The 5 Nastiest Presidential Elections Ever

Long before 24 hour cable news and social media, an election were just as nasty as they are today

There is no doubt history will write no matter who wins that the 2016 campaign between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was one of the worst of all time. It the first real social media campaign and when you add the 24-hour cable news networks to the mix this is an election playing out in real time.

But as bad as this election has been it is not by any means the worst of all time but it might make the Top 5. Because of no social media, or 24-hour cable news networks, some of the vilest presidential campaigns of all time in United States were missed.

In a story written by Matt Weeks, first published by Owlcation he took a look at some of the toughest and dirtiest races of all time. Here is what Mr. Weeks found when looking at those past elections.

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A 5

Number five was the battle between John Adams vs. Thomas Jefferson, 1800.

It started with the 1796 farewell address of our very first president George Washington issued a warning to future leaders about political parties, remarking that “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”

Almost immediately, his warning went unheeded, as John Adams and the Federalists clashed with Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans over the direction of the country in its infancy.

Adams and Jefferson shared a lifelong friendly rivalry stemming from their days as two of George Washington’s key administration officials and their differences in opinion over the proper functions of the world’s first constitutional republic. Nonetheless, their disputes occasionally turned bitter as the desire for influence in the government caused them to set aside rules of decorum.

The Election of 1800 was a rematch of the previous election, in which Adams won a narrow victory in both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Both men were determined to win at all costs, and it showed in the surrogates they sent out to attack the other. Jefferson secretly hired the famed pamphleteer James Callendar, who had previously seriously damaged the reputation of Adams’ fellow Federalist Alexander Hamilton, to paint Adams and the Federalist party as a friend to British royalty and Adams as being bent on starting a war with France in order to further an alliance with King George. More to the point, Callender described Adams as a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”

Adams’ Federalist surrogates also brought out the proverbial long knives. A Federalist publication described Jefferson as “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Allegations were made that he cheated his British creditors, was a supporter of French radicalism and assassinations of the aristocracy, and that he made a habit out of sleeping with his female slaves.

Jefferson handily defeated Adams in the Election of 1800, but tied in the Electoral college with his eventual Vice-President, Aaron Burr. The election was ultimately resolved by the House of Representatives.

A 7

In the number four spot it has to be Grover Cleveland vs. James Blaine, 1884.

New York Governor Grover Cleveland narrowly defeated Republican former United States Senator James G. Blaine of Maine to break the longest losing streak for any major party in American political history: six consecutive presidential elections.

One might think that Grover Cleveland was the Bill Clinton of his time. During his campaign, stories of his lecherousness were plentiful. One was verified, though – Cleveland, while still a bachelor, had fathered a child with a widow named Maria Halpin. He fully supported the child. So really, by today’s standards, it probably wouldn’t be that much of a scandal. No marriages ruined, no paternity tests, no child support issues. Nevertheless, the Republican party, who supported candidate James Blaine, took this and ran with it. They made up the chant, “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa?” and used it to taunt Cleveland. Blaine was no innocent, though.

He was accused of shady dealings with the railroad, which was confirmed when a letter was found in which Blaine pretty much confirmed that he knew he was involved in corrupt business – he signed the letter, “My regards to Mrs. Fisher. Burn this letter!” Cleveland’s Democrats made up their own chant based on his writings – “Burn this letter! Burn this letter!”

A 8

Number three on our list was the epic battle between Herbert Hoover vs. Al Smith, 1928

The Democratic Party’s ties to big-city machine politics had been largely diminished by the end of the 1920s. However, some Democratic politicians could not escape the specter that was conjured by the mere mention of their previous influence over American life. New York Governor Al Smith’s political career had not even begun during the prime of Tammany Hall’s influence over New York and national politics. However, the Hall had backed several of his early campaigns for public office, and though he was not personally touched by any allegations of corruption, had the proverbial black mark of the machine on his record by association.

Smith’s ties to Tammany Hall were not the only problem facing his campaign. He was an ardent opponent of Prohibition during a time where it was still considered a very controversial and sharply divisive issue. He was also the son of Irish Catholic immigrants during a period in history where anti-Catholic fervor was at an apex.

