The Archive

Monday, February 15, 2016

"The Most Important Election of Our Lifetime:" Ranking All 58 Presidential Elections

It seems like every four years, someone is going to tell you that the upcoming election is the most important one we might ever have. Of course, importance is relative. Below, all 58 presidential (general) elections, ranked by their importance as Americans went to the polls, from least to most important.
Factors throughout include:
  • Number of candidates.
  • The extent philosophical differences between candidates. The closer the major candidates were, the fewer the consequences would have been had the election gone the other way.
  • The importance of these philosophical differences. Ethanol subsidies and slavery don't hold equal weight.
  • Guesstimation was also a factor. This was not a scientific exercise and contradictions may occur. Feel free to point them out.
58. 1820: James Monroe defeats nobody
It was the "Era of Good Feeling," and everyone was feeling so good that no one challenged incumbent James Monroe out of the remnants of the dead Federalist Party. Since Monroe's reelection was inevitable, it is hard to consider any other election the least important in U.S. history. The only argument to the contrary is that the Monroe Doctrine was not established until 1823.
57. 1792: George Washington defeats nobody
By a similar token as 1820, there was also very little at stake in the second-ever election.
56. 1872: Ulysses S. Grant defeats Horace Greeley
The only way an election can be less critical than if there is no opposition is when the opposition dies (although Greeley did so after the election). Greeley did not run as a Democrat anyway, but as a "Liberal Republican." Shows you how far apart the parties were at the time.
55. 1880: James Garfield defeats Winfield Hancock
The post-Civil War elections weren't particularly important, even though voter turnout was high.
54. 1876: Rutherford B. Hayes defeats Samuel Tilden
This was a hugely contested race which Hayes "won" 185-184 in the Electoral College on March 2, two days before inauguration, after some major controversy. The ramifications were huge, as to get Hayes into office, the Republicans were forced to end Reconstruction. However, nobody could have known how tight the race would end up being as they went to vote.
53. 1816: James Monroe defeats Rufus King
The Federalist Party was at this point a total shell of an operation and would go on to lose its fifth straight campaign.
52. 1956: Dwight Eisenhower defeats Adlai Stevenson
51. 1936: Franklin D. Roosevelt defeats Alf Landon
50. 1944: Franklin D. Roosevelt defeats Thomas Dewey
49. 1984: Ronald Reagan defeats Walter Mondale
48: 1804: Thomas Jefferson defeats Charles Pinckney
47. 1832: Andrew Jackson defeats Henry Clay
46. 1904: Theodore Roosevelt defeats Alton Parker
45. 1996: Bill Clinton defeats Bob Dole
44. 1972: Richard Nixon defeats George McGovern
43. 1964: Lyndon B. Johnson defeats Barry Goldwater
These last ten listings (43-52) were all reelection efforts that everybody knew would succeed, and which did so without drama. 1964 and 1972 rank highest among these, because their losing candidates would have a massive impact on the future course of the Republican and Democratic Party, respectively, which the very fact of their nominations indicated might happen even at the time of the election. They still rank relatively low because of how much of a rout they were always going to be.
42. 1908: William Howard Taft defeats William Jennings Bryan
41. 1900: William McKinley defeats William Jennings Bryan
Bryan's last two campaigns continued to represent strong differences with the Republicans, but decreasing strength of the same message led to difficulty recreating the level of consequence his first election effort achieved. 
40. 1868: Ulysses S. Grant defeats Horatio Seymour
39. 1980: Ronald Reagan defeats Jimmy Carter
38. 1952: Dwight Eisenhower defeats Adlai Stevenson
37. 1920: Warren G. Harding defeats James Cox
36. 1924: Calvin Coolidge defeats James Davis and Robert LaFollette
35. 1988: George H.W. Bush defeats Michael Dukakis 
34. 1932: Franklin D. Roosevelt defeats Herbert Hoover
These seven (34-40) were races where the winner was not yet president, and while some did include an incumbent on the ballot, the result still felt predetermined. 1932 ranks the highest because, although the differences between Hoover and Roosevelt were arguably not that stark, the possibility of Hoover's term extending certainly seemed unbearable at the time.
33. 1808: James Madison defeats Charles Pinckney
32. 1836: Martin Van Buren defeats William Henry Harrison
31. 1840: William Henry Harrison defeats Martin Van Buren
These last three elections are presented without comment, not because their significance is self-evident, but indeed for the precise opposite reason.
30. 2008: Barack Obama defeats John McCain
29. 2012: Barack Obama defeats Mitt Romney
We'll put the two most recent elections smack dab in the middle of the list and leave you to your own devices.
28. 2016
And because this one hasn't happened yet, it goes higher than the Obama elections, but it's also too close for comfort to rank any higher or lower. (What a cop-out, I know!)
27. 1992: Bill Clinton defeats George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot
A Perot win, as unlikely as it was given he ended up with 19% of the popular vote and no electoral votes, would have been a game changer. Overall, however, because this race was the first post-Cold War election, the stakes didn't seem quite so high.
26. 1884: Grover Cleveland defeats James G. Blaine
25. 1888: Benjamin Harrison defeats Grover Cleveland
24. 1892: Grover Cleveland defeats Benjamin Harrison and James Weaver
Let's group the Cleveland elections together. Weaver, leading the Populist Party ticket, was a serious third party candidate, ultimately winning 8.5% of the popular vote and 22 electoral votes in five states, making 1892 possibly the most important of these three campaigns.
23. 1928: Herbert Hoover defeats Al Smith
Although the race did not end up especially close and most expected a Hoover win, the Smith campaign represented a major precedent at the time as he became the first Roman Catholic nominee of a major party.
22. 1848: Zachary Taylor defeats Lewis Cass
21. 1852: Franklin Pierce defeats Winfield Scott
The slavery question was only getting increasingly tense as the 1840's gave way to the 1850's.
20. 1912: Woodrow Wilson defeats William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt
It's hard to place this election, which featured the most realistically electable third party campaign in U.S. history. Ultimately, Wilson and Roosevelt were surprisingly close politically and Taft never stood a chance, so the 1912 election does not rank as highly as it could have.
19. 2000: George W. Bush defeats Al Gore
18. 1960: John F. Kennedy defeats Richard Nixon
1960 and 2000 were two incredibly close contests going in. They also featured popular incumbents giving way to their vice presidents, who would lose. Despite 2000 ultimately becoming more contentious and certainly more litigious, the international situation in 1960 was, as it seemed at the time (and probably as it also was in fact), exponentially more volatile, so its election clearly places ahead of 2000's on this list. Frankly, 1960 could rank ten spots higher, but its parallels with 2000 are uncanny.
