How Close is Close? The Most Nail-Biting Elections in US (& Wisconsin) History

By Christina Lorey

September 14, 2023

Americans have often waited days, weeks, or even months to find out who their next president will be. It’s important to remember there is nothing in the Constitution or federal law that says the winner must be determined on Election Night. And for much of American history, that would have been entirely impossible.

Wisconsin has often been the tipping point in America’s closest elections, and that’s once again expected to be the case in 2024. Now is a great time to double-check your registration status, and then take a trip down memory lane and learn about some of the country’s biggest Election Night nail-biters:


Republican Rutherford B. Hayes wasn’t certified as the winner of the Nov. 1876 election (by one electoral vote, although he received fewer votes than Democrat Samuel Tilden) until March 2, 1877, three days before he was inaugurated in Washington. Learn more.


More than two weeks passed before the election between Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Republican Charles Evan Hughes was settled. Both parties claimed victory, until Wilson was officially confirmed as the winner. Learn more.


You probably remember the historic picture from this election–of Democrat Harry S. Truman holding up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune the next morning with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The race had been called in Truman’s favor, but a printer’s strike forced the paper into an early (and inaccurate) press run. Learn more.


Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican President Gerald Ford didn’t learn the outcome of their hard-fought campaign until 4 a.m. EST the day after the election. Carter’s victory in Mississippi pushed the peanut farmer over the edge: No Democrat has carried the state since. Learn more.


In what was at the time the most bitterly-contested election since 1876, the election between Democratic Vice President Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush came down to Florida, and later, the Supreme Court, whose 5-4 decision more than a month after Election Day ended recounts and effectively gave the election to Bush. Learn more.

FUN FACT: Of course, not all elections have been cliffhangers, and perhaps the most lopsided was Ronald Reagan’s 1984 win over Walter Mondale. The Republican carried 49 states—only losing Minnesota and the District of Columbia. Dan Rather of CBS was the first to call the race just after 8 p.m. EST.

MORE: Meet the Bipartisan Group Ensuring Wisconsin’s Elections Are Secure


  • Christina Lorey

    Christina is an Edward R. Murrow-winning journalist and former producer, reporter, and anchor for TV stations in Madison and Moline. When she’s not writing or asking questions, you can find her volunteering with Girls on the Run, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, and various mental health organizations.

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