Ten Election Day Moments of Presidential Families

The White House, circa 1885.

Which Presidential candidate wins on Election Day is obviously of importance to the nation and the world, as the citizens, financial institutions, losing political party and hundreds of other institutions, organizations and individuals anticipate the winner carrying out their campaign promises and how it will change, impact or affect their own lives. And while the candidates, their spouses, parents, siblings and children have always, traditionally, pulled together in a united front in the effort to win the White House, when the actual day of decision has come, it has not always proven to be a happy one.

Here are ten surprising Election Day vignettes of Presidential families:

Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson were close friends before becoming sharp enemies.

1800: Anticipating the potential loss of her husband’s re-election campaign to his opponent Thomas Jefferson, Abigail Adams wrote one of her son’s that she feared it would mean the destruction of the fragile new nation’s stability.

True to her word, when she learned that her old friend Jefferson had indeed won, Mrs. Adams immediately pulled all of her financial investments and kept the cash at home.


The Lincolns were a genuine political team.

1860: Spending much of Election Day down at the local Springfield, Illinois polling place with his supporters, it was there that a telegraph message came in for Republican Presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln informing him that he’d won.

He made a hasty retreat from the crowd and fairly ran the distance to his home. As soon as he stepped inside he yelled out for his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. She came down, despite her severe headache which resulted from not knowing the Election Day results. As his primary adviser in private and the emotional foundation for him in times of his own personal uncertainty and depression, he made clear that the victory was not his alone.

He embraced her and loudly blurted out, “We are elected!”

Campaign poster showing Caroline Harrison at far left with her husband, presidential candidate Benjamin Harrison and their adult children Russell and Mary.

1888: With not only her husband’s campaign managers and local supporters gathering on Election Day in her crowded Indianapolis, Indiana home, but also her elderly father, two adult children and their spouses, three grandchildren, and a niece staying as house guests, Caroline Harrison ran around with her maids trying to refill food trays and see to everyone’s comfort.

When she parted the parlor curtains to look outside to see what was causing the rising cacophony on the street, she witnessed to her horror the overzealous joy of local supporters – ripping down the wooden posts of the house’s fence, soon to be completely decimated.

Still unsure of whether her husband had won the election at that point, she could only quip philosophically at that point, “It’s either the White House or the poor house for us.”

William McKinley in a campaign poster between his wife Ida and mother Nancy.

1896: After voting for himself at a local polling place, Republican candidate William McKinley returned to his Canton, Ohio home to await the results of the election.

The house had served as his campaign headquarters and he had delivered all of his public speeches to crowds of delegations from its famous front-porch.

While celebratory and drunken crowds surrounded his house noisily blowing horns, he slipped off to see his mother Nancy, known in the press as “Mother McKinley.”

She called him into her room and got him down on his knees and, with one arm wrapped around his neck, prayed out loudly to God, asking him to keep her son humble.

Nell Wilson on a grandstand, during his 1912 campaign.

1912: When the news came that their father, Democratic presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson, had won the presidency, his three adult daughters, Nell, Jessie and Margaret joined in the mirthful cheering and singing that took place in their rented summer home at Sea Girt, New Jersey.

Jessie Wilson.

Excusing themselves for a moment from the crowd of happy supporters and friends who had gathered there, Nell and Jessie Wilson went into their bedroom, filled with fear over the inevitable physical and emotional toll that the presidency would take on their father – and wept.

Florence Harding became the first woman in history to vote for her husband as President.

1920: Despite Florence Harding’s belief in the prediction of her astrologer Marcia Champrey that, if nominated her husband Warren Harding would win the election – but also die of “strange, peculiar, violent death by poison,” she had forged on, encouraging him to fight on through a tough primary season.

On Election Day, while simultaneously eager for him to win – while trying to suppress or forget the astrological prediction, she tried to keep herself entirely distracted.

Florence Harding reviews Election Day telegrams and state returns with her husband.

As a result of that year’s passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, Florence Harding became the first woman in history able to vote for her husband as President and her appearance at the polling place brought out the media as she posed for pictures while making history.

Returning home to then read through telegrams and messages from supporters and well-wishers, she then abruptly found the family cook and went with her to the kitchen to bake a cake for her husband. It was also his birthday.

Truman’s moment of revenge.

1948: Not only had most of the nation’s political reporters but his own wife predicted that President Harry Truman would lose the election to his Republican opponent Thomas Dewey.

Keeping his own counsel but never losing faith in himself, the candidate went to bed before the final results were in, sleeping well all through the night. He’d not been the only person to feel confident of how Election Day would end.

