests. Although the record is less balanced over all elections (Republicans have won twenty-one of forty presidential elections outright, as well as two disputed contests), the two major parties have consistently split the spoils of power. Their matched success over the long run testifies to the stability and equilibrium of the American political system.

    But American elections also reflect the accumulated effects of underlying trends. The United States has always been a dynamic nation, its history marked by economic development, racial and ethnic divisions, and its emergence during the twentieth century as the most powerful nation in the world. This turmoil has often led to political transformations, particularly evident in the contests reported in this volume.

    Some political change has been gradual. Over the years, the voting population has grown exponentially but steadily, both through natural increase and massive immigration, and through the extension of the franchise to new groups—women, racial minorities, and youth. In the years of The Times publication the popular vote has grown from 3 million in 1852 to 131 million in 2008, with the number of participating states increasing from thirty to fifty. Partisan loyalties have shifted, eroded, and strengthened as Republicans and Democrats have traded their positions in the competition for ballots.

    Elections in the United States sometimes have marked rapid and major departures in national politics, but these “critical elections” in American history are not always self-evident. Every election has consequences, at least for the candidates, and often for the paths the country takes in domestic and foreign policy. The contests reported here stand out because of some distinctive characteristics.

    The most common feature of critical elections is economic upheaval. The cyclical downturns in the U.S. business cycle are often paralleled by the altered fortunes of the political parties. The connection between the economy and politics can be seen in these chapters as early as the congressional elections of 1874. This connection is dramatically evident in the triumph of FDR's New Deal in 1932–1936 during the Great Depression and as a major reason for Barack Obama's victory in 2008.

    Critical elections also come from national trauma. Clearly the greatest ordeal in U.S. history, the Civil War made Lincoln's two elections crucial for the Union's survival. Tensions between North and South based on racial antagonisms affected the first election considered here, the congressional contest of 1854, as well as later presidential elections from 1876 to the 1960s and on to the present day. Foreign wars also have affected American politics, as in the elections following World War II (1946 and 1952) and during Vietnam in 1968 and the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts in 2008.

    Other changes have been less violent but still wrenching. Economic and social transformations of the United States were reflected at the turn of the centuries in the elections of 1896 and 2000. Political mobilizations, such as the Progressive movement in 1910 and 1912 and the civil rights movement in 1960 and 1964, spurred electoral change. Sometimes the American electorate is simply eager for change in its leadership and chooses new but inconsistent paths, as in the successive victories from 1974 to 1994 of congressional Democrats, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and congressional Republicans.

    Scholarly Analysis

    We use the term critical elections to designate major turning points in American history. In academic research, that term is used more precisely and has given rise to disputatious studies.

    Scholarship on the subject began with an influential article by the distinguished political scientist, V. O. Key. He called attention to unusually significant elections when “the decisive results of the voting reveal a sharp alteration of the pre-existing cleavage within the electorate” and “the realignment made manifest in the voting in such elections seems to persist for several succeeding elections.” 1 Illustrating the concept, Key pointed to the transformation of voting alignments in New England before the New Deal and in the presidential election of 1896.

    Decades of research by other scholars extended the concept, including attempts to find statistical markers of critical elections,1 to determine whether critical realignments extended over one or multiple elections,1 and to describe the varieties of electoral change.1 In later works, scholars developed theories to connect election transformations to political issues and leadership1 and to broader social cleavages and social changes, particularly race.1

    Analysts have devoted considerable attention to locating regular cycles during the history of elections, often seeing patterns of periodic changes. The most prominent exponent of periodic change is Walter Dean Burnham, who attributes the cyclical transformations of national politics to the inability of inflexible American governmental institutions to deal with the tensions of economic development and social change. Because of these tensions, Burnham argued, major transformations in the political system have occurred about every thirty years, once in each generation, throughout American history.1 The same pattern is found by Paul Beck, who attributes this regularity more directly to generational turnover in the electorate.1

    Relying on the idea of regular electoral realignment, analysts have divided American history into a succession of party systems. Beginning with the early patterns of Federalists versus Republicans and Whigs versus Democrats, they have sketched as many as six distinct systems, including the close party competition after the Civil War, Republican ascendancy at the onset of the twentieth century, the New Deal Democratic hegemony, the return of Republican dominance after 1968, and a possible new Democratic majority in the new century.1

    Recently, some scholars have moved away from the concept of party realignment in critical elections. They see the research as fruitless because of the imprecision of the concept; others think that parties have become too weakened as autonomous institutions to be the carriers of major political change.1 The broadest critique has come from David Mayhew, who applies precise statistical measures to test the theory. Finding it inadequate, he writes a concluding epitaph for the genre: “The realignments perspective had its fruitful days, but it is too slippery, too binary, too apocalyptic, and it has come to be too much of a dead end.”1

    The Critical Elections

    The elections included in this volume do not fit a pure pattern of periodic realignments. They reflect not only shifts in electoral coalitions but also changes in other aspects of American political history. New campaign methods, the social changes in the population, and the impact of issues as diverse as race, war, and economic trauma all contribute to political realignments.

