Herewith, my personal picks for who I’d support in every presidential election from 1789 to the present. Feel free to chime in with your own choices or explain why you disagree with mine.
A note on what I mean by “support”: I’m making my calculations based on a combination of which candidate I like the most and what I think candidates’ chances are of winning. I’m also not counting strategic voting (voting my conscience for a minor candidate in a state where my vote doesn’t matter). Nor am I considering regional “favorite son” status (i.e., the 1836 election). In addition, I’m not allowing the electoral college to influence my choice — so I won’t be voting for my favorite electors, rather than my favorite candidates, in early elections where real Americans likely made the opposite calculations. Finally, I’m making these choices based on who I am today — not who I would have been with a different upbringing in a different period of time (so I’m not imagining myself as a Midwestern farmer, for instance). If you choose to play along, make sure you play by these rules!
1789: George Washington (no party). No choice in the matter.
1792: George Washington (no party). Again, no choice in the matter.
1796: John Adams (Federalist). Now things are getting a bit tricky. I wouldn’t exactly be a Federalist partisan, not with that crazy royalist Hamilton knocking about. But I also don’t think I would have supported a party defined by Southern plantation owners and a decentralized government. So I’d be a Federalist-leaning independent. In this case, despite my respect for Jefferson, I’d go with Adams, whom I also respected.
1800: John Adams (Federalist). Adams was coming off a pretty disastrous first term, but he’d also shown he could keep Hamilton in check and control his own presidency, so that’s all to the good. I’d also be one of those voters who was actually disturbed by the allegations of slave-rape leveled against Jefferson.
1804: Charles C. Pinckney (Federalist). Pinckney’s campaign was a feeble one, but I still wouldn’t have been a fan of Jefferson’s administration.
1808: James Madison (Democratic-Republican). Madison and George Clinton would be the only two Democratic-Republicans I’d consider supporting at this point. I’d have a soft spot for the author of Federalist No. 10, so he’d get my vote. As for Pinckney, I’d still be a nominal Federalist, but it’s, well, Charles C. Pinckney.
1812: DeWitt Clinton (Federalist). DeWitt Clinton was an odious partisan and nowhere near the man his uncle was, but I’d still have supported him over the lackluster Madison administration that had almost wrecked the country in war.
1816: Rufus King (Federalist). Finally a Federalist I could be proud of again! The turncoat King was a brilliant and able man, and would earn my enthusiastic vote.
1820: James Monroe (Democratic-Republican). No choice in this election either.
1824: Henry Clay (no party). In a wide-open field, I’d go with the able and charismatic Clay. Andrew Jackson would be my last choice of the four candidates.
1828: John Quincy Adams (National Republican). Adams’ administration was a disaster, but I’d still take his brilliant mind any day over the wild Indian fighter from the West.
1832: Henry Clay (National Republican). In this three-way race, I’d again pick the charismatic Clay over the jingoistic Jackson and Wirt.
1836: Daniel Webster (Whig). In this election, the Whigs ran three favorite-son candidates against Jackson successor Martin Van Buren in an early primary for 1840. I wouldn’t pick Van Buren, but I also wouldn’t go with William Henry Harrison, who was a bit of an empty suit, or with Southern Whig Hugh White. That leaves Webster, brilliant, charismatic, and moderately opposed to slavery.
1840: William Henry Harrison (Whig). Sure, Harrison was an empty suit, but I’d be voting for his handlers. He’d still be better than the conniving Van Buren. My heart would be with James Birney of the new Liberty Party, but at 0.31% of the vote, he wouldn’t win my support.
1844: Henry Clay (Whig). At this point I would feel that I had a party to really call my own, led by the magnificent Clay. I might name my second son Henry Clay Young (after Jeremy Jr. of course). Birney’s 2% would be more appealing, but I’d still support Clay.
