US presidents: Race, religion and re-election?

As the United States prepares to vote either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney into the White House, Adam Smith draws parallels between the current battle and five previous presidential contests

A 1864 campaign banner. (David J & Janice Frent/Corbis via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the December 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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1864 “Don’t swap horses”

Barack Obama launched his first campaign for the presidency in Abraham Lincoln’s home town of Springfield, Illinois, quoting his predecessor’s warning that a nation divided against itself cannot stand.

Two lanky, articulate Illinois lawyers: one the man who signed the proclamation freeing slaves, the other the first black president. Both produced soaring rhetoric appealing to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”.

Yet, in spite of themselves, both were highly divisive figures. Lincoln’s election in 1860 led to four years of civil war and the deaths of more than 600,000 Americans. Obama’s merely to four years of bitter partisan warfare. But Obama’s pitch in 2012 can be summed up in a homely metaphor coined by Lincoln in his re-election battle of 1864: “It is not best to swap horses while crossing streams.”

The 2012 election, we have been told by both sides, is the most important in our lifetime. We hear this every four years. But in 1864 the future shape of the nation really did hang in the balance. Lincoln’s opponent was George B McClellan, whose election may well have led to an armistice.

Not without justification, Lincoln’s supporters scared voters with warnings that the nation would be divided forever should Lincoln lose – visions even more lurid than the fears of an end to Medicare that modern-day Democrats warn would be the fate of a Romney presidency. With the help of military victory, Lincoln prevailed, and the war was won. The stream was successfully crossed.

Who won then? Abraham Lincoln, Republican (incumbent)

1876 Race and the polls

In the last few years, opponents have accused Republican state governments of inventing rules to remove minority voters from the electoral rolls under the guise of combating voter fraud. This is one of the oldest tactics in the book.

Today it is the Republicans who dominate the South and are heavily dependent on the white vote. In 1876 it was the Democrats in this role, back in control of the South just ten years after the Civil War. African-American men, including freed slaves, had been given the vote in the late 1860s, but Democrats excluded them once again using a mixture of violence and legislation.

The strategy almost helped them win the 1876 presidential election. In a desperately tight race, a dispute over the Electoral College votes of South Carolina was resolved in favour of the Republicans after months of wrangling. The lesson was clear, though: elections can turn not just on the appeals of candidates but on who gets to vote.

Who won then? Rutherford B Hayes, Republican

1948 Government is the solution

The ideological rift in American politics that emerged in the era of the New Deal in the 1930s has never healed. How to make real the American Dream of opportunity for all: get ‘big government’ off people’s backs, or make sure there’s an even playing field for the ‘little guy’ and a safety net for when the system fails?

President Obama’s willingness to attack tax cuts for the rich, to defend his health insurance reform, and to make the case for government’s role in stimulating growth is reminiscent of the feisty campaign run by Harry Truman in 1948. His opponent was Thomas Dewey, a moderate Republican who, like Romney, faced hostility from conservatives, and who had difficulty displaying his more ‘human’ side.

Dewey was also mocked for his platitudinous speeches, once telling a crowd: “You know that your future is still ahead of you.”

Truman’s pitch, like Obama’s, was that the Republicans were out of touch with ordinary Americans, and, like Obama, he castigated the ‘Do Nothing’ Republican-controlled Congress, warning that if Dewey captured the White House as well, the achievements of the New Deal, including social security, would be under threat.

Few pundits thought Truman would win, but he battled away and, in the end, won by a tiny margin, in part by capturing Ohio – another battleground state this year – by less than one per cent of the vote.

Who won then? Harry Truman, Democrat (incumbent)

1960 Religion and Americanism

If there are two things that voters associate with Mitt Romney, one is his wealth, and the other is his Mormonism. The base of the Republican party has had a hard time adjusting to a candidate with what many of them regard as un-Christian views.

A similar challenge faced the Catholic John F Kennedy, up against Richard Nixon, in 1960. Catholics, like Mormons, had long been seen as ‘unAmerican’. Some commentators in 1960 thought the United States was still not ready to elect a Catholic, remembering the vicious anti-Catholicism faced by Democrat Al Smith, who lost heavily in the 1928 election.

In fact, Kennedy’s opponents largely ignored the issue, at least overtly. In the same way, Romney’s Mormonism is always present but rarely addressed. Yet evangelical Protestants were less likely to vote for Kennedy than they were for other candidates of the same party. When the dust settles on 2012, the same may be shown to be true for Romney.

Who won then? John F Kennedy, Democrat

1992 Culture wars

If the classic incumbent’s argument was laid out by Lincoln in 1864, the timeless challenger’s argument is ‘time for a change’.

History suggests that this is the harder sell: of the 31 elections in which incumbents have run for re-election, challengers have booted them out of office only 10 times. In every case, they’ve done so by painting the incumbent as out of touch and themselves as a new broom – think Reagan riding into town like a sheriff who had just rounded up a posse.

In 2012, the best strategy for Romney has been to try to do this by emulating the single-mindedness of Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992: “It’s the economy stupid!”

Historically, incumbents have struggled to be re-elected when the economy is struggling. The economy is undoubtedly Obama’s main weakness. But there are also less auspicious echoes of the 1992 election for Republicans. In 1992 George Bush struggled to keep the support of an increasingly assertive conservative movement who believed that the nation’s most cherished values were threatened by multiculturalism and cosmopolitan liberal elites – right-wing political commentator Pat Buchanan warned there was a “religious war, a culture war” going on in this country.

For Republicans ‘it’s time for a change’ cannot just mean a new economic policy. The change they seek is also a repudiation of many of the social changes of the last 50 years. If Americans decide not to swap horses while crossing a stream in 2012 it may be because they trust the president to navigate them through the economic troubles. But it will also surely be because the change being offered by the challenger arouses at least as much fear as hope.

Who won then? Bill Clinton, Democrat (challenger)

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Dr Adam Smith is a senior lecturer in the department of history at UCL. He is the author of The American Civil War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)