17. 1976: Jimmy Carter defeats Gerald Ford
Not a massively important election per se, but in the shadow of Watergate, it produced one of the weirdest campaigns in U.S. history, where Carter's borderline-aw-shucks, you-can-trust-me campaign nearly wasted a 20-point edge against the man who during the debates denied that Poland was under Soviet control and whose stellar collegiate football career couldn't save him from Chevy Chase's wrath on TV for having fallen down a staircase. Because of Watergate, people thought they knew what they were voting for and why (even if they didn't really), making this a moderately important election. If this were a list of the dumbest or shallowest elections in U.S. history, 1976 would be #1 by a mile, although if Donald Trump is the 2016 Republican nominee, this upcoming election will challenge 1976 for that hypothetical title.
16. 1948: Harry S. Truman defeats Thomas Dewey
While famous for the resulting edition of the Chicago Tribune, the question of the future of the New Deal still resulted in an important campaign that had real implications for the future of the country.
15. 1844: James Polk defeats Henry Clay
Although no one necessarily knew it at the time, Polk's campaign promises would all be kept, including his proclaimed pursuit of a single term. Clay, who at 67 was 18 years older than Polk, was running his fourth and final campaign. It was America's last chance to see what kind of president Clay might have been, but the nation was once again less than enthralled by the opportunity.
14. 1824: John Quincy Adams defeats Andrew Jackson, William Crawford, and Henry Clay
13. 1828: Andrew Jackson defeats John Quincy Adams
The uncontested 1820 election may have been the result of a so-called "good feeling," but the two Adams-Jackson campaigns were the most vitriolic in U.S. history.
12. 1896: William McKinley defeats William Jennings Bryan
After the Democrats' nomination of Bryan effectively co-opted the Populist Party (see 1892, #24), the chances of that movement placing a candidate in the White House grew, but the voters ultimately went with McKinley after his famous front porch campaign.
11. 1812: James Madison defeats DeWitt Clinton
With the war already underway (which war, you were about to ask before noting the year of this election), its course would be greatly determined by the outcome of this race, and everyone was aware of it. In the end, Pennsylvania or Virginia, each with 25 electoral votes, went with Madison; either one for Clinton, and he would have won.
10. 2004: George W. Bush defeats John Kerry
Unlike 2000, held just before things got really serious again after the seeming afterglow of the end of the Cold War, the stakes in 2004 were obvious to everyone, not just partisans. The direction of Iraq, and indeed the entire U.S. post-9/11 national security apparatus, would be highly shaped by the outcome of this race.
9. 1968: Richard Nixon defeats Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace
The future of the U.S. effort in Vietnam was at stake, and while Humphrey as president probably could not have ended the effort as quickly as some of the fiercer anti-war elements might have wanted, the '68 campaign was still highly contested with much at stake.
8. 1796: John Adams defeats Thomas Jefferson
7. 1800: Thomas Jefferson defeats Aaron Burr/John Adams
The first two contested campaigns in U.S. history were hugely important. The United Kingdom and France continued to exert major influence on the country, and the Federalists and Republicans truly were far apart on important matters. Obviously, the 1800 race became important afterwards by leading to the situation that would ultimately produce the 12th Amendment and modern presidential campaigns.
6. 1940: Franklin D. Roosevelt defeats Wendell Willkie
At stake was the most important precedent in U.S. history: the self-imposed two-term limit initiated by George Washington and kept by every other future president (despite efforts by some such as Ulysses S. Grant, who tried but failed for the 1880 Republican nomination). Additionally, while World War II was still Europe's problem at the time, it was clearly a major issue of this campaign as well.
5. 1916: Woodrow Wilson defeats Charles Hughes
Wars, or the specter thereof, greatly increase the stakes of any election, which is why wartime races dominate the upper quarter of this list. Not only was U.S. entry into the Great War the question of this campaign, but it was a nail-biter of a race, decided by 23 electoral votes. It was Wilson, of course, who campaigned on staying out of the war, only to change course in 1917.
4. 1856: James Buchanan defeats John Fremont and Millard Fillmore
With the Republican Party still in its nascence, this election was not quite as important as some that were to come very soon. However, a Fremont win would have made things really interesting, and a Fillmore win could have given us a foreshadowing of what President Donald J. Trump's "reign" (as he frighteningly often uses to mean administration) might look like.
3. 1789: George Washington
At the beginning of this exercise we established the uncontested 1820 election as the least important in U.S. history, in large part because it was uncontested. And Washington's reelection ranked 57th, next-to-last. Although there were technically other candidates in the first-ever presidential election, it was well-known that Washington would be picked. So why rank this election second near the top of the list? Well, one reason everyone knew Washington would be elected is because everyone knew how important it was to get this decision correct. Pick the wrong first president and the country may not survive for very long. That said, future events would prevent this race from always being the most important in history.
2. 1860: Abraham Lincoln defeats John Breckinridge, John Bell, and Stephen Douglas
1. 1864: Abraham Lincoln defeats George McClellan
It's really pretty clear what the two most important presidential elections in U.S. history were. These races could really be 1A and 1B, but the stakes were arguably higher in 1864 because a McClellan win would have basically made the whole war for naught. Lincoln spent much of the year despondent, convinced he would lose. Imagine where U.S. history would have gone had a conciliatory President McClellan ended the war with little to no consequences whatsoever.
An argument could nonetheless be made for 1860, where it was pretty certain that a Lincoln win would have massive consequences, even if some in the south, where Lincoln was of course not on the ballot, held out hope a different candidate might win. The splintered Democratic Party ultimately got Lincoln into office with 39% of the popular vote, unleashing the greatest tragedy in U.S. history, despite the positive outcomes that eventually rose out of it after the Emancipation Proclamation forced everyone to understand that whether it was at the outset, slavery was now the seminal issue of the war.
Either way you rate these two campaigns, Lincoln's elections were clearly the most consequential in U.S. history, and Americans certainly understood them as such before the votes were cast.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