1848: Martin Van Buren (Free Soil). Probably the toughest election on the list. Should I pick Whig empty suit Zachary Taylor, an able man from the wrong party in Lewis Cass, or a surprisingly strong antislavery candidate whho, unfortunately, was the hated Van Buren? It would be a difficult choice, but, not much caring whether Taylor or Cass won in the end, I’d probably trust Van Buren to at least send a message to the Whigs about their lukewarm relationship with abolition.
1852: Winfield Scott (Whig). Much as I dislike the Whig tradition of nominating generals with little political experience, they actually picked an insightful one this time. John Hale of the Free Soil Party wouldn’t be as tempting because of his lack of support.
1856: John C. Fremont (Republican). With the party of Clay busted up beyond recognition, I’d turn to the Republicans for a true radical abolitionist.
1860: Abraham Lincoln (Republican). No real question here: obviously I’d oppose the various pro-Southern campaigns of the other candidates.
1864: Abraham Lincoln (Republican). Again, I wouldn’t consider voting for what essentially was a campaign of Southern sympathizers. Plus, um, Abraham Lincoln.
1868: Ulysses S. Grant (Republican). At this point I would be primary an issue voter: maintain Radical Reconstruction, and I’ll vote for you. This time, that vote would go to the able General Grant.
1872: Ulysses S. Grant (Republican). Another tough one. Horace Greeley was everything I wanted in a President: brilliant, thoughtful, charismatic, a man of letters. Meanwhile, Grant’s administration had been a disaster. Nevertheless, the need to maintain Radical Reconstruction would prevail over my personal preference.
1876: Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican). Again, Samuel Tilden was the abler of the candidates, but Hayes was at least nominally for Reconstruction, so I’d stick with the party-line vote.
1880: James A. Garfield (Republican). Despite my almost total disgust with the Republican Party for abandoning Reconstruction, I’d still vote for them one last time. Garfield had a reputation as a reformer, while Hancock was a political newcomer running for a party that still had a great deal of Southern influence (if not domination).
1884: Grover Cleveland (Democrat). At this point, my allegiance would tip decidedly toward the Democrats. Cleveland, a man of integrity and honor, would be a better choice than the charismatic but scurrilous James G. Blaine, the railroads’ man in Washington.
1888: Grover Cleveland (Democrat). An even easier choice, since I’d have no love at all for the taciturn and pro-tariff Benjamin Harrison.
1892: Grover Cleveland (Democrat). A tough choice between Cleveland and Populist James B. Weaver. My heart would be with Weaver, but since I’d see Cleveland as a clear upgrade over Harrison and wouldn’t think Weaver had much of a chance, I’d vote for the candidate who could win.
1896: William Jennings Bryan (Democrat). At this point I would become a rabid Democratic partisan, in the most clear-cut election in decades between the people and the “interests.”
1900: William Jennings Bryan (Democrat). Given the same choice, I’d pick the same candidate again. I just wouldn’t expect a different result.
1904: Theodore Roosevelt (Republican). Since the Democrats repudiated Bryan and nominated the conservative Alton B. Parker, I’d go with the progressive-flavored Roosevelt. This is the last election in which I’d vote for a Republican (though not the last in which I’d think about it).
1908: William Jennings Bryan (Democrat). I’d be slightly tempted by the Roosevelt-endorsed William Howard Taft, but not nearly enough to keep me from voting for my hero. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be overly disappointed when Taft won.
1912: Theodore Roosevelt (Progressive). In a wide-open election, I’d be torn between the newly-radicalized Roosevelt and the less radical, but still progressive, Woodrow Wilson. I wouldn’t consider Taft, who’d proven to be a conservative, or Eugene Debs, whose congenial views would be outweighed by his lack of support. Once I was convinced that Taft didn’t stand a chance, I’d probably vote my conscience among the big three candidates.
1916: Woodrow Wilson (Democrat). The Republicans didn’t nominate the worst candidate in Charles Evans Hughes, but I’d be pretty happy with Wilson at this point.
1920: James Cox (Democrat). I’d continue to vote Democratic against the odious Warren G. Harding.
