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The Most 'Unprecedented' Election Ever? 65 Ways It Has Been

Hillary Clinton, heartened by her supporters' reception, after voting on the June 7th, the night it became clear she would be the first woman nominee of a major-party ticket.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Hillary Clinton, heartened by her supporters' reception, after voting on the June 7th, the night it became clear she would be the first woman nominee of a major-party ticket.

Every presidential election manages to feel new somehow. Even amid the wall-to-wall cable coverage and poll frenzies and day-before-the-election, man-on-the-street interviews with still-undecided voters and shock (shock!) when a candidate flip-flops, every four years, there's a sense that this time — this time — is different. (Remember that whole recount thing?)

And then there's 2016.

So much of this election feels so entirely off the map — "unprecedented," as it is called in one story after another. So we wondered just how unprecedented it is. A few Nexis searches later, the answer is: very.

Trump fields a question during the first Republican presidential debate hosted by Fox News. That debate pulled in 24 million viewers, the largest ever for a presidential primary debate.
Scott Olson / Getty Images
Getty Images
Trump fields a question during the first Republican presidential debate hosted by Fox News. That debate pulled in 24 million viewers, the largest ever for a presidential primary debate.

We've assembled a rundown of ways in which 2016 presidential election could be called "unprecedented." You can pull a few lessons from the following list — maybe simply that we journalists could occasionally use a thesaurus. But it's also a story of how Trump blew up the whole election season. Back in 2014, the potential for yet another Bush to enter the White House seemed like big news. That seems quaint at this point.

In addition, the list is an entertaining (if abridged) history of the most memorable bits of Campaign 2016, as well as a reminder that this election cycle just might deserve its own, surreal chapter in our kids' American History textbooks.


1. Clinton's early, organized support — "Each group's early efforts are unprecedented — especially considering Clinton has yet to announce her presidential intentions — causing some senior Democrats to worry that focusing on 2016 is taking Democrats' focus off the 2014 midterms with the balance of power in the Senate at stake." — Feb. 26, 2014, CNN, "Groups Unite to Back Hillary Clinton"

2. Iowa GOP pledges to remain neutral — "The move is 'unprecedented and is intended to send a clear signal to potential presidential candidates: All are welcome in Iowa, and the caucus process will be a fair and impartial one,'" a news release said Wednesday. — Dec. 3, 2014, Des Moines Register.

3. A potentially growing Bush dynasty — "Former governor Jeb Bush of Florida announced Tuesday that he is exploring a run for president, a move that could dramatically reshape the Republican primary and put his family in line for an unprecedented third member in the White House." — Dec. 17, 2014, Boston Globe.


4. Clinton's early endorsement primary lead — "Hillary Clinton had a commanding lead in endorsements even before launching her campaign — to an extent that's unprecedented for a non-incumbent Democrat." — FiveThirtyEight

5. Clinton's experience — "She boasts an unprecedented resume — former first lady, New York senator, secretary of State — and enjoys universal name recognition after more than two decades of near-constant presence on the national stage." — April 11, 2015, Los Angeles Times

6. The massive GOP field — "'This event is unprecedented,' said Steve Duprey, a Republican national committeeman from New Hampshire. 'There are so many presidential candidates because this time it is an open seat, and there is no heir apparent.'" — April 18, 2015, Boston Globe (Many outlets were careful to stress it was the biggest field in the "modern" political era.)

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, raked in more money at an earlier point than any Republican candidate.
Andrew Harnik / AP
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, raked in more money at an earlier point than any Republican candidate.

7. Bush's incredible fundraising — "Jeb Bush's team announced that he had raised $114 million - an extraordinary and unprecedented haul this early in a presidential campaign and one more signal of a candidate who is building for the long haul." — July 12, 2015, Washington Post

8. The dominance of outside spending — "The 2016 elections are now poised to mark a tipping point: the first time outside groups outstrip the clout and resources of many campaigns. 'It's pretty clear that the superPACs are playing an unprecedented role,' said Michael Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, which tracks political contributions." — July 16, 2015, Washington Post

9. Clinton's early Latino outreach — "Clinton's massive Latino outreach machine is unprecedented for this stage in a primary campaign. Most Latinos don't even know the name of Clinton's closest challenger for the Democratic nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, according a new Univision poll." — July 19, 2015, Los Angeles Times

