Presidential elections Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After attaining American citizenship, immigrants can vote in national elections. However, because they tend to identify with their ethnic, racial, or religious groups, they tend to vote in blocs. This makes them prime targets for the attention of political campaign strategists. Throughout American history, immigrants have been alternatively courted and attacked by organized political parties embroiled in presidential campaigns. At times, immigrant issues have dominated national policy agendas; at other times, such issues have been ignored or shunned as political hot potatoes.

The nexus of immigration and national-level politics is the presidential campaign. The United States has, at best, a mixed record of embracing immigrants in this important electoral process. Because of ongoing neglect, the voices of immigrant groups have often been quiet in American public policymaking. Moreover, presidential elections by their very nature have tended to reinforce strong intragroup bonds of new American citizens. During the late nineteenth century, urban political machines sprang up as informal organizations serving the political interests of immigrants on both the national and local levels. By the twenty-first century, urban machines were nearly extinct, and immigration issues were alternately on and off national political agendas.Presidential electionsPolitical parties;and presidential elections[presidential elections]Presidential electionsPolitical parties;and presidential elections[presidential elections][cat]POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT;Presidential elections[04260]

Mixed Enfranchisement

The United States has been called the “first new nation,” which is to say it is the first modern Western country formed without a European feudal and aristocratic past as its historical bedrock. This means that at some basic level, American presidential elections have always hinged upon the voting efforts of immigrants. However, despite America’s status as the first new nation, the degree of success in extending Voting;minority rightsvoting rights to immigrants since the American Revolution can be fairly described as mixed.

During the early decades after the creation of the American nation, the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, and the early elections of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, the rate of foreign immigration into the United States was steady but slow. During the decades-long lull in significant immigration, the political identity of the United States matured. The immigrants and descendants of immigrants already on American shores began to recognize themselves as a distinct group. In terms of American political development, this was very important. Perhaps ironically, the immigrants who would later come from Europe would be seen as “outsiders” to an established political process.

Early American voting laws began to reflect this newfound electoral xenophobia. In a nation that fewer than seventy-five years earlier had been started by foreign immigrants seeking new beginnings, rules and regulations began to take shape to limit the voting rights of new immigrants. Enfranchisement is the right of a person to cast a ballot for an elected official. Its opposite, “disenfranchisement,” began emerging in the United States during the 1830’s and 1840’s.

Prior to the U.S. Civil War of 1861-1865, a partisan battle between the emergent Whig PartyWhigs and the Democratic PartyDemocratic Party spilled over into public law. The Democratic party of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson had thrived. The Democrats had created something known as the spoils system in which party backers were rewarded with government jobs. The Whigs stood in opposition to this Democratic success and somewhat effectively united native-born voters against immigrant Voting;minority rightsvoting rights. In 1840, the Whigs chose as their candidate for president Harrison, William HenryWilliam Henry Harrison, a decorated leader in the war against Native Americans on the western frontier.

The Whigs perceived that the Democrats had developed an advantage over them by supporting laws allowing immigrants to vote. Indeed, the Whigs represented the more affluent and established members of American society. In early American elections, there were no voting registration laws, but as the sense of community felt by existing American residents grew, registering voters began to make sense to them. The idea of transients voting in elections was seen as something to stop by this reactionary element of the electorate. It can be argued that registration laws were first developed as a reasonable method of stopping voting fraud, but such laws were more likely enacted to discourage poor people from voting.

During the nineteenth century, the American poor were most frequently immigrants. With the potato blight in Ireland during the 1840’s and the rapid influx of Irish Catholics to eastern urban centers, “native” Americans began to lobby for voter registration laws. Without a doubt, some of these laws were blatantly aimed at new waves of Irish, German, French, and Dutch immigrants. One anti-immigrant proposal sought to extend the length of time immigrants had to wait before they could qualify for Citizenship;and voting[voting]citizenship and vote. Some anti-immigrant leaders even pushed for waiting periods as long as twenty years of citizenship before naturalized citizens could vote.

