10 Historic Presidential Election Upsets

Presidential elections often hold surprises that defy the predictions of pollsters and pundits alike. Throughout U.S. history, several elections have resulted in unexpected outcomes, leaving voters and analysts astonished.

These upsets serve as reminders of the unpredictable nature of democracy, showcasing moments when underdogs triumphed against the odds. From early elections to more recent contests, the instances of surprising victories have shaped the political landscape in profound ways.

1) Thomas Jefferson vs. John Adams (1800)

John Adams

The presidential election of 1800 was a fierce contest between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. This election marked the fourth in U.S. history. It was notable for its highly contentious nature.

The race ended in an unprecedented tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr, both receiving 73 electoral votes. The result sent the decision to the House of Representatives.

Amid strong campaigns and intense political maneuvering, Alexander Hamilton played a crucial role. He sided with Jefferson over Burr, despite being a political rival of Jefferson. After 35 ballots, Jefferson emerged as the president, and Burr as vice president.

This election led to political realignment, strengthening the Democratic-Republican Party while weakening the Federalists. It highlighted the divisions within the early political landscape of the United States.

The election of 1800 also brought about significant changes in the electoral process. It ultimately led to the 12th Amendment, which changed how presidents and vice presidents were elected.

Adding to its historical significance, this election was often referred to as the “Revolution of 1800.” It demonstrated a peaceful transfer of power between rival political parties, establishing a precedent for future U.S. elections.

2) Andrew Jackson vs. John Quincy Adams (1828)

Andrew Jackson

The presidential election of 1828 pitted Andrew Jackson against the incumbent John Quincy Adams. This election is notable for its intense and bitter campaigning.

Andrew Jackson, a war hero, appealed to the common people. He positioned himself as a champion of the average American. His supporters used slogans and rallies to gain votes.

John Quincy Adams, on the other hand, represented the established political class. His campaign attacked Jackson’s character and past actions. The rhetoric was harsh, with accusations flying from both sides.

This election marked the rise of new political parties. The Democratic Party supported Jackson, while Adams was backed by the National Republicans. This was a shift from previous elections where party lines were less defined.

Jackson’s victory was decisive. He won the popular vote by a substantial margin. The electoral vote also strongly favored Jackson, reflecting his broad appeal.

This election demonstrated the growing power of public opinion. It also showed the effectiveness of organized political campaigns. The strategies used would shape future American elections.

3) Abraham Lincoln vs. Stephen A. Douglas (1860)

Abraham Lincoln

The 1860 presidential election was a pivotal moment in American history. Abraham Lincoln, a relatively unknown figure outside Illinois, faced Stephen A. Douglas, a prominent senator from the same state.

Lincoln’s main competitors for the Republican nomination were William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates. Despite their strong credentials, Lincoln secured the nomination.

Stephen A. Douglas, a Northern Democrat, was one of four candidates in the election. The other candidates were John C. Breckinridge of the Southern Democrats and John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party. This division among his opponents played to Lincoln’s advantage.

Lincoln focused on stopping the spread of slavery, which appealed to Northern voters. His stance helped him win most Northern states.

Even though he received only 40% of the popular vote, Lincoln won the electoral college with 180 electoral votes. Douglas, on the other hand, struggled to gain significant support outside the North.

Lincoln’s victory led to significant political upheaval. Southern states saw his win as a threat to their way of life and began to secede from the Union, leading to the Civil War.

The election of 1860 remains one of the most significant and dramatic in U.S. history, showcasing the deep divisions within the nation.

4) Rutherford B. Hayes vs. Samuel J. Tilden (1876)

Rutherford Hayes

The presidential election of 1876 between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden was among the most disputed in U.S. history. Tilden, the Democratic candidate, won the popular vote and initially appeared to lead in the electoral college.

However, the results in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina were highly contested. Both parties claimed victory in these states. This deadlock led to an unprecedented situation where 19 electoral votes were in dispute.

To resolve the impasse, Congress set up a special electoral commission. This commission, comprising both Democrats and Republicans, was tasked with determining which candidate would get the contested votes.

After much deliberation and some back-room negotiations, the commission awarded all 19 disputed votes to Hayes, the Republican candidate. This decision gave him a one-vote advantage in the electoral college, securing his presidency.

This election is often remembered for its intense controversy and the measures taken to resolve the disagreement. It also highlighted the deep divisions and complexities within the American electoral system at the time.

5) Woodrow Wilson vs. Charles Evans Hughes (1916)

Woodrow Wilson

The 1916 United States presidential election was tightly contested between incumbent President Woodrow Wilson and Republican candidate Charles Evans Hughes. Wilson, a Democrat, had already served one term. The campaign was intense, with America’s stance on World War I playing a central role.

Hughes, a former Supreme Court Justice, was seen as a compromise candidate for the Republicans. The election’s outcome was uncertain for days as votes were counted.

California’s results were crucial. Wilson won California by a slim margin of 3,420 votes. This narrow win in a key state secured his reelection. Hughes did not concede immediately, waiting over two weeks for the final results.

