1828: Andrew Jackson vs. John Quincy Adams
This was the first campaign to feature modern dueling parties and personal attacks on a mass-audience scale. Perhaps the lowest blow appeared in the pages of a Cincinnati newspaper, where a pro-Adams editor claimed “General Jackson’s mother was a common prostitute.” (The scribe added that Jackson had shacked up with his wife for years, even though she supposedly had yet to divorce her first husband, a Kentuckian.)
1912: Teddy Roosevelt vs. William Howard Taft vs. Woodrow Wilson
Eventually, candidates started lobbing their own insults, and the 1912 race offered one of the best (worst) examples—mostly because of how the Taft-Roosevelt friendship devolved into schoolyard insults. Roosevelt called the corpulent Cincinnatian a “fathead,” which was true. Taft shot back that Roosevelt was an “egoist,” which was also true.
1988: George H. W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis
In the TV era, no one was nastier than Bush aide Lee Atwater. Atwater used focus groups to identify the fear-mongering power of Willie Horton, an African-American man Dukakis had furloughed who went on to commit rape and murder. A second pro-Bush consultant crafted a sinister and racist ad linking Dukakis and Horton, and Bush, boosted by his image makers, surged to an ugly win.
2016: Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton
Nearly two centuries later, we continue to suffer these mudslinging techniques. When Trump held a rally in Sharonville in July, he called Clinton a “dirty, rotten liar,” and then had to defend himself against charges that he’d retweeted an anti-Semitic attack on his opponent. Trump + Twitter might make this seem like the most depressing vote ever, but it all fits neatly into a long, depressing history of election-year mud-slinging.