Presidential elections are not created equal; certain elections have mattered more than others. Sometimes voters face a decision within narrow margins, as seemed to be the case in 2000, when the choice was between an incumbent Vice President in a relatively moderate Democratic Administration and a Republican governor who campaigned as what he called a "compassionate conservative." But other times the choice is starker. In 1864, 1868, and 1872 the Republicans stood for freeing the slaves and for military enforcement of black civil rights in the South; the Democrats were against both. In 1896 William Jennings Bryan stood for populism, free trade, and free silver; William McKinley stood for the gold standard and high tariffs. (And in 1900 Bryan and McKinley battled over the issue of American expansion abroad.) In 1936 Franklin Roosevelt stood for the New Deal, and Alf Landon stood against it. In 1940 Roosevelt's re-election would have meant a forward stance against the Axis powers; it is unclear whether Wendell Willkie would have gone so far.
More recently there have been elections in which the gap between the candidates was large, but the race itself was never close and the outcome never in doubt. Voters rejected Barry Goldwater's conservatism in 1964 and George McGovern's and Walter Mondale's liberalism in 1972 and 1984.
This year's election promises to be a relative rarity: the stakes are very high, and as of this writing the race seems to be very close. The nearest analogies may be 1940 (when it was not clear as late as July whether FDR would even run for a third term, let alone win it) and 1864 (when as late as the end of August, before Grant and Sherman won important victories over the Confederacy, it seemed likely that George McClellan would defeat Abraham Lincoln). Voters sense that much is at stake in the contest between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry—perhaps in part because it will either ratify or reject the results of 2000, an election that was more consequential, Americans now understand, than anyone thought at the time. Very early in the 2004 campaign 71 percent of those surveyed by the pollster Scott Rasmussen said that the outcome would influence their lives "a lot"; only 52 percent were willing to say as much when polled during the Florida-recount controversy in 2000.