For the nation’s overwrought nervous system, the 2020 presidential campaign was akin to a punitive marathon. And now the finish line has been moved back.
In most presidential elections, the results have become clear within hours of the polls closing, the losers graciously concede, the winners thank everyone and then celebrate, and the public accepts the results long before the Electoral College formalizes them in December.
That obviously hasn’t been the case in 2020.
Ballots are still in question, legal challenges are underway, and it’s not clear yet when the outcome in the race between Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden is going to be resolved once and for all.
But no matter what happens, this election is unlikely to approach a record for the longest wait between an Election Day and a final determination of the outcome.
Here are three cases from the Electoral Hall of Fame. (Not included is the election of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, which Jefferson won and led to the duel in which Alexander Hamilton was killed. The voting itself took place under different rules and occurred over a six-month period.)
1824: 71 days between end of voting and decision
Balloting ended on Dec. 1 without a winner. The top vote-getters were war hero Andrew Jackson; John Quincy Adams, son of the second president; William H. Crawford; and Henry Clay, who years later would utter the famous phrase, “I’d rather be right than president” in defending his pro-abolitionist views.
No candidate obtained an electoral majority, so the election went to the House of Representatives, which had to choose among the top three. That eliminated Clay, and Crawford had suffered a stroke.
That left Jackson and Adams, and even though Jackson had won a plurality in the election, on Feb. 9, 1825, the House made the Adams family the nation’s first father-son presidential team.
1876: 115 days between end of voting and decision
This centennial year election would be the reigning wait-time champion.
Democrat Samuel J. Tilden defeated Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes by more than 250,000 votes, or by three percentage points, a clear majority in the popular vote. But Tilden came up one vote short of electoral majority, with 184 out of the 369 total. Hayes received 165 electoral votes, but the remaining 20, among three Southern states, remained in dispute.
It was not a civil dispute. Republicans accused Democrats of using force and intimidation to keep Black people from voting. Democrats alleged that Republicans dumped ballot boxes into bodies of water and smeared ink on ballots to make them illegible, according to G. Terry Madonna, the veteran political analyst at Franklin and Marshall College.
After the Civil War, profound divisions persisted between the North and South. Southerners wanted an end to Reconstruction and the presence of federal troops, and this ended up being Hayes' serpentine path to the presidency.
To resolve the election impasse, Congress created a commission in January 1877 that included House members, senators, and Supreme Court justices.
But as so often happens in politics the real action was in the back room. In the end Republicans agreed to remove the federal troops from the South, in effect ending reconstruction, and Democrats promised to respect the the rights of Black Americans, as history.com noted. In return, Hayes would become president.
The deal, which became known as the Compromise of 1877, was sealed on March 2, and Hayes was very quietly inaugurated on Saturday night, March 5.
Incidentally, one of the three states in dispute was Florida, which was at the epicenter of an election crisis 124 years later.
2000: 36 days between end of voting and decision
The election came down to Florida, and the networks projected that George W. Bush was going to win the state narrowly and the presidency. So Vice President Al Gore called his rival to say he would concede.
But then updated vote counts tightened the margin, and Gore called Bush back to say never mind. Bush, who had prepared his victory speech, was nonplussed.
Bush: “Let me make sure I understand. You’re calling me back to retract your concession?"
Gore: “You don’t have to get snippy about this.”
Bush was declared the winner by 537 votes in Florida, where his brother Jeb was governor. Gore demanded a recount and litigation followed, and the nation was introduced to the concept of the “hanging chad.”
Some Florida counties used ballots with perforated squares next to candidates' names that voters were to puncture. A machine then would read the holes.
The problem: Some of the chads were left hanging, and how to count a ballot with hanging chads became a critical issue in the litigation that dragged on for weeks. At one point, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, then head of the Democratic National Committee, took some heat from party leaders for telling Gore to drop it and move on.
After the Supreme Court ordered a halt to the recounts, Gore conceded on Dec. 13, even though he had won the popular vote.
Although the nation has experienced other extraordinarily close presidential elections, Americans historically have accepted the outcomes. “It’s unusual globally,” said David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.
In 1960, Democrat John F. Kennedy defeated Republican Richard M. Nixon by a nanometer-thin margin. Nixon, however, declined to challenge the election.
In all, five presidents actually lost the popular vote.
The most recent case in point was 2016, in which Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton outpolled Trump.
She did not ask for a recount.
Inquirer staff writer Tom Fitzgerald contributed to this article.