Mid-Nineteeth Century Changes

After a few years of success, the Whig PartyWhig Party began to fade from the national political scene during the 1850’s. However, it was quickly replaced by a more insidious body–the Know-Nothing Party[Know Nothing Party]Know-Nothings. The Know-Nothing Party had begun as a Secret societiessecret nativist society called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. The party was strangely progressive on some issues, such as women’s rights, but in general, it stood for unabashed bigotry. The Know-Nothings openly expressed fear over Irish Catholic workers settling in Boston and New York. They saw the Irish as un-American and feared that they took their marching orders from the Roman Catholic pope.

Along with the surging Republicans and the fading Whigs, the Know-Nothings pushed for state voting laws establishing literacy tests and grandfather clauses. These laws required such things as civics tests and minimum-residency requirements before individuals could vote. During the nineteenth century, the legal hurdles placed in front of voters, which would later become known as “Jim Crow” laws, were not aimed solely at African Americans. Rather they were directed toward eastern European immigrants and others who were not established property-owning Protestants.

At various times in American history, members of very different immigrant groups have been feared for their possible political influence. The Chinese in California, Italians in New York, and Cubans in Florida have all held this distinction. However, some regions of the United States have been more tolerant toward immigrants than others. For example, Minnesota and Wisconsin, perhaps because of their residents’ heritage of Scandinavian egalitarianism, have generally been more embracing of the foreign born. Likewise, immigrants who moved to the Frontier;politics alongwestern frontier during the nineteenth century and stayed away from the eastern seaboard had a bit easier go gaining political acceptance.

Urban Political Machines

In contrast, Machine politicspolitical life during the nineteenth century could be harsh for many urban immigrants. Low-paying factory jobs and thick foreign accents did not easily gain them entry into the landed classes. The importance of property-owning status and high educational achievement made it difficult for immigrants to gain political acceptance. Consequently, local elections were often sealed off from members of poorly organized and politically naive immigrant groups, and presidential elections were generally completely out of reach of new Americans. Moreover, immigrants typically could neither run for office nor get their issues onto the political agenda.

Because immigrants lacked representation in both public candidacy and voting, their political problems were only compounded. Muckraking works such as Jungle, The (Sinclair)Sinclair, UptonUpton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle documented the harsh work and living conditions of the immigrant working poor. Their oppressed, low-class status was directly linked to the lack of political representation in a supposedly democratic nation. Most often presidential candidates of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Garfield, JamesJames Garfield and Harrison, BenjaminBenjamin Harrison, did not stand strongly for immigrant and minority rights.

However, at least one political tide was turning. After the Civil War and the onset of urban industrialization, European immigrants formed close-knit communities that housed their own forms of political expression. For example, Slavic communities that provided labor for the coal industry in Pennsylvania, embraced one another in insular neighborhoods. Soon enough the close-knit nature of immigrant communities, usually centered on ethnically flavored churches, lent itself naturally to political organization.

Urban Machine politicspolitical machines were born not only to clutch onto political power, but also to give a voice to immigrants. Machine politics was indeed a locally born phenomenon, but it also provided the first roots of immigrant political power exercised on a national level. Political machines taught immigrants that they could organize and help change government policies. Through the machines, immigrants learned about their civil rights and were even encouraged to cast votes for their preferred candidates. By supporting the political candidates put forward by political machines, immigrants gained patronage jobs in government. At the turn of the nineteenth century waves of new Americans were learning the lessons of politics.

American presidential elections are actually not monolithic national elections. It would be more accurate to describe them as accumulations of individual state elections that are held on the same day. The electoral votes of the individual states are aggregated to determine who the president will be, but the federal system has always granted king-making power to state electoral systems. During the nineteenth century, the individual state systems were dominated by political machines in large urban centers in which immigrants played increasingly important roles.

As urban machines composed of distinct ethnic groups gained political ground in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, they became national-level power brokers. Because immigrant political power was nested in urban centers, these machines could “deliver” votes for federal level candidates, including the presidents. Many political historians have noted that President Kennedy, John F.John F. Kennedy’s electoral victory in 1960 was delivered with the blessing of the Daley machine in Chicago. However, the political power of European immigrants peaked with Kennedy’s victory.

Immigration Policy

Public policy scholars have long known that when an ethnic or racial minority candidate wins elected office, new public policy tends to more closely follow the particular needs of the candidate’s group. As European immigrants assimilated into the greater American melting pot during the mid-twentieth century, the unique needs of other immigrant groups have become more visible.

