2000 Presidential Election: Bush vs. Gore
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The Most Surprising Election Upsets in U.S. History

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2000 Presidential Election: Bush vs. Gore
Robert King/Staff/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

November Surprises

After all the tumult and stress that the events of 2020 have brought upon Americans, the November Presidential election promises at least one more major development to contend with. Whatever the results, it won't be the first time the country has endured a particularly contentious political outcome. Here are some of the most dramatic and surprising election results at the federal and state levels from throughout our dramatic history as a nation.

Related: What Other Countries Are Doing to Make Voting Accurate and Accessible

1800 Presidential Election: Jefferson vs. Burr
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1800 Presidential Election: Jefferson vs. Burr

Back when America's first political parties were just solidifying, the Democratic-Republican candidates Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied with an equal number of electoral votes, leaving it uncertain which would be president and which vice president. The decision fell to the Federalist-controlled House of Representatives, which finally settled on Jefferson in February 1801, largely thanks to the influence of former secretary of the treasury Alexander Hamilton. The contentious results led to the 1804 passage of the 12th Amendment creating separate ballots for president and vice president, not to mention the duel in which Burr fatally shot Hamilton.

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1824 Presidential Election: Jackson vs. Adams
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1824 Presidential Election: Jackson vs. Adams

In America's 10th presidential election, none of the four major candidates won a majority, leaving the decision once more to the House of Representatives. Though Andrew Jackson finished with the largest share of the popular and electoral vote, the last-place candidate and House Speaker Henry Clay used his influence to instead help elect John Quincy Adams, who appointed Clay his secretary of state — America's first election in which the winner of the popular vote didn't become president, but far from the last. Decrying a "corrupt bargain," Jackson and his outraged supporters campaigned on their grievances of this "stolen" election for the next four years, finally winning the White House in 1828.

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1844 Presidential Election: Polk vs. Clay
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1844 Presidential Election: Polk vs. Clay

America's original "dark horse" candidate, James K. Polk of Tennessee, beat out several more promising candidates, including former President Martin Van Buren, for the Democratic nomination, but only after nine ballots. His Whig opponent was the elder statesmen and serial presidential candidate Henry Clay, whose supporters were so confident of his victory they bought him furniture for the White House and quipped in one paper, "The Democrats must be Polking fun at us!" Polk gained popular support with a platform of territorial expansion that included annexing Texas and Oregon, driving an upsurge in voter turnout especially in then-frontier states such as Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.

Related: 30 Vintage Photos of Patriotic Places Across America

US map 1856 shows free and slave states and populations
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1855 'Bleeding Kansas' Vote

Often called a "tragic prelude" to the Civil War, "Bleeding Kansas" refers to the period of violent confrontations over whether the territory of Kansas would become a slave state or free state, affecting the balance of power between factions in the Senate. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 determined the decision would be made by popular vote of the territory's settlers, but thousands on either side of the issue flooded in to try to influence the result. Rival Kansan governments formed and militias clashed, while fraud and intimidation plagued voting. In 1856, a special Congressional committee found that the votes of actual settlers called for a free state legislature, and territorial governor John W. Geary established a fragile peace with the aid of federal troops. Kansas was finally admitted to the Union as a free state in early 1861 as the Civil War began.

Abraham Lincoln
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1860 Presidential Election: Lincoln

Because of his opposition to the expansion of slavery, Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln wasn't even on the ballot in most Southern states. That didn't stop him from winning more than 40% of the popular vote and securing an electoral victory over his three major opponents. After more than a decade of contention moderated by northern Democrat presidents with Southern sympathies, Lincoln's election as the first Republican to the executive office became the decisive catalyst for the Civil War, literally dividing the nation in two. South Carolina was the first state that voted to secede from the Union, followed by six others before Lincoln's inauguration.

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1876 Presidential Election: Hayes vs. Tilden
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1876 Presidential Election: Hayes vs. Tilden

The prospect of another Civil War loomed large when Democrat Samuel Tilden and Republican Rutherford B. Hayes came up short of an electoral victory due to contested results in Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oregon. With a popular vote lead of more than 3%, Tilden needed only one of these states' 20 electors to win, while Hayes would need all 20. To settle the dispute, Congress established a 15-member commission of senators, congressmen, and Supreme Court justices. At first balanced in party affiliation, the commission became majority Republican after the lone independent resigned his position, naturally coming down on the side of Hayes. After Democrats threatened to filibuster the official vote, however, Republicans compromised by pledging to withdraw federal troops from the South — prematurely ending Reconstruction and prompting an era of disenfranchising black voters under Jim Crow. 

