Gary Gregg, McConnell Center director, and Randall Adkins, a University of Nebraska political scientist, polled 53 scholars considered experts on the U.S. presidency, campaigns and elections. They asked questions such as “Which election was the most competitive” and “Which election led to the most significant change in public policy?”

Not all election years are created equal, Gregg said. We set out to find the ones with the most impact on our nation and on our politics.

Lincoln’s election placed at the top in the survey. He received less than 40 percent of the popular vote but nearly 60 percent of the electoral college vote, reflecting a deep split in the nation over slavery and other issues that ultimately led to the Civil War. Other elections with the biggest impact, in order, were:

  • Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, which “permanently reordered” the relationship between individuals, corporations, states and the federal government

  • Thomas Jefferson in 1800, which marked the first peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another

  • Ronald Reagan in 1980, which fundamentally altered the direction of the Republican Party and public policy

Also cited were Andrew Jackson’s 1828 election, which heralded the start of a competitive two-party political system; George W. Bush’s 2000 election, which scholars called the “most competitive” in U.S. history, and William McKinley’s 1896 election, the first to establish a firm link between the Republican Party and the business community

See the complete survey results here.