What Was The Most Important Election Of The Past 75 Years?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

English Conversation About Politici...
English Conversation About Politician

sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): If you know one thing about FiveThirtyEight it’s probably that we cover elections. So in keeping on brand but still embracing that end-of-year spirit, we’ve decided to take some time today to reflect on the most important elections of all time.

Originally, this chat was pitched as the most important elections in our lifetime, but that made some of us feel really old. We were also somewhat worried about a recency bias. We needed some guardrails, though, so we are only looking at elections post-World War II — a familiar dividing line for us when it comes to conducting election analysis — so for all you 1876 fans out there, sorry about that. We’re also limiting ourselves to picking just two elections.

Otherwise, the only other big thing to note is that this isn’t a draft. In other words, people won’t be coming up with answers on the fly. Instead, it’s more of a debate-club format where people have researched their answers and really thought them out. However, there were some instances where multiple people laid claim to the same election, so expect at least some airing of grievances — and, of course, plenty of good-natured ribbing. We’ll also have a table at the end so you can see everyone’s two picks and judge for yourself as to who had the best lineup. We’re in it for the glory, obviously.

But OK, with the ground rules out of the way, who wants to kick us off?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): My recency bias is going to be on full display here, Sarah. I’m going to say that the election we just had — 2020 — was the most important in recent history. First, it took place during a deadly pandemic, and because government response is so important in public health crises, it’s no exaggeration to say that the election was a matter of life or death for thousands of people. Second, the 2020 election exposed some of the deepest cracks in our democracy to date. 

For the first time in over 200 years, there was an actual question about whether the loser would accept the results of the election. And while former President Donald Trump did leave office as scheduled, his efforts to delegitimize the election through false claims of voter fraud, as well as the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, could have implications for democracy in the U.S. for decades to come. 

That said, I fully concede that it is probably too early to judge the full effects of the 2020 election — I think we probably need to see how the next three years unfold. In that case, though, I’d submit 2016 as the most important election instead, for basically the same reasons. Trump’s election may have let the anti-democratic genie out of the bottle, and of course, it set the stage for America’s reaction to the first year of the pandemic.

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): It’s incredibly hard to argue with picking 2020 and 2016, but I will. 

I’d like to also direct people to my September 2016 piece, in which I predicted that the 2016 election would be a recalibration of our politics, not an actual realignment. The ideas changed, but a lot of stuff — the mechanics of nominations, the party coalitions, etc. — didn’t change all that much. Like, I think you could throw someone from 2010 into 2021, and they’d be confused by the pandemic but not necessarily by the overall dynamics of the two parties. 

These elections were points on the path, not game changers.

sarah: I’m going to talk about this more in the sense of which presidential election I think is more important, but along the lines of what Julia said, the one thing I struggle with in picking 2020 or 2016 as *the most important election* is that the trends that manifested in each, I would argue, long predated either election.

nrakich: Eh. Are we only thinking about elections as “important” in so far as they kick off new voting patterns? Don’t the policy and normative effects matter??

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): Yeah, I think that even though we don’t know much about what will happen after 2020, it’s going to rank highly on any list of most important elections. 

That’s because if we do end up experiencing the collapse of democratic rule in America, it’ll be hard to argue with 2020. And even if that doesn’t happen, we’ll still look back at Trump’s defeat in 2020 as a critical moment for avoiding such a fate. To be fair, you could argue we didn’t have fully democratic elections until 1965, anyway, but 2020 could mark the beginning of the end for a 50- to 60-year period of genuine democracy.

Or maybe it won’t. Either way, 2020 is a safe pick for this list.

sarah: That’s a really good point about the 2020 presidential election.

geoffrey.skelley: But OK, whereas Nathaniel’s pick had a recency bias, I believe mine is the earliest of any picks we’re making here: the 1964 presidential election. 

So much of our modern political environment can be traced at least in part to this election — especially the issue of race and the ideological direction of the two major parties. Granted, race has been a critical issue in American politics forever, but this election followed the just-passed Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the election set up the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And anger over the racially liberal trajectory of the Democratic Party caused five states in the Deep South that had long been solidly Democratic to move into the Republican column, where they’ve mostly stayed in presidential elections since 1964. 

The conservative wing of the GOP also managed to get Barry Goldwater nominated over more moderate foes within the party, and while he was crushed by Lyndon Johnson in that election, Goldwater’s vision of the party has set the course for the modern conservative Republican Party, paving the way for Ronald Reagan’s eventual rise and win in 1980. 

