Battle on the Ballot: Political Outsiders in US Presidential Elections

Battle on the Ballot: Political Outsiders in US Presidential Elections


Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, a black woman from Brooklyn, ran for president in 1972. A presidential outsider because of her race and gender, Chisholm faced steep odds. However, Chisholm’s candidacy also galvanized communities of color, young people, and urban voters who felt marginalized by politics as usual. This photograph captures Shirley Chisholm supporters holding signs and Chisholm’s trademark poster in the audience at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. Courtesy of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill via North Carolina Digital Heritage Center.

In This Exhibition

In 2016, a billionaire businessman and the first woman nominated by a major party ran against each other for president of the United States. In very different ways, both candidates approached the presidency as outsiders, reaching beyond the traditional boundaries of US presidential politics. As outsiders, the 2016 candidates are noteworthy, but not unique; indeed, the 2016 race resonates with the legacies of outsiders who have come before. This exhibition explores the rich history of select individuals, parties, events, and movements that have influenced US presidential elections from the outside—outside Washington politics, outside the two-party system, and outside the traditional conception of who can be an American president.

Outsider, in this context, requires a dynamic definition. Featured stories explore candidates who defined themselves as Washington outsiders, such as World War II general Dwight Eisenhower, yet also those who were labeled or treated as outsiders because of their race, gender, or beliefs. In 1964, Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman to run for a major party’s presidential nomination. Twenty years later, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson built the Rainbow Coalition to unite marginalized and minority groups who felt excluded from politics and ran the most successful campaign by an African American candidate up to that point. Reformers whose principles are not represented by major party platforms have found a voice through third-party campaigns, such as that of the anti-slavery Liberty Party of the mid-nineteenth century. Still others have defined presidential candidacies in opposition to perceived outsiders, such as the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party of the 1850s and the segregationist Dixiecrats in 1948.

These stories share common themes: determination to change the system, put pressure on major parties and force them to adapt, and give voice to new ideas though America’s presidential election process. These forces of change are not always positive; the stories represented here illuminate both the best and worst about America — both its capacity for and resistance to change in the face of its most reactionary and most idealistic impulses. Somewhere in between fall the stories of outsiders strategically navigating a political moment, forging their own political careers, and advancing their own political agendas.

Credit: This exhibition was curated by DPLA staff members Samantha Gibson and Franky Abbott with materials contributed by DPLA Hubs.