10. The tiny but powerful community of political donors — "Fewer than 400 families are responsible for almost half the money raised in the 2016 presidential campaign, a concentration of political donors that is unprecedented in the modern era." — Aug. 1, 2015, New York Times

11. Fox News debate viewership — "Trump has been a huge benefit to Republicans in some ways, bringing an unprecedented amount of attention to the first presidential primary debate last week. Some 24 million Americans tuned in to watch, more than most big-time sporting events, demonstrating a clear curiosity about Trump's campaign but also giving the other candidates an opportunity to showcase their own views." — Aug. 9, 2015, Boston Globe

12. A social-media-heavy election — "Early campaigning on social media has never been so intense, with candidates turning to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to engage supporters who are getting unprecedented access to White House hopefuls. 'Now, candidates have a presence on a whole breadth of platforms with custom content to target that audience, and they are producing unprecedented levels of content — the sheer volume is impressive,' said Marie Ewald Danzig, head of creative and delivery at Blue State Digital." — Sept. 13, 2015, AdWeek

13. Hispanic conservatives meet to talk about what to do about Trump — "Months since Donald Trump sparked outrage with his comments about Mexican immigrants, about two dozen of the nation's top Hispanic conservative activists are joining forces to respond and issue a warning to the Republican Party. The activists plan to meet on Oct. 27 in Boulder, Colo., the day before GOP presidential candidates meet in the same city for a debate hosted by CNBC. Plans for the 'unprecedented gathering' have been in the works for several weeks...." – Oct. 22, 2015, Washington Post

14. Trump's call for a Muslim ban — "A prohibition of Muslims — an unprecedented proposal by a leading American presidential candidate, and an idea more typically associated with hate groups — reflects a progression of mistrust that is rooted in ideology as much as politics." — Dec. 10, 2015, New York Times (However, as the Times also pointed out: "While Muslims have not been the targets of such policies in the United States, the sentiment of keeping certain kinds of people out of the country is not unprecedented in American history.")

15. Polling mania — "Polling of Republicans in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina has reached unprecedented levels, fueled by the number of candidates in the hunt and an obsession with the horse race rather than a meaningful debate over policy, a new Boston Globe study says." — Dec. 31, 2015, New York Times

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-V.t, right, speaks as Hillary Clinton looks on during an April Democratic debate in New York.
Seth Wenig / AP
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-V.t, right, speaks as Hillary Clinton looks on during an April Democratic debate in New York.


16. Planned Parenthood's early Clinton endorsement — "Planned Parenthood will make unprecedented primary endorsement of Hillary Clinton. ... The endorsement marks the first time in the organization's 100-year history that Planned Parenthood Action Fund has endorsed a candidate in a primary." — Jan. 7, 2016, Washington Post

17. The splintered GOP — "Dirksen Congressional Leadership Research Center Archivist Frank Mackaman, a lifelong student of government, says the presidential race America is witnessing right now is 'virtually unprecedented.' 'I suppose you would have to go back to the Bull Moose (Progressive) Party, Teddy Roosevelt's splinter from the Republican Party in the early 20th Century, to get something that resembles what we're going through now — especially on the Republican side.'" — Jan. 25, 2016, Pekin Daily Times

18. Trump refusing to debate unless Fox host is removed -- "Trump, of course, decided to pull out after the network refused to capitulate to his unprecedented demand that Megyn Kelly be removed as moderator." – Jan. 27, 2016, Vanity Fair

19. Latino outreach in Iowa — "Advocacy groups have launched unprecedented voter registration efforts aimed at the state's small but rapidly growing Latino population." — Jan. 27, 2016, Los Angeles Times

20. The lack of GOP party leadership support for a potential nominee: "[I]t's astonishing that the real estate developer and reality TV star could be so far ahead in the polls this close to voting, yet still so far behind presidential rivals like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the congressional endorsement competition. 'The gap between Trump's standing and at least his elite support is unprecedented,' University of Maryland Professor David Karol told HuffPost on Tuesday. Karol is a co-author of The Party Decides, which in part studies the power of endorsements before and after the party electing reforms of the 1970s." — Jan. 27, 2016, Huffington Post