Moreover, LBJ’s win also set up the expansion of the war in Vietnam and the Great Society social programs, but this led to an erosion in trust in government and set up conservative attacks on the idea of “big government.” In a way, we’ve been stuck in a battle over post-New Deal politics since the 1960s, and this election set up that conflict.

nrakich: Good pick. This has to be one of the clearest contrasts offered by any presidential election. Johnson literally aired an ad that implied that Goldwater’s election would lead to a nuclear holocaust!

Additionally, we talk a lot about negative partisanship these days, but 1964 has to be one of the most negative-partisanship elections until, well, 2016 and 2020. Each side’s supporters saw the other as unacceptable: Conservatives saw Johnson as unacceptable for his support of civil rights, and liberals saw Goldwater as unacceptable because of his reactionary politics and what they deemed his lack of mental fitness

julia_azari: Counterpoint: Republicans had been courting the South since like 1876, and Johnson’s victory was the annihilation of a terrible candidate, not indicative of anything else.

sarah: 🔥

nrakich: Yeah, but how often were Republicans successful in courting the South, Julia?

geoffrey.skelley: I guess Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover and Dwight Eisenhower managed to pick off a handful of Southern states in their landslide wins. But outside of places like eastern Tennessee, you don’t see much in the way of Republican elected officials until this election and after in the South.

julia_azari: It definitely took a long time, but I still think 1964 is the culmination of those efforts, not the beginning (counterpoint here).

I guess my main point is that, yes, the South turned away from the Democrats at the presidential level, but if Republicans had run a more moderate candidate, it might not have been such a blowout. People overinterpret the significance of this election.

geoffrey.skelley: Right, although the GOP rejected more moderate alternatives because the conservative wing of the party asserted itself, including delegates from the South. And you start to see conservative Democrats leaving the party in the South, like South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, who became a Republican amid the 1964 campaign.

sarah: This is the opposite of what Julia is saying, but I don’t really see 1964 as the culmination of Republicans’ efforts there. But I’m also not sure I see it as the beginning, either.

Southern states would still go on to flip between the two parties until … the 2000 presidential election. The South flipping from blue to red was a slow, uneven process. But OK, Julia, you’re up!

julia_azari: There are three main arguments that the 1976 presidential election is responsible for our modern party system:

  1. It was the first election where a somewhat unknown candidate made use of the new primary system to win the party nomination. Jimmy Carter, in other words, kicked off the trope of “running against Washington,” and that has clearly been an important idea since in presidential campaigns. 
  2. It was the beginning of the end of the old GOP as well as the rise of the religious right within the party. Then-President Gerald Ford came close to losing renomination to Reagan, and in that primary challenge, it became clear that a brand of conservatism different from that of Goldwater or Robert Taft, son of former President William Taft — more religiously and socially oriented — had taken hold. When Ford lost narrowly to Carter, the writing was on the wall.
  3. Finally, Carter is the one who introduced the concept of merging the presidency and evangelical discourse. This is kind of unexpected from a 2021 vantage point, since we associate evangelical politics so strongly with Republicans now. But Carter used language from an evangelical religious tradition to talk both about personal morality and “goodness” in government. However, he ultimately found it difficult to mesh his viewpoints with the priorities of evangelical voters, who proved more conservative.

So my argument in this case (contra my previous arguments) is less about the electorate and more about the dynamics within the parties themselves.

geoffrey.skelley: I do like the primary-system argument, although it seems like things have evolved to the point where it’d be a surprise to see an unknown candidate win the nomination. 

That said, an unorthodox, well-known candidate winning in our system seems more plausible than ever — obviously shown by Trump — and in that sense, the development of the presidential primary system from 1976 to today seems really important!

nrakich: Those are all good observations, Julia, but I think you’re missing the forest for the trees. As an historical figure, Carter … just wasn’t that important. No major reforms were passed during his term, and he lost reelection the next time out.

And to our previous argument, 1976 may have been the beginning of the modern conservative movement, but it didn’t fully succeed — and therefore start having a real-world impact — until 1980! (Spoiler alert!) 

julia_azari: Is the nomination system really the trees???

I also think Carter is an important historical figure because — and I’ll pick up on this more in my case for the 2012 election — he sort of illustrated what the Democrats would try to avoid for decades to come.

sarah: I personally had been toying with picking the 1996 presidential election much to my colleagues’ befuddlement, in part because I think that’s the presidential election that actually foreshadowed many of the faultlines/fights we still see playing out in the Democratic Party today. But I arguably came to my senses and have instead decided that the 2000 presidential election is more important.

