Among the many things you're going to hear over the course of the 2012 Presidential election is that it's a "big election". Sooner or later, someone is going to tell you that in any Presidential election. Of course it's going to be a big one. It's THE Big One. The one race that everyone employed by any given party is ultimately devoted to. It's the one every party- EVERY party, big, small, fringe and joke parties alike- prep for first, last and foremost. If a party runs no other candidate for no other office, they are at least going to go for the Presidency.
(How wise a strategy this is, as opposed to focusing on state and local races, is another matter entirely.)
The issue we're focusing on today is the relative value of 'big'. In the grand scheme of Presidential elections, where would any given race rank? What is the biggest of the Big Elections? On what race did the most ride on the outcome?
The answer to that is likely 1860, involving Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Incumbent President James Buchanan's administration was completely consumed by the issue of slavery, as was the Lincoln-Douglas election. Douglas pledged during the campaign that a Lincoln win would mean Southern secession. Lincoln won, without a single vote from the South (he was not given ballot access). Douglas' warning quickly came to be.
1864 is likely second place on the list. The Civil War was going badly for the North at the time, and Lincoln was vulnerable because of that. Had his 1864 opponent, George McClellan, won, odds are he would have sought peace with the Confederacy, or at least, the Democrats would have made him do it. The only thing that saved Lincoln was that the tide of the war turned in his favor before Election Day.
We won't get into every election we've had, or even any further into these- though given enough time, knowing myself, I would probably try- but that's the high-water mark. Secession and the outcomes of the Civil War and the slavery issue rode on those two elections.
However, what's also kind of fun to look at is what it looks like at the bottom of the table. Has there ever been a small Big Election? One where both candidates looked so utterly alike, or so utterly subpar, or the stakes were so utterly low, that the outcome really didn't matter?
Yes. Yes, there has. And it came not very long after the two biggest.
Dateline, 1872. The incumbent, Ulysses S. Grant, was rather popular nationwide, as the North's victorious general in the Civil War, the one that took Robert E. Lee's surrender and the President most in charge of Reconstruction. He would go on to get hit with multiple corruption scandals in his second term (spoiler alert), scandals that would deeply mar his legacy and his historical ranking but that didn't come into play here. He was popular. The Democrats were still in disarray from the aftermath of the Civil War, with reminders of their secession being all anyone really having to bring up to beat them. So the election ought to be a breeze, right?
Well, it's not like Grant's going to go unopposed. Enter the Liberal Republicans.
...you need a second to get all the laughing out of your system?
...okay, let's continue. Because the Democrats were in such disarray, and because a win over them was such a given, the Republicans began to feud over just how far they should go to the left. Back then, parties didn't exist just to exist, as they basically do today. Parties were created to aim for a specific goal. Once that goal was achieved, the party dissolved and the component people went on to new parties with new goals. Under this system, the Republican Party should have died when slavery did. The problem was, the Republicans couldn't agree on whether it was really dead or not. (PDF file. Or really, less a PDF file than an e-book.) Some- the Liberal Republicans- figured that slavery was dead and wished to move on to new goals. Others figured that slavery was still existent in other forms that just weren't called slavery, and without Reconstruction, outright slavery could very easily resurface.
Within government, Grant also faced pressure from members of Congress trying to take advantage of the spoils system. Also known as patronage. Also known as hiring your friends and major donors to work for you in cushy government jobs as opposed to treating it like any other job with applications and exams and such. This would prove to be one of Grant's corruption scandals, but really, the spoils system had been used and taken as a given for decades beforehand, and people only cried foul about it when Grant tried to slow it down by refusing some of the patronage appointments made by Congressmen. Every time Grant refused to let someone appoint their friend to some post or other, he made a new enemy. Then he made the mistake of partaking in patronage himself, appointing friends and family, and he got hit with the charge by the Liberal Republicans... many of which were trying to take advantage of patronage themselves. (Including, if my fellow Watertown residents will examine page 10 of the PDF file, Carl Schurz.) It was blind leading the blind and hypocrites attacking hypocrites.
