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The Biden-Trump Rematch May Mark the End of an Era

Over the course of U.S. history, presidential rematches have signaled momentous political upheavals.

The first electoral replay pitted two of the new nation’s founders against each other. Having lost to him in 1796, Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams four years later. The historic 1800 campaign marked the first peaceful transfer of power in the nation’s short history—the first time a ruling party gave way to the loyal opposition.

It also led to major change in the system for selecting presidents. For even though Jefferson soundly defeated the incumbent on his second go round, an awkward electoral college tie between Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, delayed his victory and led almost immediately to the ratification of the 12th amendment. The original text of the U.S. Constitution had provided each member of the electoral college with two votes, with the leading vote-getter then becoming president and the runner up becoming vice president. After 1800, presidential electors cast votes for slates of president and vice president—the system that persists to the present day.

Another Adams, the second president’s son, figured in the next rematch. In 1828, Andrew Jackson avenged his previous defeat to John Quincy Adams (JQA). In their first contest, Jackson had tallied the most votes, but four candidates split the electoral college. Since no contender won a majority, the race went into the House of Representatives. After a deal between two of Jackson’s rivals put JQA over the top, Jackson supporters denounced what they called a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and Henry Clay, the candidate who became Adams’ Secretary of State.

Jackson easily won the rematch, but in 1828, both the established method for nominating candidates and the party system fell apart. Previously, congressional caucuses, a party’s members in the Congress, had selected nominees for the Democratic-Republican and Federalist parties. When the Federalists broke down in the late 1810s, congressional caucuses still nominated candidates for rival factions of the Democratic-Republicans. The Adams-Jackson rematch marked the last gasp of that era without a formal nominating process. Four years later, the parties officially replaced the fading congressional caucuses with national nominating conventions and solidified the so-called “second party system” of competition between the Democratic Party (the Jacksonians) and their rivals (eventually known as the Whigs).

While the names of the major parties would change, the Jackson-Adams rematch of 1828 ushered in the party era in national politics—a century dominated by party organizations and their bosses. During that period, partisan loyalties affected far more than voting behavior in November. It defined many Americans’ social lives: Workingmen gathered in party headquarters to drink, smoke, and socialize; political machines helped out families in times of need; religion, region, and ethnicity largely determined party attachments.