Because, my god, what didn’t this election have?

For starters, it is one of the closest presidential elections in U.S. history. It was essentially a tie that was then decided by the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of George W. Bush and all those “hanging chads” in Florida. It was also, I’d argue, the curtain-raiser to the 2020 presidential election. That is, Trump might have disputed the integrity of the election more than either Al Gore or Bush, but as our former colleague Clare Malone wrote of the 2000 election in 2020: “I went looking for lessons from that period of disruption. But all I found were the first cancer cells that have metastasized in our political system over the past 20 years.”

Those cancer cells that Clare writes of? There was a growing cultural divide in our politics, with social conservatives increasingly wedded to the Republican side, no matter what, and with an ill-defined group of voters on the Democratic side. Also, Republicans were proving far more adept at setting the terms of the culture debate — something I think is still true today.

Finally, it wasn’t just the fact that the 2000 presidential election was contested or made our politics more rancorous. It also marked the end of Democrats being able to win in most of the South at the presidential level, at least until Georgia in 2020. Any election that encompasses a record, a political trend and the completion of a realignment is important in my book.

nrakich: Yes, strong agree, Sarah.

It also kicked off our current era of razor-close presidential elections. And Bush’s victory determined what America’s reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks would be, which wound up being wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and smaller-scale interventions throughout the Middle East, which have literally cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Hard to think of something more impactful.

geoffrey.skelley: Also, the issue of climate change might have gotten more attention earlier. Gore had long engaged with that subject, and we saw him continue to do so when he exited politics. 

julia_azari: It’s hard to argue with 2000. But why didn’t Americans think it was important? Why did we hear so much about “Gush and Bore?” 

I’d also point out that a lot of those cells really got their start (I do not have the chops for a biological metaphor here) in 1976.

nrakich: I think, Julia, after a string of fairly unimpactful presidential elections (1988, 1992, 1996), Americans were in a bit of a ho-hum mood — and didn’t realize how much things were really going to accelerate in the 21st century. 

julia_azari: I don’t know. I think 2000 is another election that gets overinterpreted, partly because Bush overinterpreted it in his rhetoric a fair amount, referring in speeches to the “reason I was elected” and to his campaign promises. 

There was a lot of speculation about why Gore lost — Bill Clinton’s legacy, he was too populist or not populist enough, too wooden in his campaign persona, etc. — and the reality is it just was not that clear-cut.

I attended one of the “shadow conventions” that were held along with the national conventions, and the major theme was all the topics the two parties weren’t addressing. These are pretty tepid counters to 2000, but I do think the discussion of major issues matters.

But as to my second, equally sleeper/hipster pick, it’s the 2012 presidential election. Like Carter in 1976, Mitt Romney exemplified what the Republican Party would try to turn away from. Romney’s loss created a space for Trump to offer a different direction for the party. Trump repackaged the mild-mannered northeastern businessman with one versed in angry ethnonationalism. He also replaced Romney’s Mormon decorum with crude and sometimes violent language.

In fact, one theory I have about why elite Republicans were so slow to respond to Trump during the early months of the 2016 campaign is that after Romney (and McCain) lost, they were quietly agnostic about a different approach.

sarah: Ooh, that’s an interesting pick, Julia. I guess, though, what I struggle with in understanding 2012 is that it wasn’t really clear to me until 2016 how much the GOP was going to ignore that election’s autopsy report, etc.

nrakich: Yeah, that sounds to me like an argument for 2016, Julia!

geoffrey.skelley: I’ve definitely heard conservative commentators bemoan how the Obama campaign — and the media — supposedly misconstrued Romney, but it makes sense that if this seemingly milder, economically focused conservative couldn’t win, then an approach like Trump’s would become more attractive to an angry GOP base. 

julia_azari: Tensions from the left were also simmering for Democrats in this election. No major candidate ran against Obama in the 2012 primary, even though Sen. Bernie Sanders was rumored to have considered it, but Obama looked pretty shaky going into the general election.