1924: Robert La Follette (Progressive). I’d consider the lackluster John Davis if I thought he had a chance, but since I’d be convinced Coolidge was winning in a landslide, I’d vote the Progressive ticket here. This is the last election in which I’d vote for anyone other than a Democrat.
1928: Al Smith (Democrat). Herbert Hoover, though a former Wilsonian, came from the wrong side of Progressivism for me. Al Smith came from the wrong side of the tracks, but that only made him more appealing.
1932: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Democrat). As clear-cut a choice as ever there was.
1936: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Democrat). Alf Landon wasn’t the worst Republican, but I’d see no reason to abandon the fabulously successful Roosevelt.
1940: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Democrat). The most difficult choice of FDR’s four elections. I wouldn’t want to see even a great president like FDR serve more than two terms, and Wendell Willkie was a uniquely appealing candidate, but ultimately I’d come down in favor of the candidate I liked more, term limits be damned.
1944: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Democrat). I still wouldn’t be thrilled about Roosevelt’s lifetime appointment, but Thomas E. Dewey certainly wasn’t the man to succeed him.
1948: Harry S Truman (Democrat). My heart would be with Henry Wallace, but I’d have no problem supporting Truman’s fantastically populist campaign — especially not after the Democrats came out in favor of civil rights for African Americans.
1952: Adlai Stevenson (Democrat). As a fellow egghead, I’d enthusiastically support Adlai.
1956: Adlai Stevenson (Democrat). Same candidates, same choice as before.
1960: John F. Kennedy (Democrat). I’d enthusiastically support Kennedy over the already-odious Richard Nixon.
1964: Lyndon B. Johnson (Democrat). I’d enthusiastically back the author of civil rights and the Great Society.
1968: Hubert Humphrey (Democrat). Humphrey wouldn’t be my first choice in the primary (though he’d probably be my second, after Eugene McCarthy), but I’d definitely back him over Nixon.
1972: George McGovern (Democrat). McGovern — what a fantastic leader. I’d be thrilled to support him over Nixon.
1976: Jimmy Carter (Democrat). I wouldn’t share Arthur Schlesinger’s opposition to this evangelical liberal who promised always to tell me the truth. Gerald Ford was a nice man, but he voted against civil rights when he was in Congress, and that’s a deal-breaker for me.
1980: Jimmy Carter (Democrat). Am I better off than I was four years ago? Sadly, no. Am I better off than I would have been under Reagan? Absolutely. I wouldn’t really consider John Anderson, though of course he’d be better than Reagan.
1984: Walter Mondale (Democrat). Another great leader who never really had a chance — I’d be thrilled to support him.
1988: Michael Dukakis (Democrat). A lackluster candidate with a good heart — but a damn sight better than the opposition.
1992: Bill Clinton (Democrat). Another bad candidate (the worst in the primary field, outside of Bob Kerrey), but better than Bush, though I would have appreciated Bush’s neoliberal foreign policy. I wouldn’t really consider Ross Perot’s government-by-billionaire-technocrats independent campaign.
1996: Bill Clinton (Democrat). I’d probably consider Perot a little more seriously this time, since Clinton turned out to be every bit as bad as I’d feared, if not worse. But ultimately, Clinton would still be a better president than Bob Dole.
2000: Al Gore (Democrat). I actually really liked Al Gore, and I still do. He was a terrible campaigner, but a visionary politician — certainly much better than the empty suit on the other side of the aisle (though I would have thought seriously about backing John McCain if he’d won his primary).
2004: John Kerry (Democrat). A truly terrible primary choice (especially over the fiery progressive Howard Dean), but I’d still grudgingly vote for Kerry over Bush, as, indeed, I did.
2008: Barack Obama (Democrat). Obama was my grudging choice in the primary, and I was certainly happy to see him defeat John McCain.
2012: Barack Obama (Democrat). In real life, I’m voting for Green nominee Jill Stein, but only because I don’t live in a swing state. Obama has turned out to be terrible, but he’s still better than the other choice, faux-moderate though it may be.