The 10 Dirtiest Political Races in U.S. History

Ads, slogans, and campaign themes that stand out for sheer venom


1800 In the country's first contested presidential election, supporters of Thomas Jefferson claimed incumbent John Adams wanted to marry off his son to the daughter of King George III, creating an American dynasty under British rule. Jefferson haters called the challenger a fraud, a coward, a thief, and "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." Jefferson won.

1884 This race for the presidency produced two of the most infamous slogans in political history. One came from a Catholic-bashing Protestant minister who dubbed the Democrats the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion." The other one emerged after the Democrats' candidate, New York Gov. Grover Cleveland, was accused of fathering an illegitimate child: Supporters of Republican James Blaine taunted, "Ma, ma, where's my pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!" Cleveland had the last laugh: He did go to the White House.

1934 California business interests declared war on Upton Sinclair, the socialist muckraker turned Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Hostile newsreels featured actors portraying Sinclair supporters as Soviet comrades, saying lines like, "His system vorked vell in Russia, so vy can't it vork here?" Sinclair lost.

1964 The Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, started the race with a reputation as a dangerous hawk. Lyndon Johnson's campaign leaped on that liability, creating what may be the most famous political ad ever. The film features a little girl pulling petals off a daisy until her game is interrupted by a nuclear holocaust. Johnson won.

1968 Richard Nixon had the last laugh over Hubert Humphrey in this race for the White House, but Humphrey's team fielded the most memorable ad. On the screen: the words "Agnew for Vice President?" On the soundtrack: a man laughing hysterically, louder and louder, until the laughs veer off into a groan.

1984 Incumbent Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) sensed early on that the state's moderate Democratic governor, Jim Hunt, posed a strong re-election threat. So Helms started running TV ads attacking Hunt a full 18 months ahead of Election Day, taunting him as a liberal flip-flopper with the tagline, "Where Do You Stand, Jim?" Hunt fired back with a graphic spot linking Helms to right-wing death squads in El Salvador. Helms squeaked out a narrow victory.

1990 Six years later, Helms faced architect Harvey Gantt, the first black mayor of Charlotte and a supporter of affirmative action. Helms hit that issue with an ad showing a pair of white hands ripping up a job rejection letter. Once again, Helms won.

2002 In the race to represent New York's 1st Congressional District, GOP Rep. Felix Grucci Jr. self-destructed when he ran a radio ad accusing his opponent, Southampton College President Tim Bishop, of "turning his back on rape victims." The spot was based on a long discredited and retracted student newspaper article that criticized campus safety measures at Southampton. The polls turned against Grucci after the ad aired, offering a cautionary tale about the potential perils of negative campaigning. He was the only Republican congressman that year to lose a re-election bid.

2002 Meanwhile, in Georgia's Senate race, politicians learned the power of suggesting your opponent is indifferent to terrorism. In a widely criticized commercial, GOP challenger Saxby Chambliss denounced Democratic Sen. Max Cleland's vote against one proposed version of the new Department of Homeland Security. The spot opened with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein glowering over a montage of military images. The ad faded to black, then launched into Chambliss' criticisms of Cleland, a quadriplegic veteran crippled during his tour of duty in Vietnam. The senator's supporters decried the ad for linking him with those international villains, but his opponent contended that the spot focused, fairly, on his votes in office. The people of Georgia agreed, booting Cleland from the Senate.

2004 The venomous Kerry-Bush match-up got the headlines in 2004, but connoisseurs of political nastiness prefer a redistricting-induced Texas congressional race that pitted Rep. Pete Sessions, a Republican stalwart, against Democratic Rep. Martin Frost, a member of his party's leadership. Late in the campaign, Frost aides gave the press a 1970s-era picture of college streakers, one of whom was Sessions. The Sessions campaign shot back by blasting Frost's planned fundraiser with Peter Yarrow of the folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary, on the grounds that Yarrow had served three months in prison for taking "immoral and indecent liberties" with a 14-year-old fan. The streaker beat the folkie.

Related: Attack Ads Are Good For You! In praise of negative campaigning