21. Religious Republicans' embrace of Trump — "Sixty-one percent of GOP and GOP-leaning voters who say it's important to have a president who shares their religious beliefs say that Trump would be a good or great president, compared with 46 percent of GOP voters who say the religiosity of the president isn't as important. The share of Republican voters who think that Trump would be a good president is the same among churchgoing and less-churchgoing Republicans. The findings about Trump are unprecedented, say Pew pollsters and other experts." — Jan. 28, 2016, Washington Post

22. Trump's reenactment of Ben Carson's youth stabbing story — "Mr. Carson's bootstrapping story and brief lead in the Iowa polls last year produced a squabble almost certainly unprecedented in modern politics: Mr. Trump insisting, through public re-enactment, that Mr. Carson could not possibly have stabbed a peer in his youth. Mr. Carson was guilty, his rival insisted, of being innocent." — Feb. 2, 2016, New York Times

23. Youth engagement — "A new survey that captures the attitudes of 2015 college freshmen shows unprecedented levels of interest in both political engagement and student activism, underscoring the youth vote's potential to reshape the electoral landscape." — Feb. 11, 2016, FiveThirtyEight

24. Donald Trump vs. the Pope — "When two of the most visible figures on the international stage, Pope Francis and Donald Trump, exchanged sharp words over immigration Thursday, an extraordinary election year took another dramatic twist. The long-distance volley, impelled, like so much of the campaign, by Trump's language on Mexican immigration, created a moment that actually merited the overused label 'unprecedented.'" — Feb. 18, 2016, Los Angeles Times

25. GOP turnout in many Super Tuesday states — "Republicans voted in unprecedented numbers on Super Tuesday, setting record numbers in contests throughout different regions of the country." — March 2, 2016, CNN

26. Romney's attacks against Trump — "Romney's remarks are unprecedented in the way he — the party's most recent presidential nominee — attacks the man who seems on track to secure this year's GOP nomination." — NPR, March 3, 2016

27. Republicans' unease with Democrats — "Such uneasiness motivated two longtime Clinton confidants, pollster Stan Greenberg and strategist James Carville, to take a deep dive into the zeitgeist fueling Trump's rise. They released poll findings last week that suggested the Republican electorate has unprecedented anger with the Democratic Party, with nearly 90 percent feeling its policies are so misguided that they threaten the nation's well-being." — March 2, 2016, Los Angeles Times

28. The debate discussion of Trump's manhood — "Trump's remarks, likely unprecedented in a US presidential debate, appeared as the nadir of a campaign season already notable for its unruly, coarse tone." — March 4, 2016, AFP (It may be new in debates, but as Joseph Cummins wrote at Politico earlier this year, sexual innuendo has long been a part of presidential campaigns.)

29. John Oliver's anti-Trump rant — "Front-runner Donald Trump was recently the target of a harsh, unprecedented 22-minute monologue by HBO's John Oliver, who uncovered Trump's ancestral name and urged viewers to 'Make Donald Drumpf Again'." — March 8, 2016, Washington Post

30. Trump's potential conflicts of interest — "'This is certainly going to present an unprecedented ethical dilemma if Trump wins,' said Kenneth Gross, a partner at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, who provided legal assistance to several presidential candidates during their campaigns. 'He can't just get amnesia. He's stuck with the knowledge of what he owns.'" — March 16, 2016, CNN Wires

31. Trump's access to the airwaves — "Two network sources also confirmed the unprecedented control the television networks have surrendered to Trump in a series of private negotiations, allowing him to dictate specific details about placement of cameras at his event, to ensure coverage consists primarily of a single shot of his face." — March 18, 2016, Buzzfeed

32. AIPAC's reaction to Trump's speech — "AIPAC's Apology For Trump Speech Is Unprecedented' — March 22, 2016, Washington Post

33. Voter registration in New York — "More than 20,000 first-time voters have registered with New York state in what state officials are calling an 'unprecedented surge' of voter interest ahead of the state's April 19 presidential primary." — March 22, 2016, AP

34. Utah voter turnout — "Utah residents are turning out in unprecedented numbers at presidential caucuses, creating major delays for voters and even leading some sites to run out of ballots." — March 22, 2016, AP

35. Rubio's decision to hold onto his delegates — "Marco Rubio's Unprecedented Plan To Stop Donald Trump: Keep His Delegates" — March 30, 2016, USA Today

36. The potential fallout from Trump's border wall — "Donald Trump says he would force Mexico to pay for a border wall as president by threatening to cut off the flow of billions of dollars in payments that immigrants send home to the country, an idea that could decimate the Mexican economy and set up an unprecedented showdown between the United States and a key regional ally." — April 5, 2016, Washington Post

