Robert McCrum surveys the big battles and the outsize personalities who lit up presidential contests over the last 150 years.
Abraham Lincoln 1864
President Barack Obama shares with Abraham Lincoln a re-election campaign in the midst of intractable domestic problems. In 1864, the lack of success in the civil war dogged his election prospects. His supporters feared he would lose. Sharing this anxiety, Lincoln made a pledge to defeat the confederacy before leaving the White House. "This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be re-elected," he wrote.
Lincoln did not show the pledge to his Cabinet, but asked them to sign the sealed envelope that, in the event, was unnecessary. Within a year, he was dead.
The Democratic nomination was hotly contested in the light of incumbent Herbert Hoover's vulnerability. Franklin D. Roosevelt built his national coalition with personal allies such as newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Kennedy snr. He went on to win the first of an unprecedented four terms. In his acceptance speech, Roosevelt declared: "I pledge you, I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people ... a call to arms." His inaugural address, given in the midst of the great Depression, offered the rallying cry: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Truman vs Dewey 1948
A cliffhanger campaign immortalised in a dead wrong Chicago Daily Tribune headline (shown right). Truman had become president on the death of FDR in 1945, but no one gave him a chance.
The New York Times declared: "Thomas E. Dewey's Election as President is a Foregone Conclusion." Dewey, however, was a dreadful candidate - stuffy, prone to gaffes and out of touch. Truman played the popular card. In his final campaign speech, Truman said: "The smart boys say we can't win ... but we called their bluff; we told the people the truth. And the people are with us. The tide is rolling... The people are going to win this election." He was right.
JFK v Nixon 1960
This election was a thriller in which Kennedy, the matinee idol Democrat, was nearly defeated by the brooding figure of Eisenhower's former vice- president, Richard Milhous Nixon. It was the first campaign in which the candidates debated on live television. The popular perception among those who had listened over the radio was that Nixon had got the better of JFK.
But the TV told a different story. Kennedy appeared confident, sun-tanned and relaxed. Nixon looked shifty and, sweating badly under the lights, cut a sorry figure and came across as a loser. Kennedy won, by a whisker, and Camelot was born.
Humphrey v Nixon 1968
Another thriller, with the outcome uncertain long into the morning after the poll. The election was conducted against a backdrop of turmoil that included the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, nationwide race riots, Vietnam war protests and violent clashes between police and anti-war protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago as the Democratic party split. Hubert Humphrey, the Democrats' candidate, was the underdog, only closing in the final days.
Nixon, who had put the humiliation of 1960 behind him, campaigned successfully on law and order and ending the war.
Eagleton breaks down 1972
Nixon appeared unbeatable. When George McGovern won the Democratic nomination, high-profile Democrats, including Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey, turned down offers to run as VP. In desperation, McGovern chose Thomas Eagleton, a senator from Missouri, with only a minimal background check. Eagleton had made no mention of his electroshock treatment for depression and frequent hospitalisations, and decided to keep them secret from McGovern. When the press confronted Eagleton with the story, he broke down and was replaced by Sargent Shriver. On election day, McGovern took only one state, Massachusetts. Nixon resigned over Watergate in August 1974.
Reagan v Carter 1980
Jimmy Carter was always a poor bet for a second term, but his Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan, was distrusted as a veteran cold warrior and no one had ever been elected at the age of 70 before. Coming into the final weeks of the campaign, the outcome seemed finely balanced. The televised debates were essentially a score draw, but Reagan managed to land a punch when he twitted Carter's penchant for manipulating statistics with the humorous line: "There you go again."
It was Reagan's folksy charm that delivered a landslide.
Clinton v Dole 1996
Bill Clinton's second term now looks like a foregone conclusion. The cold war was over and America was prosperous and at peace. Bob Dole, a lacklustre candidate, with the now-forgotten Jack Kemp as VP, was a grizzled war veteran whose vulnerability was underlined when he slipped and fell head first from a podium on the election trail. Compared with the 50-year-old Clinton, 73-year-old Dole appeared old and frail and the Clinton-Gore ticket won a landslide. But within a year, the president was fighting for his political life over his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
George W Bush v Al Gore 2000
After the euphoria of the Clinton years, this was the election defeat Al Gore and the Democrats snatched from the jaws of victory. Though Gore came in second in the electoral vote, he received 543,895 more popular votes than Bush. With no outright winner, and the votes of Florida in dispute - due to problems with the punchcards ballots (creating "hanging chads"), the unresolved outcome of the popular vote was passed to the Supreme Court. After a month of high drama, the court ruled (by a margin of 7-2) that George W Bush had won, a low point in the history of Supreme Court judicial verdicts.
Sarah Palin 2008
With no incumbent defending the White House, the McCain-Obama presidential clash was dominated by the spectacle of the Republican challenge imploding - and the emergence of Sarah Palin. Her defining moment came with her first solo appearance. Hardcore Republicans went wild when she said: "You know the difference between a pit bull and an average hockey mum? [pause] Lipstick!" For a few weeks, Palin-fever swept middle America. But by polling day, her star was waning and in the end her candidacy probably did more harm than good. Palin has a new political life as a TV commentator and Tea Party darling.