It may surprise some people that this year's wacky presidential race may have some historical precedent. The rules that outline how a national election can be organized have not changed much since the U.S. Constitution was written nearly 230 years ago, which has made for drama and high tension. The 2000 race, determined by the U.S. Supreme Court, was the most recent example of a presidential race reaching an photo finish, to put it mildly. The election of 1824, much like today, was the culmination of years of unsettled tension reaching an ugly crescendo.
To set the scene: leading up to 1824, the original two-party system that emerged in the early days of the republic had disintegrated. The Federalist Party collapsed, leaving the Democratic Republicans (today's Democrats, more or less) without a viable opponent. The Dem-Reps controlled all three branches of government, with laws and legislation being passed without much opposition. In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and the crushing defeat following the War of 1812, Americans sought unity. This time period of unilateralism became known as "The Era of Good Feelings." It was pleasant enough on the surface, but unsustainable and rotting from within.
President James Monroe strove to downplay partisan affiliation, with the ultimate goal of national unity and eliminating parties altogether from national politics. For that reason, his agenda and The Era of Good Feelings are almost synonymous with each other. To prevent upheaval and discourage rivalries, political opponents like John C. Calhoun and John Quincy Adams were given high-ranking positions in Monroe's cabinet. On the national level, Monroe was well-liked enough to be reelected in 1820 with all but one electoral vote; William Plumer, an elector from New Hampshire, thought Monroe was incompetent and put his support behind the younger Adams.
When Monroe chose not to seek a third term in 1824, all the delicate alliances our fifth president had built slowly came crashing down. His heir apparent, Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins was not only unpopular but also in poor health (indeed, Tompkins died three months after leaving office). The Democratic-Republicans were faced with a wide-open race; the traditional Congressional caucus, the precursor to today's conventions, chose Treasury Sec. William H. Crawford to succeed Monroe. However, the caucus was sparsely attended and perceived as undemocratic. Crawford stayed in the race, but he quickly found himself lagging behind three upstarts: Secretary Adams, General Andrew Jackson, and Speaker of the House Henry Clay.
John Quincy Adams, the son of a former president, was well liked by the last vestiges of the Federalist Party but mostly aligned with the Democratic-Republicans. Rep. Clay, a populist rabble-rouser, made Appalachia (then the U.S. west) his stronghold. General Jackson, the one non-politician in the race, was a respected war hero with a strong following in rural areas, especially in the South and mid-Atlantic states. Adams and Crawford split the east, with Adams holding a narrow advantage in New England. They all conflicted over policy, especially in regard to tariffs, but this would be a race of both favorite sons as well as geography.
There is no provision in the U.S. Constitution that enables a two-party system; historically, most of our federal elections have been set by two semi-rigid party platforms, but it has been largely happenstance. Third parties have come and gone with a short wave of momentum but limited long-term impact. For its time, an election with four viable presidential candidates was unprecedented. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun was briefly a fifth option, but opted to seek the vice presidential nomination; his political beliefs were more aligned with Jackson's, but he made no effort to distance himself from Adams.
Once all the votes were tallied in December 1824 (there was no consensus election day at the time), none of the four candidates got the 50% of the popular vote needed to win. Andrew Jackson carried 41.4% of the vote, hardly a majority. Because of a provision in the 12th Amendment, the top three candidates would have to be elected in a special vote my Congress. Clay, who finished fourth, was eliminated but opted to endorse Adams. It was enough to sway Congress to vote narrowly in favor Adams' presidency. In return, Adams made the controversial choice to appoint Clay his Secretary of State. The Democratic-Republicans ceased to be shortly after.
For the first time in American history, a candidate that won the popular vote failed to get enough electoral votes to win the presidency. The election of 1828 was not only a rematch, but a moratorium of sorts for Adams' middling term in office. The pulse of the nation was still polarized, but Jackson had more popular support --and the electoral votes necessary-- to quash Adams' quest for reelection.
I suppose in this convoluted analogy, Hillary Clinton is Adams, Donald Trump is Jackson, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is Crawford, and Bernie Sanders is Clay. The former two make far more sense than the latter two; Clinton is the safe establishment candidate, while Trump is the known brand with the mix of outsider appeal and worrisome baggage. Maybe Sanders' supporters will come around to vote for Hillary, but there is a long road ahead and many compromises to be made. For disenfranchised Republicans, Gary Johnson might actually make more sense than the bloviating, opportunistic Trump. In spite of the circus atmosphere, there is a unique precedent.