New Location

I recently moved away from Blogger and to WordPress. Below are the links to the first two posts at the new location.

Using the Spread and Over/Under to Predict Super Bowl Scores

Game Show Hosting Ethics: Advancing Gameplay While Maintaining Fairness

The best address to find my blog posts from now on is

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Worst AY/A with 50+ Attempts in the Playoffs

In the 2015 AFC Championship Game, Tom Brady threw 56 passes for 310 yards with a touchdown and 2 interceptions, for an adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) of 4.29. His New England Patriots lost to the Denver Broncos, 20-18.

Here are the ten lowest AY/A marks in a playoff game for a quarterback with 50+ attempts.

Fortunately for Carson Palmer, the Patriots-Broncos game happened first today, leaving 50 attempts as my cutoff instead of 40. Palmer posted a 1.88 AY/A on his 40 throws as the Cardinals got blown out by the Panthers, 49-15.

10. Andrew Luck, 2012 Wild Card round: 28-54 for 288, 0 TD, 1 INT (4.50 AY/A). L: Ravens 24, Colts 9.
Andrew Luck's first playoff game did not go well. The Colts actually ran for 152 yards, including 35 from Luck, snapping the ball a whopping 87 times yet only producing 9 points. The Colts managed to trail only 10-6 at halftime thanks to field goals of 47 and 52 yards. This was not a two-possession game until 9:40 remaining, after which Luck threw, ran, or was sacked on all but one play.