The Republicans and their supporters, who had nominated California Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover for their ticket, seized on both of these issues and spread rumors regarding Smith that would seem to modern audiences to be incredulous. Protestant ministers across the country made the claim that a President Smith would be completely beholden to the Vatican, and that the Pope himself would relocate the Holy See to the United States to rule the country if Smith won.

Republicans also characterized Smith as a notorious drunkard, owing to his stance on repealing Prohibition. Hoover’s own wife made public statements to the effect that he regularly engaged in embarrassing public behavior and that he would name an alcohol bootlegger to be the Secretary of the Treasury.

Smith was unable to counter these allegations and lost the Election of 1928 in a landslide. Hoover won 40 out of the 48 states in the Union, including Smith’s home state of New York. Smith retired to private life and became the president of the real estate development corporation that built the Empire State Building.

A 10

Number two on the list is one many overlook Lyndon Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater, 1964

The mid-1960s were a time of significant cultural change in the United States and across the globe. The threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union loomed constantly just over the horizon, the country had endured the assassination of one of its presidents, the Civil Rights movement was making inroads into mainstream political discourse and policy discussions, and the nation seemed sharply divided over how to address all of these issues. Against this backdrop, two polarizing figures squared off for the mantle of American leadership in the form of President Lyndon Johnson and Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater.

Goldwater was, in 1964, an unapologetic conservative and staunch anti-Communist, was the recipient of many televised attacks from his Republican colleagues during the primary campaign. His opponents criticized his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and labeled his call for complete defeat of the Soviet Union as a likely precursor to nuclear war. Goldwater was unwavering in his positions, paraphrasing the Roman emperor Cicero in his convention speech when he declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”

Against this backdrop, it might not have been necessary for President Johnson to employ any kind of dirty tactics against Goldwater. He could and did simply feature the statements made by Goldwater’s primary opponents in his ads. However, using the power of his office, Johnson decided to commission both the FBI and the CIA to gather intelligence on Goldwater’s campaign, going so far as to order Goldwater’s campaign plane to be bugged. Johnson’s surrogates linked Goldwater to the Ku Klux Klan, and the news media compared the 1964 GOP Convention to the atmosphere of Germany circa 1933.

Johnson also broadcast what is perhaps the most memorable campaign advertisement in the history of the United States, and perhaps the world as well. The “Daisy Ad” (displayed below) portrayed a small girl in a peaceful meadow picking the petals off of a daisy as she counted down the number of them remaining. Her voice segued into an ominous-sounding launch countdown as the camera zoomed into her eye, followed by a cut to an image of the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. After a voice-over from President Johnson extolling the importance of making a better world for our children, another voice-over informed viewers to “vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

Goldwater lost the election in a historic landslide, ushering in the modern era of negative campaigning.

A 11

The top of our list was the 1960 classic between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

The idea that Richard Nixon was cheated out of the presidency in 1960 has become almost an accepted fact. You’ve probably heard the allegations: Kennedy’s operatives fixed the tallies in Texas and Illinois, giving him those states’ 51 electoral votes and a majority in the Electoral College. Fearing that to question the results would harm the country, Nixon checked his pride and declined to mount a challenge.

At the time the lackluster candidate Nixon, later driven from the presidency for cheating in an election, puts country before personal gain. Faced a beloved Kennedy, waltzing through life, pulls off the political crime of the century. Nixon’s defenders like the story because it diminishes Watergate. His detractors like it since it allows them to appear less than knee-jerk—magnanimously crediting Nixon with noble behavior while eluding charges of Kennedy worship.

The race was indeed close—the closest of the century. Kennedy received only 113,000 votes more than Nixon out of the 68 million ballots cast. His 303-219 electoral-vote margin obscured the fact that many states besides Texas and Illinois could have gone either way. California’s 32 electoral votes, for example, originally fell into Kennedy’s column, but Nixon claimed them on Nov. 17 after absentee ballots were added.

