A few years back, if you had tuned into a TV drama depicting a presidential election in which the wife of a former president was pitted against a brash, abrasive real estate tycoon turned reality-show host, you might have grumbled about the far-fetched imagination of the script writers. But rest assured, the strange circumstances of the 2016 general election campaign aren't totally without precedent.
Throughout American history, presidential campaigns have seen so many seemingly unlikely — if not outright bizarre — twists that strangeness actually might be the rule, rather than the exception. There was the election of 1800, for example, in which an Electoral College tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr — who happened to be both from the same Democratic-Republican political party — forced the House of Representatives to spend a week and numerous votes deciding the winner. Ultimately, their choice was influenced by a member of the rival Federalist Party, Alexander Hamilton, who didn't like either man, but preferred Jefferson as the lesser of two evils. (Burr would later kill Hamilton in a duel) [source: McLaughlin].
And there was the 1896 race between Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan, in which Bryan roamed the country on a whistle-stop train tour, logging 18,000 miles (28,968 kilometers), while McKinley — who apparently couldn't be bothered to travel — chose to stay on his front porch in Canton, Ohio and give speeches to delegates. Amazingly, the voting public was fine with that, and McKinley won [source: Miller Center].
And these examples aren't even the strangest ones. So, without further ado, here's a list of 10 of the most bizarre moments in U.S. presidential elections.
The first presidential election didn't bear much resemblance to the ones we have now. For one thing, only 10 of the original 13 states were involved, since North Carolina and Rhode Island hadn't yet ratified the U.S. Constitution, and New York's legislators got involved in a time-consuming squabble and didn't get around to appointing electors in time. Additionally, it wasn't a popular election. In four states, legislators reserved for themselves the privilege of deciding who would be sent to cast votes in the Electoral College, and the remaining six states only allowed white male adults to cast ballots [source: Gordon].
But the oddest thing was that there was no real campaign with rival candidates vying for the presidency. Instead, everybody seemed to want George Washington, the general who had led the American colonies to a hard-fought victory over the British and independence. Scores of Americans sent letters to Washington's home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, telling him that his country needed him and that he could not refuse. As Washington himself jokingly a friend, "I feel very much like a man who is condemned to death does when the time of his execution draws nigh" [source: Miller Center].
Thus, when the Electoral College met in January 1789, Washington was the only president to be elected unanimously, with all 69 electors casting one of their two votes for him. John Adams, who got 34 of the remaining votes, was chosen vice president [source: Archives.gov]
There were a lot of weird things about the 1824 presidential campaign, including the odd fact that all four of the candidates — Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William Crawford and Henry Clay — belonged to the same political party, the Democratic-Republicans.
Jackson, a senator from Tennessee who'd become a popular hero as the general in the War of 1812, won the popular vote narrowly, by fewer than 39,000 votes, and garnered 99 votes in the Electoral College. John Quincy Adams, the sitting secretary of state, came in second with 84, while Treasury Secretary Crawford got 41 and Clay, who was speaker of the House, came in last with 37. But none of them had a majority.
That meant the House of Representatives had to choose a winner. Jackson figured he'd get the nod, since after all, he'd received the most popular and electoral votes. But Clay — who'd been disqualified because the House could only consider the top three — apparently had other ideas. His supporters moved their support to Adams, and, mysteriously, Congress members in states that had voted overwhelmingly for Jackson backed Adams as well. Adams was the winner, and he rewarded Clay by appointing him secretary of state.
Jackson railed against the "corrupt bargain" that had been struck, but four years later, he got his revenge by running as an anti-Washington outsider and beating Adams [source: McLaughlin].
In 1872, incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant was still riding on a wave of popularity as the military commander whose leadership helped save the Union. But Grant's support for the rights of African-Americans and his insistence upon maintaining the military occupation of the vanquished Southern states rubbed some of the less enlightened members of his own party the wrong way. They wanted to pull out the troops and let the South return to self-rule, which essentially meant white control.
