Of all or our presidential elections going back 228 years to 1788, the one in 2016 was one of the strangest. Historians struggling for a comparison often return to the Andrew Jackson/John Quincy Adams election in 1828. There are some superficial parallels but they apply more to voter dynamics in both elections than to the winning candidates. Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump were both authoritarian personalities who personalized their enemies. Beyond that they seem to have very little in common. The elections though do have more in common. Both elections, in 1828 and in 2016, were “surge elections”. In 1828, many southern frontiersmen, who had been politically both inactive and ignored were galvanized into action in support of the Tennessee military hero and slave owner, Andrew Jackson. The “good people,” the establishment of their day were often horrified by the crude and clearly unprepared dueling Indian fighter, Jackson. Ironically, one hundred and eighty eight years later the descendants of those same Scots-Irish frontiersmen surged once again to help elect Donald Trump. And, once again the good people, who made up the establishment were horrified that someone so clearly unqualified could take the office from a candidate they felt much more experienced and knowledgeable.
The losers in those two elections do have more in common. Both had long been active in politics. Both had spent time in “the President’s House” (It was not officially the White House till 1908). John Quincy was thirty when his father, John Adams, succeeded George Washington in the presidency. By that time the younger Adams had years of experience traveling with his diplomat father. Hillary Clinton was forty five when her husband, and long time Arkansas governor, was elected to the first of his two terms in the presidency. Both Hillary Clinton and the younger Adams were obsessively studious and highly intelligent. Both served as U.S. Senators and both served as successful Secretaries of State (After his defeat in 1828, Adams soldiered on in government. Having been defeated by Jackson in 1828, Adams was elected to the House of Representatives where he continued to actively serve until his death on the floor of the House in 1846.).
Neither John Quincy Adams nor Hillary Clinton were “natural politicians”: Rotund and balding in middle age, Adams hardly cut a dashing political figure. During his single term, Adams clung to the goal of making all appointments on what he perceived to be personal ability regardless of the appointees’ political bent. The result was that his great goals were constantly undercut. The hard working President did have great goals. He created an elaborate plan for internal improvements (canals, highways), which if realized would have been a tremendous benefit to the voters who had supported Jackson. Instead, the voters flocked to Andrew Jackson who, by killing the national bank, ruined the economy.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton, a short figure in a pantsuit, did not cut a dashing figure either. Never fully comfortable before large audiences (on the stage with her husband she seemed to disappear), Clinton can telegraph both anger and defensiveness. Still, like Adams, 188 years earlier, no one could doubt that the hard working lawyerly Clinton was not well prepared. And, she too had plans. During her campaign detailed position papers on a multiplicity of issues were posted on the internet for all to see. Had those plans been implemented many who voted for the ill prepared Donald Trump would certainly have benefited.
So why were these two, well intentioned, well prepared candidates not able to win?
1) Both were victims of a surge election in which substantial numbers of voters who normally would not have voted went to the polls for the winning candidate.
2) Both faced larger than life figures who were ill prepared for the presidency but difficult to defeat. Jackson, the hero of New Orleans was already a prematurely old man in constant pain when he took office in 1829. Already famous, Donald Trump aroused the angry crowds who came to his rallies but he was not prepared for the Presidency at all. He probably never really expected to win. He also benefited from the belief on the part of many in the Clinton campaign that someone so ill prepared could not win.
3) Both seemed to many voters to have been around too long (in 2016, people spoke of Clinton fatigue). John Quincy Adams and Hillary Clinton could claim long experience in government but to voters angry with elites, experience is a disqualifier. They want an outsider to come in and “drain the swamp”.
4) Adams great plans simply did not register with the kind of people who voted for Jackson. Jackson was for Indian removal. He would make cheap or free land available to white men (only white men could vote). Jackson had been tough (and illegal) against the Spanish in Florida. He would protect his white voters. The people who voted for Trump did not bother to read Hillary Clinton’s policy papers and on the stump she was more motherly than explanatory. Donald Trump had a simple clear message. He would do what it took to bring back their jobs!
5) Because modern technology allows voters to really see the candidates, an attractive but authoritative personality is increasingly a requirement for success. John Quincy Adams was an irascible New Englander but very few voters would actually see him. Hillary Clinton would be seen by millions. Though considered charming and witty in private, she was more likely to project a kind of ineffective femininity in public (In her new book, What Happened, she laments that she did not go after Trump for looming over her in the second debate.).
6) Both Adams and Clinton were the victims of uninformed voters. The voters don’t really vote for a person, they vote for a symbol of that person. Both Adams and Clinton had been vilified by their political enemies for years. Adams was a New England elitist who would be soft of slavery. Hillary had been branded as dishonest and evil for years by the political enemies of her husband. That ingrained symbolism proved impossible for her to overcome. Donald Trump was something less than a monument to truth but his frustrated followers simply did not care.
7) Both Adams and Clinton faced almost impossible personal challenges. Adams was from New England. In the rest of the country New Englanders (the original yankees) were considered foreigners. In 1828, it was still considered bad form for presidential candidates to campaign. Presidential hopefuls were supposed to stay down on the plantation and wait for the call. Even if he had wanted to campaign more than he did, it would have been difficult to win in areas outside commercial centers and across the South where Jackson was a national hero. Hillary Clinton, in retrospect knows that she should have campaigned more vigorously in states like Michigan and Wisconsin where a few changed votes might have allowed her to win. But, her personality and speaking style would still have worked against her. Woman candidates, particularly, are the victims of stereotypes. Hillary Clinton could see herself as an American Angela Merkel, a highly capable leader who knows how to, once in office, effectively move the levers of power. Here, it is hard to win if the audiences look up and only see a political Earth Mother, and they would have!