Woodrow Wilson’s victory made him the first Democrat since Andrew Jackson to win two consecutive terms. The close nature of the election and its decisive moment in California highlight its place in history as a significant political upset.

6) Harry S. Truman vs. Thomas E. Dewey (1948)

Harry S. Truman

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman ran for re-election against New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey. Most people believed Dewey would win. Polls and newspapers predicted Dewey’s victory.

Truman’s campaign faced many challenges. He had become president in 1945 after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death. Many doubted his ability to lead. Economic issues and his blunt style also hurt his popularity.

Despite the odds, Truman campaigned tirelessly. He traveled across the country by train, giving speeches from the back of his train car. This effort engaged many voters who felt he understood their problems.

On election night, the results shocked the nation. Against all predictions, Truman won the election. The famous Chicago Tribune headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman,” highlighted the surprise and error in the predictions.

Truman’s victory is remembered as one of the biggest upsets in U.S. presidential election history. His effective campaigning and connection with ordinary voters played a crucial role in his unexpected success.

7) John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon (1960)

John F. Kennedy

In 1960, the United States saw one of the most notable presidential elections. John F. Kennedy, a Democrat and Richard Nixon, a Republican, were the main contenders. It was the first time both candidates debated on television.

Kennedy was a young senator from Massachusetts. Nixon was the incumbent Vice President. Their first debate took place on September 26, 1960. This debate was historical as it was the first televised presidential debate in U.S. history.

Millions of Americans watched the Kennedy-Nixon debates on TV. Those who watched thought Kennedy won. His confident appearance and charisma impressed viewers. People who listened on the radio, however, felt Nixon did better.

Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic president and the youngest elected. On November 8, 1960, he won the election by a narrow margin. This election was significant for its use of modern media and close results.

The impact of TV on voters was evident. It showed the importance of image in politics. The 1960 election remains a landmark in American history, influencing how future campaigns were conducted.

8) Lyndon B. Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater (1964)

Lyndon Johnson

In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson, the incumbent Democratic president, faced off against Republican Senator Barry Goldwater. The election took place less than a year after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Johnson, who had been Kennedy’s vice president, was quickly sworn in after the tragic event. He leveraged the nation’s support during this difficult time to push his “Great Society” agenda, which aimed to eliminate poverty and racial injustice.

Barry Goldwater, known for his conservative stance, struggled to gain widespread support. His campaign promoted a less active government role, which many Americans found extreme. This caused concern among voters, who were already dealing with civil rights issues and Cold War tensions.

The election resulted in a massive victory for Johnson. He secured over 60% of the popular vote and carried 44 states. Goldwater only won his home state of Arizona and five states in the Deep South.

Johnson’s win was one of the most lopsided electoral victories in U.S. history. He received 486 electoral votes, while Goldwater received only 52. This election not only confirmed Johnson’s presidency but also marked a significant moment in American political history.

9) Richard Nixon vs. Hubert Humphrey (1968)

Richard Nixon

The 1968 presidential election was a significant moment in U.S. history. Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate, faced Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee. The election occurred during a time of great turmoil, with the Vietnam War and civil rights movements affecting the country.

Nixon previously served as Vice President under Dwight D. Eisenhower. Humphrey was the sitting Vice President under Lyndon B. Johnson, who had decided not to seek re-election due to growing unpopularity over the Vietnam War.

The Democratic Party was divided. Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy had challenged Johnson earlier in the primaries, highlighting anti-war sentiments. Kennedy’s assassination in June 1968 shocked the nation and changed the dynamics of the race.

Nixon focused on a campaign that promised “law and order,” appealing to voters concerned about protests and social unrest. Humphrey, meanwhile, struggled to distance himself from Johnson’s policies while trying to unite the fractured Democratic base.

George Wallace, running as an independent, further complicated the race. He garnered significant support in the South, appealing to voters with segregationist views. This split the Democratic vote, making it harder for Humphrey to gain traction.

Election Day, November 5, 1968, saw Nixon win with 43.4% of the vote, narrowly beating Humphrey, who got 42.7%. Wallace captured 13.5%, influencing the overall results. Nixon’s victory marked a shift in American politics, setting the stage for changes in future elections.

10) Jimmy Carter vs. Gerald Ford (1976)

Jimmy Carter

In 1976, the presidential election was between Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican incumbent Gerald Ford. Jimmy Carter, a former Governor of Georgia, faced President Ford, who had taken office after Richard Nixon’s resignation.

The election was significant because it marked a shift in American politics. Carter, described as a “New Southerner,” was able to appeal to both white and African American voters. This was crucial for gaining support from the “Solid South,” which had historically been important for Democratic victories.

During the campaign, there were three presidential debates. One notable moment happened in the second debate. President Ford made a mistake regarding Eastern Europe, which many believe harmed his campaign.

Carter’s victory in this election ended a string of Republican presidencies and was the only Democratic win in the six presidential elections held between 1968 and 1988. The election result was very close, showing how divided the country was at the time. Carter’s win was seen as an upset because he was less well-known nationally compared to Ford.