9. Danny White, 1983 Wild Card game: 32-53 for 330, 2 TD, 3 INT (4.43 AY/A). L: Rams 24, Cowboys 17.
This game was 7-7 at the half and Dallas led 10-7 in the third, but didn't score again until after they had fallen behind 24-10. Tony Dorsett was held to 59 yards on 17 carries.

8. Todd Collins, 2007 Wild Card round: 29-50 for 266, 2 TD, 2 INT (4.32 AY/A). L: Seahawks 35, Redskins 14.
I remember this one. The Redskins trailed 13-0 until Collins found Antwaan Randle El on the first play of the fourth quarter. A Matt Hasselbeck interception followed and the Redskins turned it into a 14-13 lead...and it was all downhill from there. Collins' picks came late trailing 21-14, and both were returned for touchdowns. Clinton Portis was held to 52 yards on 20 attempts.

7. Jim Kelly, Super Bowl XXVIII: 31-50 for 260, 0 TD, 1 INT (4.30 AY/A). L: Cowboys 30, Bills 13.
One of two Super Bowl appearances on this list. This game is well known for Buffalo's 13-6 halftime lead being erased on a Thurman Thomas fumble getting returned for a touchdown and the effort collapsing thereafter. Buffalo continued to run the ball but went three-and-out, allowed a touchdown, then suffered a 24-yard punt. Not until 27-13 did Kelly start consistently throwing, but Buffalo never scored again.

6. Brady on Sunday

5. Steve Young, 1995 Divisional Round: 32-65 for 328, 0 TD, 2 INT (3.66 AY/A). L: Packers 27, 49ers .17
San Francisco trailed 21-0 in the first quarter, and outside of Young's 9 carries for 77 yards, the 49ers ran 9 times for 10 yards. San Francisco managed to get to 21-10 despite some conservative decision making for a team trailing by 21, including a punt on 4th and 1 and a 21-yard field goal on 4th and goal from the three. Young kept throwing but to no avail.

4. Tom Brady, 2006 Divisional Round: 27-51 for 280, 2 TD, 3 INT (3.63 AY/A). W: Patriots 24, Chargers 21.
Yes, Brady with another game on this list, and, naturally, the only win. This was the one where he was intercepted with 6:25 left trailing 21-13 by Marlon McCree, who fumbled, allowing New England to tie the game anyway. They got the ball back with 3:30 to play and Brady completed 2 of 4 passes for 68 yards to lead to a 31 yard field goal. San Diego missed a 54 yarder with 3 seconds left to wrap the game up. As with many of these games, New England ran poorly: 21 times for 51 yards.

3. Jay Schroeder, 1986 NFC Championship Game: 20-50 for 195, 0 TD, 1 INT (3.00 AY/A). L: Giants 17, Redskins 0.
One of just two conference championship games on this list, this is the one where Bill Parcells took the wind to start the game, allowing the Giants to take a 10-0 lead through one. They scored again in the second quarter and the score held as Washington could not get anything going. (They also ran 15 times for 40 yards.) Schroeder threw for 4109 yards this season but could not muster anything against the dominating New York defense, which also sacked him 4 times for 45 yards (none by Lawrence Taylor, however).

2. Drew Bledsoe, 1995 Wild Card round: 21-50 for 235, 1 TD, 3 INT (2.40 AY/A). L: Browns 20, Patriots 13.
Bledsoe had a pretty sorry 3.6 AY/A in his playoff career, so unsurprisingly, asking him to pass 50 times did not work out, even though he attempted 626 passes in the regular season (setting the incomplete pass record in the process.) This game was 10-10 at halftime and the Patriots did not trail by multiple possessions until the fourth quarter. This was just how Parcells had his team playing in those days as Patriots backs managed 55 yards on 14 rushes.

1. Jim Kelly, Super Bowl XXVI: 28-58 for 275, 2 TD, 4 INT (2.33 AY/A). L: Redskins 37, Bills 24.
Yup, the other Super Bowl on this list is another Jim Kelly job. We end with a game that was indeed an early rout: despite a scoreless first quarter, Washington led 17-0 at halftime and 24-0 early in the third. Kelly was also sacked 5 times, losing 46 yards. Thurman Thomas was held to 13 yards on 10 carries after infamously forgetting his helmet at the start of the game. Thanks to a successful onside kick, about the best thing the Bills had done all day, they did muster a couple late touchdowns, while unsurprisingly passing all but 3 times, to turn a 37-10 deficit into a 37-24 final.

Despite the two late scoring tosses, Kelly ended up with 63 extremely ineffective dropbacks in one of the highest-volume, lowest-efficiency playoff games of all time.