Those dissenters broke off into a splinter party, which they called the Liberal Republicans. They nominated Horace Greeley, the founder of the New-York Tribune, as their presidential candidate. The Democratic Party thought he sounded pretty good, too, and also picked him as its candidate, making Greeley the only man ever to run as the standard-bearer for two parties simultaneously.
But the strange alliance didn't do Greeley much good. First, Grant proceeded to win the popular vote 56 percent to 44 percent, and picked up 286 electoral votes [source: Miller Center]. Second, Greeley died a few weeks after the election, so he didn't even get the 66 electoral votes he'd earned. Instead, they were reallocated to four minor candidates [source: Library of Congress].
Democrat Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote by just about 250,000 over Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, but he was one vote short of a majority in the Electoral College. But a cloud hung over the results in four states. The Republicans charged that Democrats had intimidated black voters in the states of Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina. And in Oregon, one of Hayes' electors was ruled ineligible because he was a federal office holder, and the Democratic governor appointed someone from his own party in the man's place.
With no clear winner two months after the election, Congress passed a law in January 1877 creating an Electoral Commission to decide the dispute, which seemed like a fair-minded solution. The commission had five legislators from each party and five Supreme Court justices — three Democrats, two Republicans and one independent, Justice David Davis. But Tilden's side made what in retrospect was a dumb miscalculation, by marshaling Democrats in the Illinois state Senate to appoint Davis to the U.S. Senate. They thought it would sway him to support Tilden, but instead, he resigned, and a Republican justice, Joseph P. Bradley, took his place. The commission then voted along party lines to give Hayes the presidency [sources: PBS, Miller Center, Supreme Court Historical Society].
Back in the early 20th century, Eugene Debs, a former railway worker and labor organizer, turned to radical politics after leading strikers in a confrontation with federal troops and spending six months in jail for contempt of court. Debs joined the Socialist Party, and ran as the party's presidential candidate in 1900, 1904, 1908 and 1912. He lost all those elections, but in 1916, he chose to run for a Congressional seat in Indiana, on a pacifist platform, and actually won.
Even then, Debs managed to get in trouble. After the U.S. joined the Allied side in World War I, Congress passed the Espionage and Sedition acts which essentially made it a crime to publicly oppose the war. After Debs ignored the law and gave an "anti-war speech" (just one line mentioned the war) in Canton, Ohio, he was arrested, tried and convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta.
But that didn't stop Debs from running for president a fifth time from behind bars. His supporters portrayed him as a martyr for civil liberties, and even likened him to Abraham Lincoln and Jesus Christ. He managed to get 919,000 votes, about 3.5 percent of the total cast. The following year, newly elected President Warren G. Harding freed him from prison [sources: PBS, Britannica, Kansasheritage.org].
The polling and pundits all pretty much agreed that Democratic incumbent Harry S. Truman was toast in this election. Republicans had taken control of Congress in 1946, and Truman's own party was divided over his hard line against the Soviet Union. His support for civil rights for African-Americans led segregationists to bolt and form the States Rights Party, which nominated Sen. Strom Thurmond from South Carolina as its candidate [source: Miller Center].
That all made Truman look hopelessly vulnerable against the Republican challenger, New York Gov. Thomas Dewey. Dewey was a stiff, awkward campaigner with a tendency toward pomposity, but he was also a progressive and quite popular. Even when Truman adopted a more folksy tone and went on a whistle-stop tour to denounce the "do-nothing" Congress, the smart money still figured he was finished [source: Miller Center, Jones].
On election night, those assumptions swayed the Chicago Tribune, one of America's biggest newspapers, to make an embarrassing mistake. Because a printers' strike forced the shorthanded paper to go to press earlier than usual, managing editor J. Loy "Pat" Maloney trusted the prediction of his Washington correspondent, Arthur Sears Henning, and went with "Dewey Defeats Truman" as the headline.
The Tribune corrected itself in its second edition that day and all might have been forgotten except that two days later, the victorious Truman held up a copy of the original front page and posed for an unforgettable photo [source: Jones].
The Democratic Party picked its presidential candidate that year under a reformed nomination system that took the power away from party bosses and put it in the hands of primary voters. The result was that an anti-establishment candidate, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, managed to grab the nomination.
