Skeletons Hiding Within Delaware’s Presidential Election History Closet
As Presidents Day approaches, we take a look at the First State’s track record regarding voting the top dog into the White House
Abraham Lincoln never did win here. Not in 1860, when he was elected the first Republican president. Not in 1864, when he was re-elected. What a place to have in history. Delaware voted against Old Abe twice.
At least Delaware stuck around to vote the second time, unlike 11 other states in secession, and anyway, it was 150 years ago. There is really nothing new to see here, folks, so just move along.
In Delaware’s defense, George Washington did fine here. The state went along with all of the others to make him the unanimous choice for president in 1789 and 1792.
There is no sense fussing about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, either. When he was running up all those Democratic landslides from 1932 to 1944, Delaware managed to be with him three out of four times. So not too bad.
It all goes to show that Presidents Day every February can be a trial around here. When it comes to presidential politics, this is a state with some skeletons rattling around the voting booth.
Never mind. If Delaware has not always covered itself in presidential glory, there are plenty of elections when its vote was so emblematic, it was hailed as a bellwether. The state may be small, with only the bare minimum of three electoral votes to contribute, but it turned itself into a political wonder.
There was no other state that reflected the country’s political mood better than Delaware in the last half of the last century. It led to “The Streak.”
Delaware voted for the winner who went to the White House every time from 1952 until, well, it gets a little complicated to say when “The Streak” ended. It was bookended by a couple of presidential elections that a lot of people found hard to call.
Delaware voted wrong in 1948, although for the brief run of the first edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, it looked like Delaware had voted right. In both the state and one of the worst headlines in the history of the world, Dewey defeated Truman.
Then Delaware went on its run of pitch-perfect presidential politics. In the next 12 elections, for better or worse, it voted for Dwight Eisenhower twice, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon twice, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan twice, George Bush the elder, and Bill Clinton twice.
It went Republican-Republican-Democrat-Democrat-Republican-Republican-Democrat-Republican-Republican-Republican-Democrat-Democrat, a classic swing state. If the country needed a political barometer, Delaware was it.
What happened to “The Streak” in the next election in 2000 is far from settled. Delaware foresaw Al Gore and the Democrats taking the White House, not George Bush the younger and the Republicans, so it got the popular vote right but the Electoral College vote wrong. Curses, foiled by hanging chad in Florida.
Whatever, it could still be said Delaware was a reflection of the country. After all, the fate of “The Streak” was as confused as the presidential vote count.
There was no doubt, however, “The Streak” was history by 2004. As strongly as Delaware wanted to turn out George Bush and make John Kerry the Democratic president, the rest of the country wanted to keep him.
Delaware had entered a new era in presidential politics. In the early elections of the 21st century, its electoral votes were a Democratic lock.
Not that Delaware was ready to give up on itself as a metaphor for the nation-at-large. This was the First State, after all.
It took a new look at itself. What it saw was a state demographically divided with its dense population upstate voting devotedly Democratic blue and its diffuse population downstate voting reliably Republican red, and never the twain shall meet. Just like the country.
Presidents Day should not pass without a reminder of the time the state caught Potomac fever and the path to the White House ran right through here. All right, maybe not the path, but at least a byroad.
Delaware was never so consumed by presidential politics as it was in the lead-up to the 1988 election. Ronald Reagan was returning to his ranch in California, and a scrum of candidates poured forth, including two who called Delaware home.
Pete du Pont, the Republican governor from 1977 to 1985, and Joe Biden, the Democratic senator since 1973, gave Delaware more candidates per capita than any other state. Any Delawarean who did not know one or the other or both of them simply was not trying.
It was exciting to have candidates in the mix in both parties, but it did not last. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln they were not.
For du Pont, there was just too much competition. His rivals included Bush the elder, who was the sitting vice president, and Bob Dole, who was the Senate Republican leader, while in his own self-deprecating description du Pont was a governor with a funny French name from a small Eastern state. He came in next-to-last in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary and folded his campaign before Washington’s Birthday.
For Biden, his worst competition was himself. Once he declared his candidacy, it took him only three months to talk his way out of the race.
Biden was not done, of course. He waited 20 years to try again and made it onto the Democratic ticket as the vice president.
This time the path to the White House literally ran through Delaware, to use one of Biden’s favorite words, as the presidential train carrying Barack Obama to his inauguration in Washington stopped in Wilmington for Biden to come aboard.
It was quite the scene, another president from Illinois nearly a century and a half after the Great Emancipator, and maybe enough to make it up to Mr. Lincoln.