Kelly: Top presidential elections? Abe, FDR -
Published Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 2:00 am
Kelly: Top presidential elections? Abe, FDR

An Omaha professor's national survey of political scientists has concluded that America's "most consequential" presidential elections were in 1860 and 1932 — Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The election of the first African-American president, in 2008, did not even make the top 10 list. Though Barack Obama's rise to the nation's highest office was momentous historically, the political scientists surveyed did not consider it one of the most consequential elections for the nation.

The survey was released Monday, Presidents Day, by Randall Adkins, chairman of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. It happened at a conference at the University of Louisville's nonpartisan McConnell Center.

Though the survey focused on the 56 previous U.S. presidential elections, Adkins also spoke on a panel there about the 2012 election, saying it could become one of the most consequential, though that is unclear.

Back in Omaha on Wednesday, he noted that Republicans so far aren't coalescing around any one candidate to go against President Obama.

"We see a situation right now," Adkins said, "that there is a path toward a brokered convention."

If that occurred, he said, the GOP very well could select a candidate not now in the running — such as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana or former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida.

And whether the 2012 election becomes one of the most consequential politically, Adkins said, depends on — consequences. For example, whether it is followed by changes in such things as how convention delegates are allocated, the timing of primaries and campaign financing.

The McConnell Center, named for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, annually conducts political surveys about the presidency for release on Presidents Day. Its executive director, Gary L. Gregg, was a graduate-school classmate of Adkins' at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Adkins suggested a survey of "Presidential Elections That Shaped America," which became the title, and Gregg asked Adkins to take charge as lead author. Experts responded from Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Duke, Ohio State and other universities across the nation.

Criteria included significant changes in patterns of behavior by the electorate, relationships between Congress and the president, change in public policy and significant resulting political or social change.

The top 10 elections:

10. (tie) 1789, for the legacy established by our first president, George Washington; and 1968, (Richard Nixon) for its impact on how future campaigns were conducted.

9. 1912 (Woodrow Wilson), which affected policy for decades and, as David Crockett of Trinity University said, "set the philosophical foundations for more vigorous state activity."

8. 1964 (Lyndon Johnson), which Towson University's Michael Korzi said produced a dramatic liberalization of American politics but also saw the beginnings of Republican opposition that culminated in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan.

7. 1896 (William McKinley), who defeated William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, an election that Laura Olson of Clemson University said "firmly established the now-longstanding link between the Republican Party and the business community."

6. 2000 (George W. Bush), the "most competitive" election. Paul-Henri Gurian of the University of Georgia noted that the electoral vote would have gone to Democrat Al Gore (who won the national popular vote) with a switch of 269 votes in Florida, giving him the state and the Electoral College victory.

5. 1828 (Andrew Jackson), in which all states but one used popular vote to choose electors to the Electoral College. Said Peri Arnold of Notre Dame: "Jackson and the rise of the 'common man' make a good case for the most socially and culturally significant election in our history."

4. 1980 (Ronald Reagan) was a historical marker, said Rebecca Deen of the University of Texas at Arlington, and "a launching pad for contemporary conservatism."

3. 1800 (Thomas Jefferson), an election that Andrew Dowdle of the University of Arkansas said "represented the first peaceful transition of power at the national level."

2. 1932 (Franklin D. Roosevelt), which Jasmine Farrier of the University of Louisville said "stands out for its foreshadowed presidential centeredness and the permanent reordering of the relationship between individuals, corporations, states and the federal government."

1. 1860 (Lincoln). Said Towson's Korzi: "Not only did that election trigger the Civil War, the subordination of the once economically dominant South and the end of slavery, but it centralized federal power, redefined citizenship and established the economic policy regime that supported the emergence of corporate capitalism in the final decades of the 19th century."

So what do our presidential elections say about us, the American voters?

First, Adkins said, our elections say that we believe in the process. Even in 1876 and 2000, for example, when the popular-vote winner lost in the Electoral College, the parties that lost accepted it.

"Second, we are very competitive people," he said. "That is clearly exemplified in how long these presidential elections are, how negative and mean-spirited the campaigns can be and how much money we spend on them. And we all like to be identified with a winner."

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