37. Anti-Trump advertising — "'What is unusual and unprecedented is the array of advertisers who are out there flogging Trump on the air,' said Elizabeth Wilner, a senior vice president at Kantar Media/CMAG." — April 12, 2016, New York Times

38. Outreach to Asian-American voters — "'It's going to be close, and I think the candidates know that. That's why they have this sort of unprecedented outreach to communities like the Asian-American community,' said [Jerry] Vattamala [who runs the country's largest exit poll of Asian-American voters for the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund]. — April 18, 2016, NPR

39. Two super-unpopular candidates — "'This is unprecedented,' said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. 'It will be the first time in the history of polling that we'll have both major party candidates disliked by a majority of the American people going into the election.'" — April 19, 2016, Washington Post

40. The Kasich-Cruz pact — "The Texas senator and Ohio governor announced an unprecedented deal in which Kasich will not contest Indiana while Cruz will steer clear of Oregon and New Mexico to maximize chances to beating Trump in each state and denying him the 1,237 delegates he needs to secure the Republican nomination that he seems sure to lose if he can't claim it on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention in July." — April 24, 2016, Washington Examiner

41. Cruz picks Fiorina as his running mate — "He acknowledged his decision to name a running mate now was an unorthodox and unprecedented move, but that 'all of us can acknowledge that this race, if anything, is unusual.'" — April 27, 2016, NPR

42. Clinton fundraising vehicle — "In the days before Hillary Clinton launched an unprecedented big-money fundraising vehicle with state parties last summer, she vowed 'to rebuild our party from the ground up,' proclaiming 'when our state parties are strong, we win. That's what will happen.' But less than 1 percent of the $61 million raised by that effort has stayed in the state parties' coffers...." — May 2, 2016, Politico

43. Trump's potential effect on down-ballot races — "'We can say it makes it harder for Republicans, but we can also say that this kind of election is unprecedented,' Ms. Duffy said. 'Nothing that we have known about politics has been true this cycle.'" — May 5, 2016, Wall Street Journal

44. GOP elites turning on Trump — "Since a landslide victory in Indiana made him the presumptive Republican nominee, Mr. Trump has faced a shunning from party leaders that is unprecedented in modern politics." — May 7, 2016, New York Times

45. Clinton's interest in UFOs — "'Hillary has embraced this issue with an absolutely unprecedented level of interest in American politics,' said Joseph G. Buchman, who has spent decades calling for government transparency about extraterrestrials." — May 11, 2016, New York Times

46. Trump's refusal to release tax returns — "If Trump doesn't release any returns before the Nov. 8 election, there'd be 'an unprecedented level of secrecy surrounding his personal finances,' said tax historian Joseph Thorndike, the director of the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts, a trade publication." — Bloomberg, May 11, 2016

47. Sanders' role in the Democratic platform — "Sen. Bernie Sanders was given unprecedented say over the Democratic Party platform Monday in a move party leaders hope will soothe a bitter split with backers of the long-shot challenger to Hillary Clinton — and Sanders immediately used his new power to name a well-known advocate for Palestinian rights to help draft Democratic policy." — May 24, 2016, Washington Post

48. Clinton's email usage — "Yes, previous secretaries of state have used personal email addresses while in office — Colin Powell most notably and extensively. But, and this is really important, Clinton is the first secretary of state to ever use a private email address exclusively to conduct her business. Period. That was and is unprecedented." — May 26, 2016, Washington Post

49. The Sanders-Trump debate that never happened — "Either this is an elaborate Jimmy Kimmel Live! prank or Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have agreed in principle to a debate that would be unprecedented in the modern era." — May 26, 2016, Vanity Fair

50. Attention on the Libertarian Convention — "The deep unpopularity of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has led to an unprecedented level of excitement at the Libertarian Party's presidential nominating convention in Orlando this year." — May 27, 2016, AP

51. NRDC's early Clinton endorsement — "A major environmental group, the NRDC Action Fund, will endorse Hillary Clinton on Tuesday in its first-ever political endorsement in a presidential election. In a statement, the NRDC Action Fund, a political affiliate of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that the unprecedented endorsement is reflective of the need for left-leaning groups to unite against Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee." — May 31, 2016, Washington Post