The next morning, he arose to find his self-confidence well-placed and, with joyous exuberance, held up the a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune newspaper with the premature headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman” wordlessly making the media – and his wife – eat crow.

As she returned from what she thought had been a private walk on the beach the day after 1960 Election Day, Jackie Kennedy was surrounded by photographers and realized she had been followed by Secret Service all along.

1960: While all at their family’s famous Hyannis Port, Massachusetts summer compound of houses, the extended family of John F. Kennedy learned in the early morning hours that he’d been declared the winner of the presidential race.

His brothers Bobby and Teddy, who had helped manage the campaign, his sisters Eunice, Jean and Pat, who had all actively campaigned for him around the country, and their spouses, all loudly celebrated first at Robert F. Kennedy’s house, which had been the campaign’s “war room” headquarters.

They then moved their party to the larger main house of their parents, former U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy and his wife Rose Kennedy. A key family member, however, was missing.

The candidate’s wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, who was due to give birth within three weeks, remained isolated and anxious, fearing the loss of her anonymity.

She slipped out secretly from her home and managed to take a solitary walk on the beach shoreline unnoticed. Doing so relieved some of concerns – until returning home and noticing a dozen or so Secret Service agents who had been watching her from a beach bluff – where she was also then rushed by photographers.

Election Day 1968 was far happier for Pat Nixon who’d anticipated the shocking loss of 1960 (inset photo).

1968: Plagued by the fear that, if her husband had actually won the popular vote that some unforeseen technicality would rise to rob him of victory, Pat Nixon was full of high anxiety on Election Day; it was a result of the emotional scar she still bore from the 1960 election when, she believed, his opponent that year, John F. Kennedy, had been able to be declared the winner because of voter fraud in Illinois and Texas.

The usually composed Pat Nixon had burst into tears publicly when her husband had decided not to dispute those results on Election Day 1960.

When Nixon was declared the winner in 1968, she cried with tears of joy – in the privacy of their hotel suite before joining him to appear before the media.

Despite their political differences, Ronald Reagan and his daughter Patti Davis were extraordinarily close.

1984: Not only because she feared the effect on her father Ronald Reagan of four more years of the heavy responsibilities of the presidency, but also because her political beliefs were at odd with his own, daughter Patti Davis admitted that she couldn’t bring herself to vote for him.

Yet out of her love and loyalty to him as her father, she could also not vote for his opponent, Democratic candidate Walter Mondale. So, she decided to vote for the television show character she loved the most – Pee Wee Herman.

Categories: First Families, First Ladies, Florence Harding, Politics, Presidents, Ronald Reagan, The Lincolns, Thomas Jefferson

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

6 replies »

  1. I enjoyed reading this Carl. As always, your interesting columns with little-known facts and anecdotes serve to humanize our Presidents and their families.


    • Thank you Bob – I think its perhaps the most important thing people can keep in mind – fame, glory, wealth, power. be it related to the Presidents and their families or any other celebrated figures, are first and foremost human beings who succeeded in spite of their flaws and fears and shortcomings by striving to overcome or accept their own human nature. I appreciate your writing.

  2. Ida got to know – when is your book coming out on Mrs. McKinely? In addition, any chance of a third volume on First Ladies?

    As always, thank you for all the hard work and information you provide all of us!

    Best wishes –


    • Thank you David for taking the time to write – greatly appreciated. I am literally in the midst of penning the last bit of the book as it is being copy-edited. Due out in June. Doubt there will be a volume three – not at least for another twenty years! It was very much a self-contained saga of two hundred years, ending with the bicentennial of the presidency in 1989. But appreciate the encouraging thought that there would be a volume three. 🙂 Cheers and thank you again.

  3. I agree with Bob, and with you, Carl. Especially in the heat of the battle, we really do forget that underneath the public personas, we are dealing with people with great hopes, half of which will also experience the sting of defeat, for the months (years?) before the election. It speaks highly of those who can exult in their candidates victory while also having sympathy for the opponents sense of loss. One of the areas in which you shine is in making the sweep of history personal.

    • Forgive me for being so late in responding Jake – and thank you. And I can’t imagine wasting energy going around hating everyone who I disagree with. I am challenged, however by those who react with willful ignorance as an excuse for working in a bipartisan manner. Though interestingly, in line with that old adage of ‘be careful what you wish for…’ I think that if either party accumulates too much power it leads inevitably to internal fracture and fighting and self-destruction.

%d bloggers like this: