Nasty Elections: 5 Times Presidential Candidates Went Low

How low can they go?

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (L) speaks as Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on during the third U.S. presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on October 19, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (L) speaks as Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on during the third U.S. presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on October 19, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada (Image credit: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

One of the many memorable lines to emerge thus far from the 2016 presidential election cycle was not uttered by either of the candidates, but by First Lady Michelle Obama, during her speech at the Democratic National Convention on July 25.

Obama shared a family motto that shaped their reactions to cruel and hateful taunts: "When they go low, we go high."

The sentiments in Obama's words are admirable, particularly considering that the accusations and insults that have been flung during this election cycle are especially ugly. At the third and final presidential debate on Oct. 19, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton needled Republican nominee Donald Trump about being Russian president Vladimir Putin's "puppet," and about encouraging Russian espionage against Americans. When he boasted about his "beautiful apartment," she remarked that it had been built with Chinese steel — which is frequently imported illegally to the U.S., she had said earlier. [We Fact-Checked the Science Behind the Republican Party Platform]

Meanwhile, Trump suggested that $6 billion went missing from the State Department under Clinton's watch, accused her of deleting 33,000 emails "criminally," said that Putin had "outsmarted her at every step of the way [sic]," and capped it off by muttering, "Such a nasty woman," while Clinton was speaking about Social Security.

But this is far from the first time in American history that vitriol has poisoned the air during a political season. In fact, the tradition of tearing down one's opponent in the most vicious manner possible extends back to some of the earliest presidential face-offs. Here are five elections where candidates were really hitting below the belt. 

Thomas Jefferson vs. John Adams (1800)

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When Federalist John Adams ran for president against Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson, many felt that the future of the young nation hung in the balance, and people representing both candidates used extremely colorful language to denounce the opposition, according to news reports at the time. [Why Did the Democratic and Republican Parties Switch Platforms?]

According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation website, a newspaper editor and Jefferson supporter named James Callender wrote in the pamphlet "The Prospect Before Us" that John Adams possessed "that strange compound of ignorance and ferocity, of deceit and weakness."

As if that weren't enough, Callender also called Adams a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."

The Foundation further recounted that Jefferson's political opponents labeled him "nothing but a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father," and claimed that he enjoyed the taste of fricasseed bullfrog.

Andrew Jackson vs. John Quincy Adams (1828)

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During this particular presidential campaign — referred to by historians as the dirtiest in America's history — Andrew Jackson was accused of multiple murders and acts of violence, according to the Miller Center, a nonpartisan center for political research and discourse at the University of Virginia.

Meanwhile, Jackson supporters charged that John Quincy Adams spent his tenure as the first U.S minister to Russia procuring American virgins for the Czar.

Even Jackson's mother was considered to be fair game by the newspapers of the day, and was referred to in an editorial as "a common prostitute, brought to this country by the British soldiers." Jackson's wife, Rachel, was hounded as well, as a loose woman and bigamist who married Jackson before she was legally divorced from her first husband. Dubbed "an American Jezebel," she suffered greatly under the strain of relentless and vicious attacks from the press throughout the campaign, and died of heart failure just over one month after her husband won the election.

Abraham Lincoln vs. Stephen Douglas (1860)

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Abraham Lincoln's opponents were not kind about his somewhat rustic appearance, with the Charleston Mercury calling him a "horrid looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly (sic) in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse swapper and the night man," the Miller Center reported.

But Lincoln and his supporters also resorted to taunts about Stephen Douglas' looks, mockingly calling the much shorter Douglas "the little giant" and even distributing a handbill suggesting that while on the campaign trail, Douglas was a lost child whose mother was very worried about him.

Douglas fired back, describing Lincoln as "the leanest, lankest, most ungainly mass of legs, arms and hatchet-face ever strung upon a single frame. He has most unwarrantably abused the privilege which all politicians have of being ugly," Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote in "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" (Simon and Schuster, 2005).

Grover Cleveland vs. James G. Blaine (1884)

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Jeering rival chants dominated the 1884 election race between Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine and Democrat Grover Cleveland.

Blaine was pilloried by Democrats for taking bribes from railroad companies for political favors, a rumor that was only confirmed when an incriminating note turned up, bearing his instructions at the bottom to "kindly burn this letter." This soon spawned gleeful chants of "Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine; Continental Liar from the State of Maine," the University of California at Santa Barbara reported.

Cleveland, however, inspired a chant as well. After it was discovered that he had fathered an illegitimate child 10 years earlier, Cleveland was greeted with taunts of "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?"

But the Democrats wrested control of the taunt after Cleveland won the election, changing it to "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!"

Richard Nixon vs. Edmund Muskie (1972)

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Edmund Muskie was considered a strong candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 1972 election against Republican Richard Nixon — perhaps too strong, as disparaging rumors about Muskie began to mysteriously circulate while he was on the campaign trail, and they eventually derailed his chances, reported.

While Muskie was campaigning in New Hampshire, voters described getting rude phone calls at odd hours from people who claimed they were working for Muskie. He was also accused in a letter published in the Manchester Union Leader of using the word "Canuck," a disparaging term describing French Canadians.

Later, in Florida, letters written on Muskie campaign stationary that contained disturbing stories about fellow Democratic candidates were widely circulated to voters. The letters accused one candidate of drunk driving and another of fathering a child with an underage girl, and were clearly meant to make Muskie look bad.

The last straw occurred at a Muskie press conference in Miami, when someone released wild mice bearing tags reading, "Muskie is a rat fink." Muskie withdrew from the presidential race and George McGovern advanced to run against Nixon.

The truth emerged years later — during the hearings that followed the Watergate break-in — revealing that two Nixon staffers had coordinated the entire smear campaign that led to Muskie's downfall.

Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology, and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.