52. Trump's massive list of lawsuits — "Exclusive: Trump's 3,500 lawsuits unprecedented for a presidential nominee" — June 2, 2016, USA Today

53. Buzzfeed blocking Trump ads — "Buzzfeed's unprecedented Donald Trump ad ban baffles the news biz. ... BuzzFeed's move appears to be without precedent in modern politics. 'I don't recall any recent political party or campaign being denied media ad buys, especially from one representing a major U.S. party,' said Jeff Fleming, editor in chief of Editor & Publisher magazine." — June 7, 2016, Washington Post

54. Clinton as the first woman to be a presumptive major-party nominee — "According to the news, we are on the brink of a historic, historic, unprecedented moment, but we still have work to do, don't we?" a beaming Clinton told supporters at a boisterous rally in a basketball gym at Long Beach City College. — June 6, 2016, New York Times

55. Ryan calling out Trump's remarks about Judge Curiel— "Ryan, who endorsed Trump only last week, called the businessman's remarks a 'textbook definition of a racist comment.' It was a striking and unprecedented rebuke — the country's top Republican leader accusing its presidential nominee of racism." — June 8, 2016, Los Angeles Times

56. The GOP's circumstances, with a novice presidential candidate — "Edward F. Cox, the chairman of the New York Republican Party, said the party was grappling with unprecedented circumstances, brought about by the elevation of an untrained outsider unlike any presidential nominee in memory." — June 9, 2016, New York Times

In answer to a reporter's question last month, House Speaker Paul Ryan said Donald Trump's comments about an American-born judge of Mexican heritage are the "textbook definition of a racist comment."
J. Scott Applewhite / AP
In answer to a reporter's question last month, House Speaker Paul Ryan said Donald Trump's comments about an American-born judge of Mexican heritage are the "textbook definition of a racist comment."

57. Going after the media — "Donald Trump's campaign revoked The Washington Post's press credentials on Monday, the latest salvo in an unprecedented assault on the media this election cycle." — June 13, 2016, Huffington Post

58. Record level of female donors — "Hillary Clinton Just Achieved Another Big First. Her campaign is fueled by unprecedented support from female donors." — June 13, 2016, Mother Jones

59. The election-year refusal to confirm Garland — "How unusual is the Republican blockade of the nomination of Judge Merrick B. Garland, President Obama's pick for the Supreme Court? After a comprehensive look at every past Supreme Court vacancy, two law professors have concluded that it is an unprecedented development." — June 14, 2016, New York Times

60. Trump's free media attention — "By the end of the invisible primary, he was high enough in the polls to get the coverage expected of a frontrunner. But he was lifted to that height by an unprecedented amount of free media." — June 14, 2016, Washington Post

61. A major-party candidate who has also been a first spouse — "Clinton has two decades of an unprecedented sort of experience: marriage to and partnership with a chief executive. Does this count? Should it?" — June 14, 2016, Washington Post (Plus, there's the unprecedentedfact that there's never been a former president who is the spouse of a major-party nominee.)

62. The prospect of renegotiating U.S. debt — "Trump prompted a small backlash last month when he suggested that he would try to negotiate down the cost of the national debt with the country's creditors. The comments were widely interpreted as Trump seeking to use the possibility of debt default as leverage, which economists warned would represent an unprecedented threat to investor confidence and could affect interest rates." — June 22, 2016, Washington Post

63. Forbes' efforts to value Trump's net worth — "Forbes, which said it devoted 'unprecedented resources to valuing a single fortune,' disagreed. The magazine put the value of Trump Tower at $630 million and its owner's net worth at $4.5 billion — less than half of what Trump claims. — June 23, 2016, Washington Post

64. Trump's promotion of his businesses on the campaign trail — "Trevor Potter, the election-law lawyer who advised Republican Sen. John McCain on his 2008 presidential bid, called Trump's efforts 'to use the campaign to promote his personal businesses' unprecedented." — June 24, 2016, Washington Post

65. Trump sending fundraising emails to foreigners — "The solicitations prompted watchdog groups in Washington to file two separate complaints Wednesday with the Federal Election Commission alleging that the Trump campaign was violating federal law by soliciting funds from foreign nationals. 'The scale and scope of this does seem somewhat unprecedented,' said Brendan Fischer, associate counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, which joined Democracy 21 in one of the complaints." — June 29, 2016, Washington Post

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.

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