Patterns in Presidential Elections in Tennessee
In the ten presidential elections from 1796 to 1832, Tennessee went for the winner eight times. In 1796 (Tennessee’s first election for president), the state’s three electoral votes were cast for Thomas Jefferson, but John Adams was elected. Tennesseans supported Jefferson again in 1800, when he won, and again in 1804, when he was reelected.
James Madison and James Monroe received the state’s electoral votes for two terms each. In 1824 Andrew Jackson carried Tennessee and won the popular vote but failed to win a majority of electoral votes. In the House of Representatives, John Quincy Adams (a National Republican) was elected president. Andrew Jackson got his revenge in 1828 and was reelected in 1832, both times carrying Tennessee.
Jackson exerted little political influence on his state once his presidential career was over. From 1796 to 1832 Tennessee voted solidly for candidates who would be modern Democrats. Beginning in 1836, they started voting for Whigs (the predecessor of today’s Republican Party). Jackson could not carry Tennessee for his handpicked successor, Martin Van Buren. The state’s electoral votes in 1836 went to a native son, Senator Hugh Lawson White, a Whig.
In the nine national elections from 1836 to 1868, Tennessee voted in only eight of them since it did not participate in 1864 due to its membership in the Confederacy. Tennesseans voted for winners four times and losers four times. Whig candidates carried the state in 1840 (William Henry Harrison), 1844 (Henry Clay), 1848 (Zachary Taylor), and 1852 (Winfield Scott). The 1844 Tennessee election was notable since Clay defeated James K. Polk–a Tennessean who won the presidency even though losing his own state.
Only in 1856, the last election before the Civil War, did Tennessee return to the Democratic column, voting for James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. In 1860 the state rejected the major candidates–Abraham Lincoln (Republican), Stephen A. Douglas (Democrat) and John C. Breckinridge (Southern Democrat)–and supported instead another native son, John Bell (Constitutional Union), a former Whig who had been a Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and a U.S. senator.
Tennessee, in July 1866, became the first Confederate state to reenter the Union. With Reconstruction still at full tide, the state cast its electoral votes for Ulysses S. Grant in 1868. Tennessee would not support another Republican candidate for over a half-century. In the twelve presidential elections from 1872 to 1916, Tennessee supported the Democrat every time, backing the winner only four times (Grover Cleveland twice and Woodrow Wilson twice). The state’s electoral votes went to losers Horace Greeley (1872), Samuel J. Tilden (1876), Winfield Scott Hancock (1880), William Jennings Bryan (1896, 1900, and 1908), and Alton B. Parker (1904).
Following World War I, no clear voting pattern emerged. Warren G. Harding (Republican) carried the state in 1920, but in 1924 Tennessee rejected Calvin Coolidge and cast its votes for the Democratic candidate, John W. Davis. In 1928, however, the state returned to the Republican column and backed Herbert Hoover over Al Smith.
Tennessee swung toward the Democrats again four years later, and Franklin D. Roosevelt won the state in 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944. In 1948 the state cast eleven electoral votes for Harry Truman and one vote for Strom Thurmond’s States’ Rights Party.
The year 1952 began a forty-year domination by Republicans in Tennessee presidential elections. Of the twelve elections in this period, Tennessee voted Republican eight times. Even more significantly, the state backed the winner in eleven of the twelve elections. Only in 1960, when Richard Nixon was favored over John F. Kennedy, did Tennesseans back a losing candidate. The only three Democrats who won the state during this time were Lyndon Johnson (1964), Jimmy Carter (1976), and Bill Clinton (1992 and 1996). Even in 1956, when Senator Estes Kefauver was the running mate of Adlai Stevenson, Tennessee stayed in the Republican column. Tennessee’s tilt toward Bill Clinton in 1996 marked the first time since 1944 that the state voted for a Democrat in consecutive elections. The election of 2000 ended that trend, however, as Republican George W. Bush carried Tennessee over native son Albert Gore Jr. As many commentators have since pointed out, if Gore had carried Tennessee in 2000, the state’s electoral votes would have given him the presidency in the closest presidential election since 1876.