It seems every election cycle, the story of American democracy gets more and more dramatic. However, lest we get too swept up in our present controversies, we should take time to examine the concerns and disputes in elections from decades past.
Mr. Beat is a social studies teacher and popular YouTuber who’s created brief, entertaining videos about every presidential election from Washington to Biden. These apolitical and fact-driven videos are a great way to give your students a snapshot of the issues facing our country at the time, and the way our elections have evolved.
Our Favorite Presidential Election Videos
George Washington (Presidential Election of 1788–1789)
Can you imagine an election with no political parties? Or one where the whole country basically knew the winner before a single vote was cast? That’s what the very first presidential election was like, as George Washington’s popularity easily eclipsed the 11 other candidates on the ballot. With polls open for nearly a month and less than 1.3% of the population voting, this election was unlike any that would follow.
John Quincy Adams vs. Andrew Jackson (Presidential Election of 1828)
The 11th presidential election saw a rematch between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, who had been involved in a four-way tie with two other candidates in 1824. Jackson’s grassroots popularity was infectious, particularly in the South, with his supporters calling themselves “Jacksonians” and winning several seats in Congress in the 1826 election. Competition was fierce, as Adams’ vice president defected to become Jackson’s running mate, and insults and rumors abounded about the candidates’ wives, mothers, dueling records, and gambling habits.
Abraham Lincoln (Presidential Election of 1860)
In 1860, the country was fraying at the seams—and it showed even in the fracturing of established political parties. The Republican Party was still in its infancy, the Democrat Party split over the issue of slavery, and the members of the recently defunct Whig Party were consolidating into different factions. Republican Abraham Lincoln faced off against Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, and Constitutional Unionist John Bell in a heated race in which Lincoln won only 39.8% of the popular vote.
Franklin D. Roosevelt vs. Herbert Hoover (Presidential Election of 1932)
The 1932 presidential election came on the heels of one of the worst economic crashes in American history. Under incumbent Herbert Hoover, unemployment rose by more than 600%, industrial production dropped by 46%, and foreign trade shrank by 70%. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these trends led to skyrocketing migration, homelessness, crime, alcoholism, and suicide rates. Try as he might, Hoover could do nothing to turn the tide, leaving the road open for newcomer Franklin D. Roosevelt to inspire the masses with messages of hope and win 472 of the 531 electoral votes.
John Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon (Presidential Election of 1960)
This election marked a couple of firsts for our country: First, it was Alaska and Hawaii’s debut to national elections, and second, it was the first time a two-time incumbent (in this case, Dwight Eisenhower) was barred by law from running for re-election. This left the field open for the likes of VP Richard Nixon, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, Senator Hubert Humphrey, and young congressman John F. Kennedy to duke it out for the presidency. The run-off between Nixon and Kennedy marked additional firsts: the first televised presidential debates and the first Catholic to be elected to the office of president.
Barack Obama vs. John McCain (Presidential Election of 2008)
For the first time since 1928, neither an incumbent president nor vice president threw his hat in the ring for the presidency. And it’s not hard to understand why: By 2008, George W. Bush’s approval ratings had dipped as low as 25%, and the country was in the throes of an unpopular war and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. John McCain hit the scene to extremely lackluster poll numbers and surprised many by choosing Sarah Palin as a running mate—only the second female ever from a major political party to run in a presidential race. But perhaps the even bigger surprise was when relative newcomer Senator Barack Obama not only beat out veteran politician Hillary Clinton for the Democrat nomination but also became the first Black president in American history.