If we go back in history to the end of the Civil War in 1865, what we can see is that the default state of American politics is Republicans in power. This nation had a decided Republican bent for over 125 years. That has only changed in the past 30 years.
Let’s go through, starting with 1865-1932:
- 1865: Lincoln leads the Union to victory in the Civil War, the nation is held together, and the long process of Reconstruction begins in the South. However, Lincoln is assassinated in early 1865 and is succeeded by his Democratic Vice President, Andrew Johnson. Johnson only makes it to 1868 before being cast aside. He didn’t even get the Democratic nomination that year.
- Ulysses S. Grant, the hero general of the Civil War, is President from 1869-1877. The race to succeed him in 1876, however, was one of the most controversial elections in US history. Democrat Samuel Tilden won both the popular vote and had the lead in the electoral college, but there were a number of disputed states. The Compromise of 1877 resulted in Republican Rutherford B. Hayes becoming President, and Reconstruction finally ending in the South.
- 1880: Hayes is President for only one term as part of the Compromise of 1877. He is replaced in a razor-thin election by Republican James Garfield, but Garfield is assassinated in his first year as President.
- 1884: Democrat Grover Cleveland wins the election, but loses narrowly to Republican Benjamin Harrison in his quest for reelection in 1888, although Cleveland won the popular vote. Cleveland then became the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms after winning back the White House in 1892. Cleveland also became the first Presidential candidate to win the popular vote 3 times, and to date only he and FDR (4 times) have ever won the popular vote 3 or more times.
- 1896: Republican William McKinley wins the Presidency, and then wins reelection in 1900, but is assassinated in 1901. He is replaced by his Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt, who wins reelection on his own right in 1904 before voluntarily stepping down in 1908. Although he very much did want to run again, and had won in a landslide in 1904, TR had promised not to run again and so he honored his promise. William Howard Taft was TR’s handpicked successor, and he was elected President in 1908.
- 1912: TR changed his mind; he wanted to run again. However, President Taft wasn’t just going to step aside and let TR take the Republican nomination. The GOP stuck with Taft and renominated him again in 1912, but with TR running as well (as an independent “Bull Moose”) it split the Republican vote, which allowed Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the Presidency with only 41.8% of the vote. TR got 27% of the vote, Taft got 23%, and socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs got 6%. TR and Taft combined for over 50% of the vote, and if the Republicans had been able to settle on one candidate, there’s no way Wilson would’ve won.
- 1916: Wilson wins a close reelection fight against Republican candidate Charles Evans Hughes. With World War I raging in Europe at the time, Wilson’s winning slogan is “He Kept Us Out Of War,” however, just three months into his second term in 1917, Wilson committed the US to fighting in the war.
- 1920: promising a “Return to Normalcy,” Republican Warren Harding is elected President in one of the greatest landslides in US history. However, Harding dies in office in 1923, and is replaced by his Vice President Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge wins reelection in 1924, but declines to run again in 1928. Herbert Hoover, another Republican, wins in a landslide in 1928, but in his first year in office, the Great Depression destroys the US economy and brings the Roaring Twenties to an abrupt end. Hoover becomes extremely unpopular and stands no chance in the 1932 election.
This is where we will pause to assess the period of 1865-1932. During that 67 year span, only 3 Democrats held the White House: Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson. Really only Cleveland was legitimately elected. As we just went over, Wilson only got elected in 1912 because the Republicans were split, and only got reelected in 1916 because he blatantly lied. And Andrew Johnson only became President because Lincoln was assassinated; Johnson was a lame duck from basically the day he took the oath of office.
Grover Cleveland, however, is an interesting figure in American history. While he was a Democrat, he was in fact very conservative and garnered quite a bit of support from Republicans during his presidential campaigns. Have a look at this from his Wikipedia:
In 1881, Cleveland was elected mayor of Buffalo and later, governor of New York. He was the leader of the pro-business Bourbon Democrats who opposed high tariffs; Free Silver; inflation; imperialism; and subsidies to business, farmers, or veterans. His crusade for political reform and fiscal conservatism made him an icon for American conservatives of the era. Cleveland won praise for his honesty, self-reliance, integrity, and commitment to the principles of classical liberalism. He fought political corruption, patronage, and bossism. As a reformer, Cleveland had such prestige that the like-minded wing of the Republican Party, called “Mugwumps“, largely bolted the GOP presidential ticket and swung to his support in the 1884 election.
