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The historical firsts in the 2020 election

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden debate the handling of coronavirus during the final presidential debate of the 2020 election. Check out more CNN debate coverage here.

Posted: Oct 22, 2020 9:41 PM
Updated: Oct 25, 2020 3:30 PM


Five years ago this month, I looked at the emerging Democratic field and assessed how the candidates could make history in the 2016 presidential elections. (Don't remember how former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley was poised for stardom? Click here to refresh your memory.)

Now I'm back for a dose of sweet solace that regardless of who wins the election, there's more history a comin' on January 20, 2021 -- and it has only a little to do with the age of our next president.

Never before in US history: Four consecutive two-term presidencies

Stop me if you've heard this one before: Trump is a norm-busting president.

He was already the first one elected without any prior government or military service and the oldest incoming chief of state ever elected to the office. (Trump was 70 years and 220 days old on Inauguration Day 2017 while Ronald Reagan, the previous record holder, was 69 years and 349 days old on Inauguration Day 1981).

And now, if he is reelected, Trump would serve as the clean-up hitter in a base clearing event never before seen in the history of American exceptionalism: four consecutive two-term presidencies. That's right. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe had a hot thing going with two terms each until John Quincy Adams struck out on capturing a second term. This time, Trump could show Adams how things get done.

But beyond those milestones, how could Trump add his iconic coiffed image to a few more pages in the history books?

Not since the greatest generation: a presidential streak unlike any other

Generationally speaking, Trump could be to politics what Hall of Fame Baltimore Orioles shortstop and third baseman Cal Ripken Jr. was to baseball. In 1995, Ripken tied Yankee Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig's 56-year-old record for the longest string of consecutive games played in Major League Baseball history.

If Trump is reelected and fulfills his Constitutional obligations for another four-year term, he would extend the reign of the Baby Boomer presidents -- which started with Bill Clinton in 1992 -- to a full 32 years, tying the record set by the Greatest Generation's unyielding grip on the presidency from John F. Kennedy to George H.W. Bush.

Although to be truly on par with baseball's Iron Man, who went on to beat Gehrig's record, Boomers would need to notch a subsequent victory in 2024 from someone like Vice President Mike Pence, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan or Sen. Kamala Harris, who is on the cusp of being a member of Generation X with her Chuck Taylors and her birthdate less than two months from the cut-off date. Another Boomer president in 2024 would confirm what they have told us for years: they're the best ever. The best!

Not since Harrison-Cleveland: back-to-back one-termers

Trump could still make history by losing. If Trump loses and Biden doesn't seek reelection in 2024, the US would see the first elected, back-to-back one-term presidencies since Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland in 1889-1897. Of course, this comes with a minor caveat. Cleveland -- the only president to have served two non-consecutive terms -- lost reelection to Harrison in 1888, only to rise like a phoenix and return to the White House in 1892. Could Trump use history as a guide and pull a Cleveland in 2024?

Biden's age makes a historic quarter

The historic milestones of a potential Biden victory, are, unsurprisingly, mostly related to his age.

Biden, who began his national political career as the sixth youngest US senator in history when he was sworn in at 30 years, one month and 14 days old, could become the oldest president elected and the oldest to serve at the age of 78 years and two months on Inauguration Day (Reagan was 77 years, 11 months and 14 days old on his last day in office).

Biden's age would also make him the first member of the Silent Generation -- loosely defined by those born between 1928 and 1945 -- to assume the office, and the president with the longest career in politics, dating back 50 years to his election to Delaware's New Castle County Council.

But in what is likely his last and final run for president, Biden could be more than a generational magic man.

Not so fast: Vice presidential age gap

But first, not so fast. Believe it or not, even though Biden could be the oldest president in history, the largest age gap between a president and vice president would still be held by James Buchanan and John Breckinridge with 29 years, eight months and 24 days separating the two. (Biden was born 21 years and 11 months before Harris.)

The largest modern-day gap is between President George H.W. Bush and his Vice President Dan Quayle, who was 22 years, seven months and 23 days younger. Among losing candidates, John McCain, who was the 2008 Republican nominee, and his VP pick Sarah Palin, hold the record with 27 years, five months and 13 days between the two.

To add historical insult to ageist injury, Biden won't even snag the number one spot on the list of the oldest tickets in combined age. The Biden-Harris ticket falls one measly year short (133 to 134) of the winning 1948 Truman-Barkley ticket and the losing 1996 Dole-Kemp duo.

Not since Nixon: A VP gap term (or two)

Biden could be the 15th veep to ultimately get the top job, and one of only six to ascend by election rather than the resignation, natural death or assassination of a sitting president.

If Biden wins, he would also join an elite company of two with Richard Nixon -- the only other vice president who didn't immediately go from the supporting role to being elected president (Nixon, who served as Dwight Eisenhower's VP for eight years from 1953 to 1961, lost to John. F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential elections, only to come roaring back in 1968. Biden, of course, will have skipped one term between his vice presidency and presidency if he wins in 2020.)

The First State's first (Constitutional) president

Biden could also become the second Pennsylvanian by birth (after James Buchanan) and the first Delawarean -- either by birth or residence -- to serve as president. But he wouldn't be the first Delawarean to be called 'Mr. President' in American history.

That great honor belongs to Thomas McKean -- a founding father who, like Biden, was born in Pennsylvania before moving to Delaware. McKean served as the President of Congress (before the Constitution was ratified) for a tenure only 82 days.

To be sure, this all might sound a bit like watching baseball in October when it seems as though every pitch, hit, run and game, no matter how inconsequential, finds itself a place in the history of America's pastime. 'Wow, that was the first left-hander ever to hit a single with one out in the bottom of the second on a Wednesday night in October. What a time to be alive!'

Nevertheless, whether it's Donald Trump or Joseph Biden, we're a whole 244 years into this American experiment and we remain a history-making machine.

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