Three events dramatically impacted the 1812 elections. First, the War of 1812 dominated the nation and hampered the Democrats. Second, the 1810 census displayed a population explosion leading to a dramatic expansion in the number of seats in the House of Representatives. Third, the Federalist Party was dying making effective opposition difficult. In the end, the Federalists made impressive gains, but President Madison managed to hold off his opponent to win re-election.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson cruised to re-election while John Adams essentially surrendered the presidency in exchange for peace with France. In 1812, President James Madison faced a challenge in his re-election bid. He hoped to avoid Adams’ mistakes and bungled his way into the War of 1812. Many northerners viewed the war negatively and resented Virginia’s stranglehold on the presidency. Of the first four chief executives, three hailed from Virginia. Massachusetts claimed Adams.
The resentment over Virginia combined with worries and anger over the war to create a split within the Democratic Party. The nephew of Madison’s former vice president, George Clinton, emerged to challenge the president. Federalists endorsed and supported DeWitt Clinton’s candidacy. A strong Federalist Party complete with state by state election apparatuses could have unseated Madison. Democratic organization combined with voter reticence to change presidents in the middle of a war led to Madison’s victory. In many respects, Madison’s re-election resembled George W. Bush’s 2004 victory. Madison earned 50% of the vote to Clinton’s 48%. Rufus King of New York received the other 2%. The president won re-election with a smaller portion of the popular vote than in 1808.
Despite the presidential victory, the Democrats suffered setbacks in congress. In the senate, the Federalists gained two seats. As a result of the election, resignations, and death, the Democratic advantage dropped from 30-6 to 27-6. Three seats remained vacant heading into 1813.
The House of Representatives also experienced a Federalist resurgence. The population increase led to nearly 40 new seats in the lower chamber. The Democrats gained seven seats to increase their numbers from 107 to 114. They won many of the new agrarian districts. Meanwhile, the Federalists added 32 seats for an overall 25 seat gain. Federalists proved strong in the northeast and Atlantic states where war threatened economic well being. They also galvanized the anti-war opposition to their banner. As a result, the Democratic advantage dropped from 71 seats to 46.
The War of 1812 overshadowed the 1812 elections. It cost the Democrats seats in both houses of congress and cut into the president’s popularity. Madison’s popular vote dropped from 65% in 1808 to 50%. The increased population seemed to help the opposition. However, the Democrats organization strength and Federalists weakness saved the ruling party and president. A stronger, more vibrant Federalist Party might have embarrassed the founding father and pulled the upset.