Obviously Grover Cleveland was no liberal–or “progressive,” as they were often known back in those days. His politics were very different from those of the next Democrat to win the White House, Woodrow Wilson, who is often regarded as the founding father of modern liberal progressivism.
Of the 67 years between 1865-1932, Republicans held the White House for 47 years, Democrats only 20.
However, the Great Depression would tank the electoral fortunes of the GOP for a generation.
The next period we’ll look at is 1932-1992.
- From 1932-1944, FDR won 4 straight elections. He died in office in 1945, shortly after being sworn in for a fourth term. Harry Truman takes over, guides the nation through the end of WW2, and wins reelection of his own in 1948. However, Truman is deeply unpopular by 1952 due to the Korean War and declines to run for reelection.
- 1952: Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during WW2, is the Republican nominee for President. Democrats tried to recruit him as well, but he opted to run as a Republican. He won two landslide elections in 1952 and 1956.
- 1960: JFK defeats Eisenhower’s Vice President, Richard Nixon, in one of the closest elections in US history. The 1960 election is widely regarded to have been stolen by fraud in Illinois and Texas, even NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell admits it.
- 1964: Due to widespread grief over the JFK Assassination, the nation rallies around new President Lyndon Johnson, who is elected in a landslide in 1964. This is also partly due to the fact that the Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater, is widely viewed as a crazy archconservative, however his ideas later become the consensus in the Republican Party.
- 1968: Richard Nixon runs again, and this time he wins in a close election. I want to spend a bit of time on the 1968 election because I know what’s coming: “Nixon only won in 1968 because of his evil and racist Southern Strategy!” The claim is that Nixon tried to exploit Southern backlash to the Democratic Party’s support of the Civil Rights movement, and that’s why Nixon won. But a look at the 1968 electoral map easily disproves this:
- As we can see, Nixon’s notorious Southern Strategy, was a pretty miserable failure outside of the states of South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee. Florida is its own kind of thing, partly Southern but also a whole different purply/multicultural vibe outside of the panhandle.
- George Wallace won the Deep South based on his promises of segregation. If Nixon was looking to capitalize on Southern frustration with the Democratic Party, Wallace screwed all that up. People in the Deep South voted for Wallace and he won the states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia because voters in those states refused to vote for either of the two major parties. Wallace did not hand Nixon the election and ruin Humphrey’s chances–in fact the opposite was true.
- It was Democrats who had for many, many decades had an electoral lock on the South the way Republicans do today. But LBJ’s association with the Civil Rights Acts of the mid-1960s marked the beginning of the end of the “Solid South” for Democrats. The problem was, although it is completely forgotten today, Republicans were just as associated with the Civil Rights laws of the 1960s as the Democrats–in fact even more so. More Republicans than Democrats, in percentage terms, voted for the Civil Rights bills in the 1960s.
- The Deep South supported Wallace because it didn’t support either of the two main parties. The Deep South would have gone for Nixon the way it went for Goldwater (who was publicly opposed to the Civil Rights Bills) in 1964, but instead it went for Wallace. George Wallace in 1968 didn’t take votes away from Humphrey; he took votes away from Nixon. The idea that Nixon only won in 1968 because of his “Southern Strategy” is one of the biggest myths out there in American political history.
- Anyhow, Nixon is reelected resoundingly in 1972 in one of the greatest landslides in US history. Without Wallace in the election in 1972, Nixon was able to sweep the South–and just about everywhere else, for that matter. However, due to the Watergate Scandal and Nixon’s resignation in 1974, the Republican brand is tarnished going into the next election.
- 1976: Democrat Jimmy Carter wins the election over Gerald Ford, the Republican Vice President who took over for Nixon in 1974. Carter, however, becomes unpopular quickly due to the Stagflation economy and the Iranian Hostage crisis.
- 1980: Ronald Reagan unseats Jimmy Carter in a landslide, and then is reelected in an even bigger landslide in 1984.
- 1988: Reagan’s Vice President, George H.W. Bush, is elected in a fairly big landslide election, however, his political fortunes turn due to a recession in the early 1990s, plus a broken “No New Taxes” promise. Also, independent candidate Ross Perot takes a sizable share of the vote, which further screws things up for Bush.
Let’s take another break here to assess the period from 1932-1992.
60 years, the Democrats hold power for 28 of them, the Republicans 32.
However, if we narrow it from 1952-1992, Republicans were in power for 28 years to the Democrats’ 12.