It all led to the Liberal Republicans wanting to run someone else in 1872. The man they chose was Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune. You may know him as the 'Go west, young man' guy, whether or not he actually said it first or not. They nominated him in a separate convention, deeming themselves a brand-new party.
To the shock of the Liberal Republicans, who were aiming for Charles Francis Adams and let the convention get away from them. Carl Schurz went to a piano and started playing Chopin's Funeral March. Political boss Thurlow Weed wrote to a friend, "Six weeks ago I did not suppose that any considerable number of men, outside of a Lunatic Asylum, would nominate Greeley for President." Other feelings were similar: they didn't know how things got to the point that Greeley grabbed the nomination, but he did, he was going to be a disaster, they were screwed and they knew it.
Meanwhile, the Democrats were aware that they were still in the national doghouse. They knew they didn't have anyone on their roster that could take out Grant. But they really, really wanted Grant to lose. So they had a brainstorm: they would nominate Greeley as well. Greeley was keen on halting Reconstruction, which was a nice selling point, and besides, nominating Greeley meant that there was only one major Grant opponent instead of two. Two Grant opponents would just split the anti-Grant vote and allow Grant to win. (Some members of the party, the "Straight-Out Democrats", wanted an actual Democrat, and ran Charles O'Conor as their nominee. He didn't want it. They gave it to him anyway. O'Conor didn't campaign.)
Horace Greeley had never successfully run for office before. He had been appointed to serve three months in the House to finish out someone else's term, and had run for office seven times at various levels, but never won. It showed. If a vegetarian atheist socialist who's never won a race for public office sounds like a fringe left candidate now (though there are certainly some who would vote for such a person based on that profile), imagine how it looked when one ran a major-party campaign against an incumbent war hero in 1872. Greeley had no idea what he was doing. The Democrats turned out not to be of very much help, because Greeley had attacked them just as much as Grant and the feeling was mutual. They had no idea how to help each other out and often wondered why they should, but somehow the Democrats still thought they had a chance.
Think if the Greens tried to nominate Ralph Nader, let the convention get away from them and wound up with Cynthia McKinney, and then the modern-day Republicans, concluding their field was terrible, nominated McKinney too and spent the rest of the campaign trying to convince each other that, no, really, we seriously nominated Cynthia McKinney, same as the Greens, and now we're trying to make her President so that we can beat Barack Obama. The Greens would be angry because they didn't get who they really wanted, the Democrats aren't budging from Obama, and the rank-and-file Republicans will be trying to figure out just what the hell is going on here well into the following spring.
It was a loud, boisterous, deeply confusing election, but in the end, Grant easily swept aside the in-way-over-his-head Greeley, who by Election Day just wanted the damn thing to be over. The score was 286 electoral votes to 66. When the results came in, he said, "I am the worst beaten man that ever ran for that high office. And I have been assailed so bitterly that I hardly know whether I was running for President or the penitentiary."
"Now, hold on," you may be saying. "You said this was the least consequential of all, didn't you? You've got a dispute here over whether Reconstruction should be continued. Blacks saw their rights rolled back for decades after Reconstruction ended. How is that not consequential?"
Simple. Between the time of the election and the time the Electoral College met, Greeley died. The campaign had drained too much out of him. He lost control of the New York Herald to Whitelaw Reid, his wife died a week prior to the election, and he was getting savaged the whole time as only major-party Presidential candidates can, from three sides, with almost nobody coming to his aid. Not only that, he was in the middle of recovering from getting swindled by a diamond hoax that may very well be covered here in detail in its own right at some point. It was too much for one man to take. With that, the field was essentially reduced from two to one. Greeley's electors were instructed simply to use their own judgment, and they scattered to the four winds. (Had he won, Greeley's running mate was Benjamin Gratz Brown. Whether he would have also ended Reconstruction appears questionable. Back then, Presidents didn't get to choose their own running mates, and while Greeley was sure that Reconstruction should end, Brown was wavering on the issue.)
Historian Eugene H. Roseboom later wrote in the 1957 book A History of Presidential Elections, "Never in American history have two more unfit men been offered to the country for the highest office."
Surely, we can do better than that. It's kind of hard not to.