Historically, when an election has a wide-open field of candidates, both inside and outside of the two-party system, it's a symptom of America facing a major crossroads.
Sometimes it's a party ideological battle, like in our third presidential election of 1796 -- where the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans struggled with the new identity of the nation they helped create.
Even more radical, when social change issues stress the election process, strange things start to happen -- like in the nineteenth election of 1860. Slavery had stressed the Republic to the point where roughly 40 candidates (some campaigning in multiple parties) were vying for the position of president, which created one of the most significant plurality victories in American history: the election of Abraham Lincoln.
Examining these elections within the modern political context can help us understand that America is in fact standing at yet another crossroads.
The Presidential Election of 1796
With George Washington refusing to accept another term, America was under its first trial by fire of peaceably shifting power from one executive to another.
The new Democratic-Republican party was hoping for its first chance at the presidency, with Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr being their choices for president and vice-president.
The new government was in constant tension, with elections often being seen as the struggle between the Treasury and what perks an area's representatives and senators could provide.
As a whole, the Democratic-Republican party favored a smaller federal government, states' rights, and limiting the power of federal courts, while opposing a standing navy and national bank. This platform would be formalized under the Principles of 1798 and would remain the basis of their entire platform.
Within the Federalist party, there was a very broad interpretation of what it meant to have a strong federal government -- from a strict interpretation of the Constitution, to support for public works to build the nation's infrastructure. Much of the political jockeying between the presidency and the legislative branch pertained to these very basic issues that the parties held dear -- with money the dearest of all.
Even though the battle lines were fairly clear, it didn't mean there was unanimous agreement within the parties -- there wasn't even unanimous agreement on how the president should be chosen.Only 9 out of the 16 states used any form of the popular vote, and Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution gave complete control over the electoral process to the state legislatures, who in turn created a half-dozen different ways of appointing or electing their choices to the electoral college.
In the end, a total of 13 candidates won electoral votes in the 1796 election, with John Adams amazingly able to reach the "magic number" by two votes (71) to win with such a large field.
It is highly unlikely that we will ever see another scenario happen where 13 candidates earn electoral votes, yet we see the party identity crisis play out in modern politics -- much like what happened in 1796.
From America's place on the world stage to the domestic economy; wealth redistribution to poverty; to the very definitions of life itself -- both in the abortion debate and corporate personhood issues -- there is a very wide selection of what each American voter finds important for the upcoming four years.
While the Democratic field is still relatively small and unlikely to grow much larger, the Republican field seems to grow by the day. The modern GOP is having to establish what it means to be conservative in the 21st century and the primaries will be about this redefinition of the party's platform, and not just an "anyone but Hillary" form of campaigning.
The Presidential Election of 1860
While the electoral college was split between four candidates in 1860, the primaries prior to the general election were fiercely fought out on a regional and national level -- and by more than 40 contenders (with at least three running under two different party banners).
The Northern Democratic party faced such internal turmoil that it took 20 rounds of voting to establish that Stephen Douglas would be its candidate.
The Constitutional Union Party, which opted for compromise at any cost to save the Union, chose John Bell from Tennessee, who was neck-and-neck with the famous Texan, Sam Houston, after the first round of voting. As party deals were made, candidates withdrew and threw support behind Bell -- much to the irritation of Houston's supporters.
Houston's supporters attempted to launch yet another party bid, yet Houston called off the attempt because he believed it would only dilute the vote and "give" the election to the Republicans.
The Southern Democratic party had the most lock-step platform: preserving slavery in the American South and maintaining the status quo of the Missouri Compromise. John C. Breckinridge won the nomination easily, but largely due to Jefferson Davis declining to be nominated.
And then there was the Republican Party.
With a line-up of politicians recognizable in any household in 1860 America, the election was the party's to lose. Candidates included:
- William H. Seward of New York, the presumed front-runner and former secretary of state, governor of New York, and U.S. senator;
- Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, former governor of Ohio, U.S. senator, Treasury secretary, and future chief justice of the Supreme Court;
- Edward Bates of Missouri, well-known for his antics in the American Native (Know Nothings) Party and staunch opponent of slavery; and
- Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, a political newcomer famous for his well-publicized debates and unstained politically by only having served one term as a U.S. representative.
Relevant for today is why Lincoln was chosen over three better-qualified candidates.
Seward, though presumed to be the front-runner, was too radical for the party as a whole to accept, Chase's affiliation with the Democrats sent mixed signals, and Bates was seen as a political explosion waiting to happen. So the Republicans played it safe and chose the newcomer who had name recognition, a clean political record, and "western" appeal.Abraham Lincoln was literally the Mitt Romney of the election of 1860, chosen solely on the belief in his ability to hold the party together as a voting bloc -- and because of the four way race, Lincoln won the presidency, capturing only
History is well known, and playing it safe didn't work either -- with states immediately seceding after the election -- but what could be realistically expected when 6 out of 10 people didn't vote for the president?
The Republicans are faced with a similar choice today: stick with the past, reinvent the future, or play it safe. It's almost a no win scenario. Especially since it is exceedingly unlikely that the opposition is going to put up two candidates as "spoilers."
In 2016, the election isn't going to be a struggle of a newborn nation, learning to walk among the giant monarchies of colonial Europe. It isn't going to be a struggle over chattel slavery. But it is going to be a struggle over what fundamental rights a person has in 21st century America -- and what America's place on the world stage is going to be for the next 100 years.From the government defining marriage, life, personhood, or entitlement, to an America that spends more on militarization than the
next 15 nations combined, the crossroads we are at is a struggle to find our identity.
Not that our identity was ever lost, but our priorities can and do change over time. And every four years we have to pause and really think about these priorities as well as what we see as solutions to the problems we have.
The Democratic Party has launched an all-out rebranding of itself as the people's progressive party, but the Republicans are going to have to do much more soul searching.
That soul searching will play out in the Republican primaries, where the message of the GOP will be honed into a vision. Whether aspiring to a glimmer of the past, clinging to the status quo, jumping on the progressive bandwagon, or just simply playing it safe, the identity of the Republican Party hangs in the balance.
It's then up to the voters to decide.