    Although the formal electoral system remains stable, campaigning has evolved in radical ways. When communication and travel were difficult, campaigning was local and interpersonal, featuring street rallies, torchlight parades, and shouted oratory. As literacy spread and printing costs fell, the parties turned to print media to spread their messages. As railroads engirded the nation and airplanes shrank continental distances, candidates abandoned their front porches to barnstorm in whistle-stops and rallies among the growing electorate. When new mass media entered voters' homes, politics came to radio and television. When the Internet displaced communications on paper, campaigners made their appeals by e-mail and blogs. As dizzying technological innovations threaten to make print newspapers obsolete and political parties irrelevant, candidates, supporters, and foes will make greater use of instant messaging, twittering, and innovations still unknown.

    Significant elections are not uncommon; they appear at least once in all but three of the decades covered by The Times. The interval between these major events has been as few as four years but not more than twenty. As would be expected, political changes coincide most often with the election of a new president, but major impacts have also come from the reelection of three incumbents—Lincoln, FDR, and Lyndon Johnson. Party turnover has been a hallmark of the major contests, occurring in all but one presidential and one congressional balloting.

    The contests designated here as critical elections are listed in the table below and then presented in chronological order in the specific chapters of this book. The essays, headnotes, and extensive excerpts of articles reprinted from The Times present a tableau of American history in a format designed to combine modern retrospective analysis with the immediate reports on contemporary politics by the nation's premier newspaper.

    This history of American elections is a continuing, uninterrupted story; its chapters are soundings in an ever-flowing stream. Yet there are markers of distinct pools in U.S. electoral periods. The chronological sequence of the following chapters comprises the onset of the Civil War and its conclusion (1854, 1860, 1864); the waning of Reconstruction and the emergence of national Republican dominance (1874, 1876, 1896); the triumph of reform culminating in the New Deal (1910, 1912, 1932, 1936); American turbulence after World War II and the travails of the 1960s (1946, 1952, 1960, 1964, 1968); and the divisions of an increasingly ideological politics (1974, 1980, 1992, 1994, 2000, 2008). These pools sometimes have been murky, sometimes stagnant, sometimes refreshing. But the currents of American politics have always found a way to continue their course. Competitive elections are the hallmark of democratic politics. Americans take the system for granted as their unquestionable national inheritance. But the peaceful assumption and transfer of power is as precious and as rare in the world today as it was in the past. The United States, uniquely and longer than any other nation, has held to its founding premise, that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” To grasp the sweep and wonder of democracy, read on to the stories of America's political life.


    John Aldrich, Why Parties? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

    Richard P. McCormick, The Second American Party System (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966).

    David Lawrence, The Collapse of the Democratic Presidential Majority (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996).

    V. O. Key Jr., “A Theory of Critical Elections,” Journal of Politics 17 (February 1955): 3–18.

    Gerald M. Pomper, Elections in America (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1968), ch. 5.

    V. O. Key Jr., “Secular Realignment and the Party System,” Journal of Politics 21 (May 1959): 198–210.

    Jerome M. Clubb, William H. Flanigan, and Nancy H. Zingale, Partisan Realignment (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1980).

    James L. Sundquist, Dynamics of the Party System (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, rev. ed., 1983).

    Edward G. Carmines and James A. Stimson, Issue Evolution: Race and the Transformation of American Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

    Walter Dean Burnham, Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics (New York: Norton, 1970); “Realignment Lives: The 1994 Earthquake and Its Implications,” in Colin Campbell and Bert A. Rockman, eds., The Clinton Presidency: First Appraisals (Chatham, N.J.: Chatham House, 1996), 363–395.

    Paul Beck, “A Socialization Theory of Partisan Realignment,” in Richard Niemi et al., The Politics of Future Citizens (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1974), ch. 10.

    William N. Chambers and Walter Dean Burnham, eds., The American Party Systems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967); John H. Aldrich, “Political Parties in a Critical Era,” American Politics Quarterly 27 (January 1999): 9–32.

    Byron E. Shafer, ed., The End of Realignment? (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), particularly chapter 2, Everett C. Ladd, “Like Waiting for Godot: The Uselessness of ‘Realignment’ for Understanding Change in Contemporary American Politics.”

    David Mayhew, Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 165.

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