Chinese man reading a Shanghai newspaper story about the January, 2009, inauguration of Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

By the late twentieth century, American immigration policy debate was focusing sharply on the trials of recent Hispanic immigrants. While some immigration policy issues have diverged from their counterparts of a century earlier, commonalities have remained. For example, Hispanic immigrants have faced the same kinds of workers’ rights issues that daunted European immigrants during the nineteenth century. Perpetually assuming the role of the newcomer in a developed American economy, immigrants have always had acute concerns about workplace safety and fair wages.

Issues of political representation have remained as well. Hispanic Americans have gained ground in winning public offices, but white native-born Americans have continued to dominate campaign politics. New Mexico’s Hispanic governor Richardson, BillBill Richardson was a possible candidate for president in the 2008 election, but he constantly trailed fellow Democratic Party nominees Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

No Asian has ever been a viable candidate for the presidency. Under the U.S. Constitution, only natural-born American citizens are eligible to become president, but the children of naturalized citizens can hold the highest office. President Obama, BarackBarack Obama himself had a Kenyan father. However, in 2009, it remained to be seen whether Obama’s election would mark an ascendancy of immigrant and ethnic minority candidates. It could be that Obama’s status as an African American, and the long history of unequal treatment of African Americans, will supersede the notion of a candidate for immigrants.

It could very well take a Hispanic president to capture the mantle of an “immigrant” president. Because immigration was strongly associated in public perceptions with Latin countries to the south during the early twenty-first century, immigrant issues have become most salient in Mexican-border states such as Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Texas. It came as little surprise, therefore, that Bill Richardson ran for president as the sitting governor of New Mexico.

The immigration issue that stood out during the first decade of the twenty-first century was indeed tied to border states and immigrants from Latin America: Illegal immigration;and presidential elections[presidential elections]illegal immigration. Illegal immigration has been a thorny topic for American citizens living along the Mexican border, but it has usually been of less concern to those who live elsewhere. Coping with illegal immigration issues can be a difficult challenge for politicians who face uncaring electorates. Humane treatment of apprehended illegal immigrants, as well as fundamental questions of the requirements of Citizenship;and voting[voting]citizenship, are topics that will not disappear from the political landscape until they are dealt with more soundly.

U.S. immigration policy has become a bit schizophrenic. Both members of Congress and presidents have been torn between building a wall along the Mexican border and strictly enforcing existing immigration statutes and providing a more compassionate treatment of illegal immigrants as people with inherent rights. Solutions to such a complicated issue are likely to possess subtleties that do not lend themselves well to the simple discourse of modern presidential campaigns. By 2008, the Republican PartyRepublican Party had lost much of its appeal among Latin American immigrants because of its harsh stance on immigration. Consequently, Democratic Party candidates for president have enjoyed broader support among immigrant voters–as was the case in the days of Andrew Jackson.Presidential electionsPolitical parties;and presidential elections[presidential elections]

Further Reading
  • Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Asian American Access to Democracy in the 2008 Elections. New York: Author, 2009. Report presented to the U.S. Congress about problems faced by Asian Americans in several states while voting during the 2008 elections. Available online in PDF format.
  • Erie, Steven P. Rainbow’s End. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Perhaps the best available book on Irish American political machines.
  • Greenblatt, Alan. “Immigration Debate.” In Urban Issues, edited by CQ Press Publishing Group. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2009. The product of Congressional Quarterly’s research staff, this excellent essay from an edited collection provides an overview of the contemporary immigration policy debate.
  • Greene, Victor R. American Immigrant Leaders. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. Covers the political leadership of a number of ethnic immigrant groups including Italians, Poles, and Swedes.
  • _______. The Slavic Community on Strike. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968. Illustrates the importance of labor issues to the tightly woven Slavic immigrant group.
  • Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote. New York: Basic Books, 2000. Well-written historical overview that provides a sweeping perspective of the American tendency to limit enfranchisement, with particular attention to the Whig and Know-Nothing parties.
  • Vought, Hans Peter. Redefining the “Melting Pot”: American Presidents and the Immigrant, 1897-1933. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI, 2001. Study of the role of U.S. presidents in American immigration policy through an era of heavy European immigration and convulsive changes in U.S. immigration policy.

Congress, U.S.

Constitution, U.S.

Immigration waves

The Jungle

Latinos and immigrants

Machine politics

Political parties

Categories: History Content