This is a bipartisan phenomenon. In the first three weeks of October 2016, Donald Trump delivered at least a dozen speeches containing variations on the line, “You’re going to look back at this election, and say this is by far the most important vote you’ve ever cast for anyone at any time.”
But last month President Trump looked to his reelection battle in 2020 when he told a White House audience: “This is the most important election of our times.”
President Harry S. Truman spent much of 1952 saying the same thing about that year’s election, in which he stumped for Democrat Adlai Stevenson to succeed him. “The choice the people make this year may decide whether we have prosperity or depression, war or peace,” Truman said in North Haven, Conn. “This is, my friends, the most important election in your lifetime,” he said in Gary, Ind. “We can’t afford to lose it.”
They lost it. Four years later, Truman was back on the trail trying to stop the reelection of President Dwight D. Eisenhower — and telling crowds it was the most important race in a quarter-century.
A tradition was established. Campaigning for president amid the civil unrest and Cold War chills of 1960, John F. Kennedy called his race the most important since Abraham Lincoln’s. In 1988, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis called his the most important race since Kennedy’s. The superlative has passed from the mouth of Richard Nixon to Gerald Ford, to Ronald Reagan, to Bill Clinton. It had been so overused by 2004 that Democratic candidate John Kerry devoted several paragraphs of a stump speech trying to convince voters the present election really was the election of their lives.
Later that year, the satirist Stephen Colbert made a speech of his own on “The Daily Show.”
“This is the most important election of our lifetimes,” Colbert said. “I know I said that before, but I was talking out my butt. You see, the ’76 Ford-Carter race was probably not the turning point on which the fate of humanity rested, as I had claimed. And in retrospect, the Bush-Dukakis campaign was not an electoral Hiroshima to make Armageddon seem like Yahtzee. This one, though, pretty big.”
Articles complaining about the “most important election” cliche are now so common that they are becoming cliches themselves. And they somehow coexist in the same publications as their foils. (See, for example, “The unique importance of the 2012 election,” The Washington Post, 2011.)
The Atlantic magazine helped pioneer the phrase during the 21st presidential election in 1868: “It would, indeed, be no exaggeration to say that it will be the most important election that Americans ever have known.” Thirty-six most-important elections later, in 2012, an Atlantic writer requested the trope be retired because “pundits and political observers invoke the cliche so reflexively and so often that it no longer has any meaning.”
It feels like it, with Trump claiming a deep-state-fake-news conspiracy is trying to sabotage his presidency, and some Democrats calling 2020 the last chance to evict a nascent autocrat from office. Maybe it felt as dire in 1952, too, though it’s hard to recall now what had Truman so worked up.
Barring the remote possibility that every election just happens to be more important than the last — in which case, God help us in 2024 — maybe the next election always feels like the most important one for the simple reason that it’s the only one we can affect.
“Sometimes people who make these claims are making them in a historical vacuum,” said Claire Jerry, the lead curator of political history at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “There’s reason to believe Thomas Jefferson believed his [election] was the most important thing to ever happen.” But as far as we know, Jefferson never called the race of 1800 the most important of his lifetime. It wasn’t until the advent of popular campaigning in the 20th century, Jerry said, that we reached importance ad absurdum.
“It’s like everyone’s on board with it,” she said. “People start using it in their primary speeches. Surrogates are doing it. They’re using it to endorse. . . . Obama actually calls it a cliche himself, every time he goes back to use it.”
Warming up his crowd at a reelection fundraiser in 2012, President Barack Obama said: “Every election, presidents or candidates will say, ‘This is the most important election of my lifetime.’ ” And with a comic’s timing, he added: “This is the most important election of my lifetime.”
The crowd laughed. They laughed again four years later, when Obama delivered almost exactly the same line while campaigning for Hillary Clinton. (“This time it’s true.”)
Obama has yet to weigh in on the relative importance of the 2020 election. We can imagine what he’ll say. The same thing everyone always says, and probably always will.