The Contenders - 16 for '16

Expand/Collapse The Contenders - 16 for '16

PBS, in partnership with OZY Media, is proud to present The Contenders-16 for '16, a documentary series that examines the most compelling and influential presidential campaigns in modern history. From Jesse Jackson’s groundbreaking 1984 and 1988 campaigns to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 launching of a brand of conservatism that influenced both Republican Ronald Reagan and even Democratic Hillary Clinton. The Contenders covers sixteen stories from the past 50 years of presidential election history. The series shows how previous elections are still influencing today in unexpected ways.

  • Shirley Chisholm | The Contenders - 16 for '16

    In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to Congress, and four years later, the “unbought and unbossed” candidate embarked on a trailblazing campaign for president. Shunned by the political establishment and most black male political leaders, she ran an inspired, grass roots campaign, building a coalition of blacks, women, and young voters around her cause.

    Learn more about Chisholm with these resources from The Contenders - 16 for '16.

    Grades: 6-12
  • John McCain | The Contenders - 16 for '16

    A war hero and U.S. Senator, John McCain ran two of the most memorable presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2008. Barnstorming the country in his “Straight Talk Express,” McCain built his brand as a maverick politician and demonstrated it time and again, including in his selection of an unknown Alaska Governor, Sarah Palin, as a running mate.

    Learn more about McCain with these resources from The Contenders - 16 for '16.


    Grades: 6-12
  • Howard Dean | The Contenders - 16 for '16

    Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign is remembered by most for his infamous “scream” (and third place finish) in Iowa, but thanks to online organization and his effort on behalf of the “Democratic wing of the Democratic party,” Dean led the party’s more established candidates like John Kerry for months...until they came gunning for him.

    Learn more about Dean with these resources from The Contenders - 16 for '16.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Pat Buchanan | The Contenders - 16 for '16

    Pat Buchanan’s solid showing in New Hampshire and early primaries helped earn him the role of keynote speaker at the Republican convention in 1992. In what is often referred to as the "Culture War Speech," Buchanan knocked the Clintons for attempting to stain the fabric of American culture. It would be a preview of the 1990s in America. 

    Learn more about Buchanan with these resources from The Contenders - 16 for '16.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Mitt Romney | The Contenders - 16 for '16

    Mitt Romney entered the ring with a sterling record as former CEO of Bain Capital, CEO of the highly successful 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and the first governor in the  U.S. to enact universal health care for his state. Romney outperformed Obama during the first presidential debate, destabilized the incumbent, and got a huge lift in the polls. But in the end, the squeaky clean Mormon husband and father of five, who pledged to clean up Washington with corporate “executive-in-chief” efficiency couldn’t shake the “elitist, out of touch” label.

    Learn more about Romney with these resources from The Contenders - 16 for '16.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Michael Dukakis | The Contenders - 16 for '16

    Some call the 1988 campaign the dirtiest in history. This film examines how Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis struggled to define himself to the American people in the face of the negative ads, gaffes and other obstacles that wound up defining his candidacy, and some say costing him the election.

    Learn more about Dukakis with these resources from The Contenders - 16 for '16.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Gary Hart | The Contenders - 16 for '16

    In 1987, Gary Hart looked like an early lock for the Democratic nomination — and likely the presidency. Then one Miami reporter got a tip about Hart’s extracurricular life, and the media took an unprecedented leap into a presidential candidate’s personal life, one that is still felt today. 

    Grades: 6-12
  • Jesse Jackson | The Contenders - 16 for '16

    In 1988, right about the time young Barack Obama was getting ready for Harvard Law School, Jesse Louis Jackson made a daring run for president. It was Jackson’s second time around the track. And this time, in the late spring, after more than 20 contests, what few people now remember is that he was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. 

    Grades: 6-12
  • Barry Goldwater | The Contenders - 16 for '16

    Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was the Godfather of America’s conservative political movement in the 1960’s who opposed the Civil Rights Act and advocated shrinking “big government.” He jumpstarted Ronald Reagan’s political career, yet he was beloved by famous future Democrats like Hillary Rodham Clinton. He also widely considered to be the first casualty of a modern negative political ad.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Ronald Reagan | The Contenders - 16 for '16

    California governor Ronald Reagan may have lost to President Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican primary but that loss would change the course of his party and the conservative movement. After Ford took an early lead in the primary, Reagan came roaring back, ultimately taking the contest to the convention where he fell short but left many in the crowd wondering if they had picked the wrong man.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Ross Perot | The Contenders - 16 for '16

    Texas billionaire Ross Perot jumped into the presidential race on an episode of CNN’s “Larry King Live” in 1992 and his no-nonsense challenge to the two main parties—dictated by “the volunteers”— stole the show. In the end, Perot was able to win 19 percent of the vote, marking one of the most successful third-party runs in history.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Ralph Nader | The Contenders - 16 for '16

    Consumer advocate Ralph Nader ran one of the most effective third-party campaigns in modern history in 2000, and it may have cost Democrat Vice President Al Gore the election. Did Nader intentionally play the role of spoiler by focusing on battleground states in the waning days of the campaign?

    Grades: 6-12
  • Geraldine Ferraro | The Contenders - 16 for '16

    A former elementary school teacher and prosecutor, and a formidable congresswoman from Queens, Geraldine Ferraro’s selection as Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984 made her the first woman vice presidential candidate on a major U.S. party ticket, but it also put her and her family in a pressure cooker. In the end, the Mondale-Ferraro ticket lost all but one state in one of the most lopsided contests in U.S. history, but ‪Ferraro’s trailblazing candidacy would have a lasting impact.‬

    Grades: 6-12
  • Sarah Palin | The Contenders - 16 for '16

    One of the most electrifying (and polarizing) vice presidential picks in modern history, Sarah Palin brought an infusion of vibrant, youthful energy that John McCain’s campaign desperately needed. But she also brought unwelcome, blistering parodies, questions about her intellect and preparedness, and questions about McCain’s VP selection process.

    Grades: 6-9,11-12