The Democrats, outside of FDR, really were unable to win Presidential elections unless something extraordinary happened: 1960 they stole the election, 1964 was largely due to the Kennedy Assassination, and in 1976 it was largely due to Watergate backlash.
If we look at 1865-1992, Republicans were in power for a total of 75 years, while the Democrats held power for 48 years. While only 12 of those 48 years were FDR, he won 4 of the Democrats’ 12 Presidential elections from 1865-1992.
If we go from the 1864 election to the 1988 election, Republicans won 20 elections, while the Democrats won 12.
Again, let’s review the circumstances under which Democrats won their elections from 1864-1988:
- 1884: Legitimate, as far as I know. Grover Cleveland won this one fair and square. Same with 1892.
- 1912: Democrat Wilson only won because the Republicans were split, and he only won in 1916 because he lied.
- 1932: FDR won because Hoover was blamed for the Great Depression. I’m not going to say it was illegitimate, however, because Republicans had been in power for the entire Roaring Twenties, and the excesses of that era led to the Depression.
- 1936-1944: FDR won three more elections due to his leadership during the Depression and then his leadership during WW2. Now, while I am of the belief that the US entered WW2 under false pretenses regarding Pearl Harbor, that’s a story for another day.
- 1948: Truman won reelection legitimately as far as I know. It was a very close election that the media actually called for Republican candidate Thomas Dewey on election night, and it only became apparent that Truman won the next morning.
- 1960: Vote fraud in Texas and Illinois carried JFK to the White House, and then LBJ was able to win in 1964 largely because the public was sympathetic to him in the wake of the Kennedy Assassination.
- 1976: Carter won largely because of backlash against Republicans post-Watergate.
Other than FDR, it was generally only under extraordinary circumstances or outright cheating that Democrats were able to win the presidency from 1864-1992.
However, starting in 1992, things changed. From 1992-2020, Democrats have won 5 Presidential elections to the Republicans’ 3, and the Democrats have won 7 of the 8 popular votes over that span, with Republicans only winning the popular vote in 2004 with George W. Bush.
Now, you could make the argument that Democrats still are only able to win under extraordinary circumstances:
- 1992: Bill Clinton won because of a recession and because of Ross Perot siphoning votes off of Bush.
- 1996: Perot also ran and siphoned votes off of Republican Bob Dole, but Bill Clinton was also presiding over a strong economy at this time and probably would have won anyway. And it’s also difficult to know for certain just which side Ross Perot hurt more: the Republicans or the Democrats. It’s possible Ross Perot siphoned votes equally from Dems and Republicans.
- 2008: Obama won in large part due to the Great Recession, and because he was the first black candidate. He was also running in opposition to the deeply unpopular Iraq War.
- 2012: Obama won reelection because he was largely popular, and because he ran against a complete stiff in Mitt Romney.
- 2020: Biden wins because of the Pandemic and the race riots, and obviously there are tens of millions of people out there who believe the election was stolen from Trump.
But a major factor that has tilted the electoral playing field toward the Democrats since 1992 has been the rise of cable news and the modern media. America is now thoroughly a TV Culture, where virtually everything we know about politicians and elections comes from either TV or the corporate media, which leans far to the left.
Social media, which is now in the process of overtaking the corporate media and cable news as America’s primary source of political news and information, is also owned by left-leaning tech companies Facebook and Twitter, although I would not say that social media has had the effect of turning more people into liberals. I think if anything social media has made people more solidified in their views: conservatives get more conservative, liberals get more liberal.
The broader point is that from 1865-1992, America leaned to the right by default. Sure, there were Democrats that made it to the White House, and there was even the 20 year run of dominance by FDR and his New Deal Coalition. But in general, for nearly 130 years, the electoral playing field in American politics was tilted to the Republicans’ favor. They had the inherent advantage. America was a Republican-leaning nation from the end of the Civil War until 1992.
What about the impact of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote? Couldn’t that have had a massive impact on the national electoral playing field in this country?
Well, it’s certainly possible, but women got the right to vote in 1920, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that the electoral playing field apparently tilted to the left.
Sure, you had FDR’s New Deal coalition dominating from 1932-1952, but by Truman’s third term, the New Deal coalition had fizzled out and it was back to business as usual.
I really do believe it was the media that tilted the electoral playing field toward the Democrats.
The purpose of this post was primarily to serve as a historical reference. In future posts, we’ll discuss why things have changed over the past 30 years.