Texas and Illinois, the two largest states under dispute, witnessed the nastiest fights. In Texas, where Kennedy won the 24 electoral votes by a margin of 46,000 ballots, the GOP took to the courts. But its suits were thrown out by a federal judge who claimed he had no jurisdiction. In Illinois, the appeal was pursued more vigorously, maybe because the electoral take was higher (27) and Kennedy’s margin slimmer (9,000 votes). Charges focused on Cook County (specifically Chicago) where Kennedy had won by a suspiciously overwhelming 450,000 votes.

National GOP officials plunged in. Thruston Morton flew to Chicago to confer with Illinois Republican leaders on strategy, while party Treasurer Meade Alcorn announced Nixon would win the state. With Nixon distancing himself from the effort, the Cook County state’s attorney, Benjamin Adamowski, stepped forward to lead the challenge. A Daley antagonist and potential rival for the mayoralty, Adamowski had lost his job to a Democrat by 25,000 votes. The closeness of his defeat entitled him to a recount, which began Nov. 29.

Completed Dec. 9, the recount of 863 precincts showed that the original tally had undercounted Nixon’s (and Adamowski’s) votes, but only by 943, far from the 4,500 needed to alter the results. In fact, in 40 percent of the rechecked precincts, Nixon’s vote was overcounted. Displeased, the Republicans took the case to federal court, only to have a judge dismiss the suits. Still undeterred, they turned to the State Board of Elections, which was composed of four Republicans, including the governor, and one Democrat. Yet the state board, too, unanimously rejected the petition, citing the GOP’s failure to provide even a single affidavit on its behalf. The national party finally backed off after Dec. 19, when the nation’s Electoral College certified Kennedy as the new president—but even then local Republicans wouldn’t accept the Illinois results.

A recount did wind up changing the winner in one state: Hawaii. On Dec. 28, a circuit court judge ruled that the state—originally called Kennedy’s but awarded to Nixon after auditing errors emerged—belonged to Kennedy after all. Nixon’s net gain: -3 electoral votes.

The GOP’s failure to prove fraud doesn’t mean, of course, that the election was clean. That question remains unsolved and unsolvable. But what’s typically left out of the legend is that multiple election boards saw no reason to overturn the results. Neither did state or federal judges. Neither did an Illinois special prosecutor in 1961. And neither have academic inquiries into the Illinois case (both a 1961 study by three University of Chicago professors and more recent research by political scientist Edmund Kallina concluded that whatever fraud existed wasn’t substantial enough to alter the election).

On the other hand, some fraud clearly occurred in Cook County. At least three people were sent to jail for election-related crimes, and 677 others were indicted before being acquitted by Judge John M. Karns, a Daley crony. Many of the allegations involved practices that wouldn’t be detected by a recount, leading the conservative Chicago Tribune, among others, to conclude that “once an election has been stolen in Cook County, it stays stolen.” What’s more, according to journalist Seymour Hersh, a former Justice Department prosecutor who heard tapes of FBI wiretaps from the period believed that Illinois was rightfully Nixon’s. Hersh also has written that J. Edgar Hoover believed Nixon actually won the presidency but in deciding to follow normal procedures and refer the FBI’s findings to the attorney general—as of Jan. 20, 1961, Robert F. Kennedy—he effectively buried the case.

In the Nixon chose not to contest the election despite plenty of reasons to go forward with an investigation. He did because he felt it was in the best interest of the country with the best interest of the country in mind.

So as you see history has had some tough and dirty campaigns but the United States have survived. So, no matter who wins this election the country will still be around long after November 8, 2016 with either President Trump or Clinton in charge.

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Jim Williams is the Washington Bureau Chief, Digital Director as well as the Director of Special Projects for Genesis Communications. He is starting his third year as part of the team. This is Williams 40th year in the media business, and in that time he has served in a number of capacities. He is a seven time Emmy Award winning television producer, director, writer and executive. He has developed four regional sports networks, directed over 2,000 live sporting events including basketball, football, baseball hockey, soccer and even polo to name a few sports. Major events include three Olympic Games, two World Cups, two World Series, six NBA Playoffs, four Stanley Cup Playoffs, four NCAA Men’s National Basketball Championship Tournaments (March Madness), two Super Bowl and over a dozen college bowl games. On the entertainment side Williams was involved s and directed over 500 concerts for Showtime, Pay Per View and MTV Networks.