1912 Presidential Election: Wilson, Roosevelt, and Taft
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1912 Presidential Election: Wilson, Roosevelt, and Taft

Dissatisfied with the performance of handpicked successor William Howard Taft, former President Theodore Roosevelt tried challenging him in Republican primaries. When he lost, Roosevelt ran instead under the banner of his own newly formed Progressive Party. By effectively splitting the Republican vote, this allowed an opening for Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the Presidency, despite earning just 41.8% of the popular vote. Meanwhile, Roosevelt came in second and Taft in third, the last time a major party candidate failed to finish in the top two.

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1948 Presidential Election: Truman vs. Dewey
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1948 Presidential Election: Truman vs. Dewey

It seemed Republican challenger Thomas Dewey had won: Opinion polls showed only one-third of Americans approved of the performance of incumbent Harry Truman, who faced further challenges from his own commerce secretary on the Progressive Party ticket and U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, of the anti-civil rights Dixiecrats. The last pre-election poll, showing Truman behind Dewey by 5 percentage points, was released Election Day … but was  based on data from weeks earlier. Secret Service agents awoke Truman at 4 a.m. to break the news that his cross-country campaigning had paid off, securing him the victory.

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1960 Presidential Election: Kennedy vs. Nixon
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1960 Presidential Election: Kennedy vs. Nixon

In 1960, a junior Democratic senator named John F. Kennedy faced off against Republican Richard Nixon, vice president of Dwight Eisenhower's popular outgoing administration. It was the closest of any presidential race since 1916, with Kennedy's popular vote margin the slimmest of any victor in the 20th century. Results were further complicated by controversies: For one, 15 electors from Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma cast their votes for Senator Harry F. Byrd instead of either of the major candidates. Many Republican legislators and journalists also accused the Kennedy campaign of voter fraud in the decisive states of Texas and Illinois, citing VP candidate Lyndon B. Johnson's influence in the former and potential Chicago mob ties in the latter. Last but not least, Kennedy famously benefited from demonstrating his more youthful, confident demeanor in the first televised presidential debates, which most viewers reportedly believed he won, while those who tuned in via radio broadcast favored Nixon. Thus began the influential relationship between television appearances and the American presidency.

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1990 Minnesota Senate Election: Wellstone vs. Boschwitz
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1990 Minnesota Senate Election: Wellstone vs. Boschwitz

In the 1990 election for Minnesota senator, college profressor Paul Wellstone was outspent 7-to-1 by his opponent, Republican incumbent Rudy Boschwitz. Twisting the underdog status to his advantage, Wellstone campaigned across the state in a secondhand school bus, wrote his own speeches, stayed in people's homes rather than hotels, and ran self-aware ads promoting his image as an accessible everyman. With his victory, he was the only Senate candidate that year to defeat an incumbent and flip the seat from one party to another.

Vermont dairy farm
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1998 Vermont Senate Election: Tuttle vs. McMullen

When businessman Jack McMullen ran for the Republican nomination for Vermont senator, just one year after making the state his permanent residence, he got more than he bargained for in his challenger of dairy farmer Fred Tuttle. Spending only $251 to campaign,  Tuttle argued that McMullen was too new to Vermont to faithfully represent it, punctuating debates with obscure questions only a local would know. After winning the primary, Tuttle endorsed the Democratic candidate Pat Leahy, making clear he had no intention of winning the seat and moving to Washington, D.C. Nonetheless, he still got 22% of the vote. 