McGovern, though, had difficulty finding a running mate. His first choice, Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, turned him down. Finally, he managed to recruit Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, to join him.
But at the tumultuous, rebellious convention that year, it wasn't easy to get Eagleton nominated. Six other Democratic politicians were nominated for VP, and delegates started casting votes for others as well, including fictional figures such as Archie Bunker from the TV sitcom "All in the Family."
Eagleton won but didn't last long. Two weeks later, he admitted that he had been hospitalized three times for depression and stress, and had received electric shock therapy. (Back then, background checks were minimal.) McGovern initially said he would back Eagleton "1,000 percent" regardless, but when the furor over Eagleton's mental health didn't subside, he quit the ticket. His replacement was former Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver. McGovern never recovered and lost in a landslide to incumbent Richard Nixon [source: Rudin].
In the 1980 Republican primaries, bad blood developed between former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, the eventual winner, and also-ran George H.W. Bush, who had derided his tax cut and spending proposals as "voodoo economics". So when it came time for Reagan to pick a running mate, the disliked Bush wasn't on his personal list.
Instead, Reagan toyed with a highly unorthodox idea. He wanted to pick Gerald Ford, who had served as vice president in Richard Nixon's administration, and then been elevated to the Oval Office himself when Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment in 1974. Two years later, Ford had been defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter, who was now the incumbent being challenged by Reagan. Historically, it was bizarre, but politically, it made a strange sort of sense. In surveys conducted by Reagan's pollster, Dick Wirthlin, Ford performed way ahead of other prominent Republican prospects [source: Witcover].
Reagan even met with Ford in Palm Springs before the GOP Convention to pitch the idea. But to his disappointment, Ford flatly turned him down. "He had been there and done that," as political journalist Jules Witcover later explained.
Eventually, Reagan's advisors convinced him to make peace with Bush and pick him, and they won the election [source: Witcover].
Texas billionaire independent Ross Perot was the most unorthodox candidate ever to be a serious contender for the Oval Office — at least, until Donald Trump came along [source: Weeks]. For starters, Perot announced his candidacy not in a speech, but in an appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live" talk show. (It has since become quite popular for political candidates to announce their runs on talk shows.) Perot didn't give many speeches at all, instead reaching out to voters largely through 30-minute infomercials to present his ideas on trimming the federal debt and stopping the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he opposed [source: Britannica].
With incumbent President George H.W. Bush hindered by an economic downturn and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton weakened by allegations of personal scandals, Perot had an opening, and by June 1992, he actually led in the polls [source: Britannica].
But in July, Perot suddenly dropped out of the race — and, just as suddenly, re-entered it in October. His explanation for the hiatus? He accused the Bush campaign of plotting to ruin his youngest daughter's reputation with a fake photograph, and of hiring an ex-CIA employee to hack into his computerized stock-trading [source: Richter and Fritz].
Hard evidence didn't surface, and Perot ended up losing to Clinton, though he managed to get 19 percent of the vote, the best showing of a third party since the Bull Moose Party in 1912. Perot also ran in the 1996 election but only got 8 percent of the vote [source: Britannica].
If there's an election that really left a bad taste in many Americans' mouths, this one is it. The Republican nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, and his Democratic counterpart, Vice President Al Gore, battled hard all summer, and as Election Day approached, it seemed too close to call. That evening, though, Gore appeared on his way to victory, after the major TV networks projected Gore as the winner in the important state of Florida. But at around 10 p.m., they rescinded their predictions, and instead, at 2:15 a.m., called Florida for Bush. That led Gore to call Bush and congratulate him on winning the presidency [source: Miller Center].
But Gore's concession didn't last long. After the Florida vote count showed the margin narrowing tighter and tighter, Gore called Bush again and retracted his concession. For the next month or so, the two sides battled over a recount, and voting irregularities in places such as Palm Beach County, where the format of a punch-card ballot seemed to confuse some voters.
Gore wanted a manual recount of four counties, and the Florida Supreme Court agreed with him. But, on Dec. 12, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a controversial 5-4 decision, stopped the recount. That gave Bush a victory in Florida of just 537 votes over Gore, who beat him in the nationwide popular vote by 500,000 [source: Levine].
