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Is this most consequential election of our lives? Maybe. But like in 1860, 1876 and 1932, it may be too soon to tell

Rachel Leingang Arizona Republic

(CNT) City News Talk #arizona

Joe Biden has said it. Donald Trump has said it. Both major political parties in Arizona say it.

Their repeated claim: This year’s election is the most important election of our lifetimes, possibly one of the most important in the country’s history.

But … is it?

Candidates and political parties have an incentive to make elections seem highly consequential — it turns out votes. And to some degree, all votes have consequences. But deciphering what’s hyperbolic and what’s real, in a year like 2020, can be challenging.

Tristan Silva, a 22-year-old Tempe resident who is a Republican, said he’s skeptical about the claim, although he knows there is a lot at stake in this election. But he feels like he has heard multiple times that a given election is the most important one.

“I don’t think a politician is ever going to say that this isn’t the most important election,” Silva said.

Still, for many voters alive today, the 2020 election could be one of the most consequential they weigh in on so far. Layered crises, like the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout, protests over racism and police brutality, and the effects of climate change, combined with increasing polarization make this election memorable.

For Arizona voters, in particular, this year marks a state in transition to one of national importance, at least when it comes to their votes in the presidential election.

People on both sides may feel like the fate of the country is on the line Tuesday since the two major-party presidential candidates offer such different paths forward.

Some scholars told The Republic they believed the election carries the weight of whether longstanding norms, institutions and traditions will continue if President Donald Trump wins another term.

And if he doesn’t win?

“People are asking, ‘Will there be a peaceful transition of power?’ Do you remember any time in your life when people were asking, about the election, when we get to January 20th, if this president loses, will he peacefully exit the White House? No one’s ever asked that in my lifetime,” said Barbara Perry, the director of presidential studies at University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

But it may not be possible to know how memorable until the country has some “critical distance” from it, said W. Joseph Campbell, a professor at American University’s School of Communication. In a couple of decades, it will be clearer how the 2020 election mattered and in what ways, he said.

“My view is that this is a lot of hype, and that is really the reflection of exaggerated vanity of politicians and pundits to say so,” Campbell said.

What other elections were consequential?

What makes an election of outsize importance? It’s some combination of what’s happening in the broader country outside the electoral context, the people running, how close it may be, the sense of division or unity and the general state of the nation and the world.

Different historians, and of course different voters, will have different views on how all of those factors shake out in any given election.

Some elections in our rear-view mirror are almost universally seen as among the most consequential. Some elections in hindsight established longheld practices that now are seen as fundamental to the country, like the peaceful transfer of power.

The election of 1860, when Abraham Lincoln won the presidency over Stephen A. Douglas and two others, essentially was a referendum on the expansion of slavery. Lincoln won 40% of the popular vote and a majority of the electoral vote. His win led to the Civil War. It’s hard to argue its importance; most historians agree on this one being on the list.

The subsequent election, in 1864, also carried high consequences, like whether the country would come back together, Campbell said. Lincoln easily defeated former Union Gen. George McClellan.

“Those two elections back to back were highly consequential, and I really have trouble seeing anything in American history that rivals those two elections,” Campbell said.

The 1876 election was a mess: Results from four states were in dispute, and Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote. It had to be resolved, months after Election Day, via the Compromise of 1877, which gave Republican Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency. Democrats agreed in exchangefor the end of Reconstruction and withdrawal of federal troops in the South.

“The Compromise of 1877 and the results of the 1876 election had dire consequences for Black Americans and for poor white Southerners,” said Paul Krause, an emeritus professor of history at the University of British Columbia.

As a result of the compromise, many Black citizens in the South were disenfranchised.

Perry, of the Miller Center, includes the 1932 election as one of the most consequential, because the country was going through the Great Depression and drought and dust storms in the southern Great Plains. Franklin Delano Roosevelt beat Herbert Hoover and launched a series of government programs and reforms known as the New Deal.

Potentially, 1968’s win by Republican Richard Nixon over Democrat Hubert Humphrey ranks in some way, considering the tensions over race relations and the Vietnam War, Perry said.