So yeah, in some ways this election does sorta tee up 2016. But I think we ought to look at where these sorts of things come from, and think about, say, what would be different if Romney had won. Or if someone like Rick Santorum or Rick Perry had won the nomination. What if Rick Perry had been able to name all three agencies he wanted to eliminate?

geoffrey.skelley: We do have at least a poll or two in FiveThirtyEight’s polling database from around 2010 that tested Hillary Clinton against Obama in a hypothetical 2012 Democratic primary. I’m confident Clinton wasn’t who progressives were looking for, however. 

Julia made the case for 2012, but I think you could actually go back four years, to 2008, and make a case for that being the most important modern election. 

Obviously, Obama makes history as the first Black president, but that symbol of an increasingly diverse America has consequences, especially on the right. Obama’s win in 2008 set the stage for a conservative backlash in 2010, in the form of the tea party movement, which was populist and strongly anti-government. This went on to push the GOP further to the right, arguably creating the conditions for Trump’s rise following Obama’s presidency.

nrakich: The 111th Congress was also one of the most productive since the 1960s. With the Democratic trifecta that the 2008 election ushered in, Democrats passed major legislation, like the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank Act, the stimulus bill, the 2010 Tax Relief Act, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” …

julia_azari: Can I respond to 2008 with something I forgot to say about 2012? In 2008, I remember a lot being made of Obama’s victory in North Carolina (and, to a lesser extent, Indiana), the idea being that 2008 was the end of the post-LBJ era of a Republican South, but then the 2012 result (Obama lost North Carolina) sort of put a damper on this realignment narrative, at least for the next eight years.

That’s not really an argument against some of your main points, but I do think about it regarding how 2008 was interpreted versus its lasting significance.

sarah: I’ll go next, as Geoffrey started to get at this with his 2008 pick, but I think despite the historic significance of that election, the 2010 midterms had more lasting repercussions on our politics. That’s in part because the number of House seats Democrats lost — 64 — is staggering. It’s both the largest number of House seats a party has lost in a midterm election since 1938, and the largest swing in the House since 1948.

It’s not just Congress where Republicans won control, either. They also did well in state-legislature races, which is one big reason why Republicans enjoy such a structural advantage in many of our institutions — they controlled the 2010 redistricting process.

As we know at FiveThirtyEight, it’s foolish to ascribe any one reason, issue or group to why an election unfolded the way it did, but there’s no question that the recession’s slow recovery, the Democrats’ passage of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) and the subsequent tea party movement, which rose up in backlash to Obama’s presidency, played important roles in Republicans’ success.

In fact, it’s the rise of the tea party in 2010 that makes me pick this election as one of our most important ones, and that’s because even though the tea party is no longer a thing, it gave birth to the strain of illiberalism and anti-elitism that we have seen take hold in the Republican Party ever since.

I know some of you are going to argue that this was all alive and well prior to 2010, and I think there are arguments to support that, but it really reached a crescendo in this election.

nrakich: A midterm! That’s cheating!

(But I agree with everything you said. If a non-presidential election can crack this list, 2010 is the one that should do it.)

sarah: Readers, you’ll note that I didn’t say it had to be a presidential election! And what can I say … midterms are on the brain … but OK, Nathaniel, take us home with your last pick.

nrakich: The most important election we haven’t mentioned so far, IMO, is 1980: the election of Ronald Reagan. To me, this is the election that should get the credit for the rise of the modern conservative movement, which Julia ascribed to 1976. Reagan’s economic policies kicked off decades of lower taxes, deregulation and more business-friendly policies. However, he also ushered in eras of increased income inequality and, through his harsh crime policies, mass incarceration — issues that we’re still reckoning with today. And as Julia mentioned, 1980 marked the ascendance of the religious right. Basically, I think Reagan’s presidency defined the next 30-plus years of American politics.  

sarah: Reagan definitely is an iconoclastic president; it’s hard to dispute that. I do wonder, though, the extent to which Trump’s presidency will eclipse his in terms of influence in the GOP.

julia_azari: I think about this all the time — Reagan versus Trump, as defining the GOP.

It’s interesting, though, that I think we sort of agree on which forces have been important, but just debating which elections they belong to.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, I think there’s something to arguing whether it’s more about the culmination of something, or setting the stage for something. 

This shows how long-term political trends can really connect dots over long periods of time.

sarah: And with that, readers, you’ll find everyone’s picks below. Let us know who you think has the best one:

FiveThirtyEight’s most important elections
Round Nathaniel Geoffrey Julia Sarah
1 2020* 1964 1976 2000
2 1980 2008 2012 2010

*Technically, Nathaniel also claimed 2016, so do with that as you will.

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