Other countries besides the U.S. have electoral college systems. HowStuffWorks looks at some of them.
Author's Note: 10 Bizarre Moments in Presidential Elections
Years ago, as a writer for John F. Kennedy Jr.'s long-defunct political magazine George, I wrote a profile of Dwayne Andreas, an agribusiness executive and deep-pockets political contributor who was a confidante of numerous national politicians. Andreas told me that after Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential election, he asked Andreas to come to the White House, and made a strange request. Nixon wanted Andreas to help set up a rematch in four years with defeated Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, with whom he was also friendly. If Humphrey would agree to run, Nixon would help keep him in the public eye by appointing him ambassador to the United Nations, and allow Andreas to raise the then-magnificent sum of $20 million to bankroll Humphrey's campaign.
According to Andreas, Humphrey turned down Nixon's offer of the ambassador post so that he could run for his old U.S. Senate seat in Minnesota instead. Humphrey did eventually seek the 1972 presidential nomination, but lost out to another Andreas friend, Sen. George McGovern from South Dakota.
More Great Links
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- Encyclopedia Britannica. "Eugene V. Debs." Oct. 1, 2014. (Aug. 28, 2016) http://bit.ly/2bLvGH3
- Encyclopedia Britannica. "Ross Perot." April 28, 2016. (Aug. 28, 2016) http://bit.ly/2bLRD8D
- Gordon, John Steele. "The First Presidential Election and Other Firsts." American Enterprise Institute. Jan. 7, 2014. (Aug. 28, 2016) http://bit.ly/2bJXV90
- History.com. "1789: Washington unanimously elected by Electoral College to first and second terms." (Aug. 28, 2016) http://bit.ly/2bJeB0q
- Investopedia. "Voodoo Economics." (Aug. 28, 2016) http://bit.ly/2c3owMc
- Jones, Tim. "Dewey defeats Truman." Chicago Tribune. 2016. (Aug. 28, 2016) http://trib.in/2bJiqm3
- Kansas Heritage. "Eugene Victor Debs." (Aug. 28, 2016) http://bit.ly/2bLwbkr
- Levine, Samantha. "Hanging Chads: As the Florida Recount Implodes, the Supreme Court Decides Bush v. Gore." Usnews.com. Jan. 17, 2008. (Aug. 28, 2016) http://bit.ly/2bLX9YY
- Library of Congress. "Presidential Election of 1872: A Resource Guide." (Aug. 28, 2016) http://bit.ly/2bJiSAQ
- McLaughlin, Eliott C. "10 of the most bizarre elections in American history." CNN. March 14, 2016. (Aug. 28, 2016) http://cnn.it/2bJh62y
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- Miller Center. "Ulysses S. Grant: Campaigns and Elections." (Aug. 28, 2016) http://bit.ly/2bK4VTf
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- Pappas, Stephanie. "The Nastiest, Strangest Presidential Elections in US History." Livescience.com. Nov. 2, 2012. (Aug. 28, 2016) http://bit.ly/2bJgIRA
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- Richter, Ken and Fritz, Sara. "Perot Charges Plot Forced Him Out." Los Angeles Times. Oct. 26, 1992. (Aug. 28, 2016) http://lat.ms/2bLRQsN
- Rudin, Ken. "The Eagleton Fiasco of 1972." National Public Radio. March 7, 2007. (Aug. 28, 2016) http://n.pr/2bJiS3Q
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- Trex, Ethan. "Reagan and Ford Considered a Co-Presidency in 1980." Mental Floss. July 2, 2010. (Aug. 28, 2016) http://bit.ly/2bJjl68
- Weeks, Linton. "The Strangest Presidential Campaign Ever." National Public Radio. Aug. 4, 2015. (Aug. 28, 2016) http://n.pr/2bJk0V7
- Witcover, Jules. "The Dynasty That Almost Wasn't." Politico. Sept. 15, 2015. (Aug. 28, 2016) http://politi.co/2c3nIa5