Jesse Venture (Far Left): From Wash D.C. 1996 copyright John Mathew Smith 2001
Jesse Venture (Far Left): From Wash D.C. 1996 copyright John Mathew Smith 2001 by John Mathew Smith (CC BY-SA)

1998 Minnesota Gubernatorial Election: Ventura, Humphrey, and Coleman

Almost two decades before a reality TV star became U.S. president, a pro wrestler became Minnesota governor. Running under the Reform Party ticket founded by Ross Perot, Jesse "The Body" Ventura went from potential spoiler to the unlikely victor over the major party candidates of Skip Humphrey, the state's Democratic attorney general, and Norm Coleman, the Republican mayor of St. Paul. His $300,000 campaign's success can be credited to a statewide bus tour, pioneering use of the internet, and his resonant message to citizens: "Don't vote for politics as usual."

2000 Presidential Election: Bush vs. Gore
Robert King/Staff/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

2000 Presidential Election: Bush vs. Gore

Democrat and incumbent Vice President Al Gore held a slim lead in the popular vote over Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Victory in the Electoral College, however, came down to Florida, which early reports declared too close to call. When Bush appeared to win by just a few hundred votes, state law required a recount. Complicating this uncertainty were rampant allegations and lawsuits over confusing or improperly completed ballots and voter registrations. Five weeks after election night, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the recount was unconstitutional, securing Bush's razor-thin lead in Florida and the Electoral College.

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2002 New Hampshire Senate Election: Sununu vs. Shaheen
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2002 New Hampshire Senate Election: Sununu vs. Shaheen

On election day in Concord, New Hampshire, workers for then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen's Democratic campaign informed police that repeated telephone calls were interfering with their attempts to reach voters and offer rides to the polls. A scandal unfolded, revealing that the state's Republican Party had hired a firm to jam call banks being used by the Democratic Party and firefighters' union in support of Shaheen. Four men were convicted and sentenced to prison for their involvement, but too late to affect the election's outcome, which went to Republican John E. Sununu with a margin just over 4 percentage points.

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Politician Joseph W. "Joe" Miller (Right)
Politician Joseph W. "Joe" Miller (Right) by JKBrooks85. (CC BY)

2010 Alaska Senate Election: Murkowski vs. Miller

Near the dawn of the conservative Tea Party movement, incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski lost the Republican primary to her Sarah Palin-endorsed challenger Joe Miller. Nonetheless, a write-in campaign successfully encouraged more than 100,000 voters to mark her name on their ballots. Miller challenged as many of 8,000 for errors including minor misspellings — which still wouldn't have been enough to counter Murkowski's lead — and filed repeated legal challenges in state and federal courts before conceding almost two months after the election. This made Murkowski only the second Senate candidate ever to win election via write-in.

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2010 Maryland Gubernatorial Election: O'Malley vs. Ehrlich
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2010 Maryland Gubernatorial Election: O'Malley vs. Ehrlich

In an echo of the 2002 New Hampshire Senate scandal, Republican candidate for Maryland governor Bob Ehrlich employed a strategy of voter suppression to make "African-American voters stay home." On Election Day, his campaign made more than a hundred thousand confusing robocalls to convince voters that Democratic candidate Martin O'Malley had already won, despite polls remaining open another two hours. Nevertheless, O'Malley won as the first gubernatorial ticket in state history to get more than 1 million votes, and Ehrlich's campaign manager was convicted of several charges, including fraud. 

2016 Presidential Election: Trump vs. Clinton
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2016 Presidential Election: Trump vs. Clinton

In the most recent case of a winning presidential candidate losing the popular vote, reality TV star and real estate mogul Donald Trump triumphed in the Electoral College over his far more politically experienced opponent Hillary Clinton, despite being derided as a novelty candidate for the duration of his campaign. This result was a stunning rebuke to conventional political wisdom, given the numerous polls favoring Clinton and a glut of Trump-related scandals that would have disqualified most any other candidate.

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Roy Moore
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2017 Alabama Senate Special Election: Moore vs. Strange

Amid the divisive political atmosphere exacerbated by the early days of Trump's administration, the solidly red state of Alabama held a special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Even with 10 times the budget and the full support of the GOP establishment behind him, interim senator Luther Strange lost the Republican primary to anti-establishment candidate Roy Moore. When multiple women accused Moore of sexual misconduct, including two accusations of assault from when they were underage, Republican leaders were divided whether to call on him to withdraw. All this controversy left an opening for Doug Jones, who became the first Democrat to win statewide office in Alabama since 2008, and the first to win a Senate seat since 1992.

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