In the modern era, perhaps 1980 could be added to the list, Campbell said, because Republican Ronald Reagan brought a sense of optimism in America that was valuable after the economic upheaval of the 1970s. He defeated Democrat Jimmy Carter, a one-term president who faced an energy crisis and inflation.

And maybe the 2000 election, memorable to many voters alive today, because of Florida’s infamous hanging chads and the incredibly close margins. It was the U.S. Supreme Court that ultimately declared Republican George W. Bush as the winner over Democrat Al Gore.

How a Gore presidency would have handled potential wars on terror after the Sept. 11 attacks, could have been much different, Krause suggested.

What makes this one consequential?

In several ways, 2020 has been a year of great change for the country and the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic altered how we live, and the way it has been managed has further fractured an already polarized country. More than 240,000 Americans have died from the disease, and nearly 6,000 in Arizona. The pandemic crippled the economy, leaving many out of work or underemployed. 

Meanwhile, protests erupted nationwide over police violence against Black people, leading to cultural reckonings and backlash against looting that occurred at some protests.

This summer also brought massive wildfires in the American West, seen as one of the consequences of climate change’s effects on the natural world.


There’s a lot going on, even before you consider the dynamics of the presidential office itself.

The next presidency could carry a message of further division or of unity, depending on who voters choose, said Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the University of Arizona’s National Institute for Civil Discourse.

Trump has disrupted many of the country’s democratic norms, and the fate of whether they will remain going forward is on the line, she said.

“I do think we’re at a breaking point, and that’s why I think this is the most consequential election of our lifetimes, because we can’t allow the country to be any more divided along race, class, etc., lines,” she said.

The pandemic is a once-in-a-century event, Campbell said, and it undoubtedly brings more complexity to this year’s election. Partisanship runs deep right now as well, with Trump’s supporters enthusiastically lining up behind him and his detractors feeling intense dislike toward him.

“There are elements that are unusual, that’s for sure, but whether they all add up to the most important, consequential, whatever election in America’s history, I don’t think it does. And in any case, we’re going to need 20 years of critical distance in order to make that determination anyway,” Campbell said.

Arizona’s role feels different this year

Arizonans’ votes this year have been highly coveted, and polls have shown the presidential race in Arizona is close. Both presidential campaigns have visited the state, with the Trump campaign and its surrogates visiting multiple times per week in the leadup to Nov. 3.

It’s possible this outsized influence on the presidential race lends a certain level of consequence and significance for Arizonans, as new swing staters.


“It’s always been taken for granted that this is a red state,” said Lisa Magaña, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Transborder Studies.

Kathleen Harris Murray, a 46-year-old Phoenix resident who co-owns Colin Murray Photography with her husband, saw her business hit hard by the pandemic. Health and economic considerations resulting from the pandemic weigh into her vote, as does climate change. She’s voting for Joe Biden for president.

“I do believe that this is one of the most or the most, I would say, consequential elections that I’ve ever voted in. My first vote was cast in 1992. And I just have never felt more anxiety about the future of our country,” she said.

She moved to Arizona from California last year, and that Arizona is a swing state — certainly when compared to blue California — plays a role in how she views the consequences of this election.

“I do feel that this vote is more important than the rest,” Harris Murray said. “And I can tell you that I have a Biden-Harris sign in my window, and I’m sandwiched by two Trump supporters on either side of my house. And so it just makes for interesting times.”

Silva, the 22-year-old voter who’s skeptical of politicians saying this is the most important election, hasn’t decided yet who he’ll vote for, but he’s leaning toward Trump. He wouldn’t have a problem voting for a third-party candidate normally, but because Arizona is in play this year, he doesn’t see that as an option now.

“With Arizona, because it feels like it’s on the verge of flipping blue, I do feel extra motivated to keep it from doing so,” he said.

No matter what happens in Arizona or nationally, though, it’s important for the country to come together to rectify the divisiveness of the past few years, Lukensmeyer said. That’s not just up to politicians.

“What’s really important for Americans to understand is yes, the outcome of this election is absolutely critical. It is equally important for we as Americans … once the election is over, to recreate the sense of being the United States of America, not the red states and blue states. All of us are going to have to turn into citizen leaders in governing, not just voters in electing,” she said.