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By Eleanorgreen29
On July 18, 2019

Lesson Plan: Presidential Candidate Firsts

Victoria Woodhull Collection

Linda Hengst talked about the Ohioana Library and materials about 1872 presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull.


In this lesson, students will watch clips of candidates who represented a first in American presidential campaigns. These firsts include historic examples such as Victoria Woodhull, who ran with abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass as her vice president for the minor Equal Rights Party in 1872, John F Kennedy running to be the first Catholic president, Ronald Reagan's race to become the oldest president, and Shirley Chisholm's campaign to be the first African American or female major party candidate. Recent examples include Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, as well as the potentially oldest and youngest nominees in history and the first openly gay candidate in the 2020 campaign.


  • Introduction

    Ask students to answer the following question in a short journal response or as a Think-Pair-Share:

    • Should there be any restrictions on who can be president?
  • Have students share out some thoughts and note them on the board. Tell students the restrictions that exist in the Constitution: at least 35 years old, natural-born American citizen, and resident for at least 14 years.

    Tell students that although there are no restrictions on factors like maximum age, race, gender, or religion, there are very few minority candidates in American history. Today's lesson will look at some of them.

  • Activity

    Direct students to open the Note-Taking Chart: Presidential Candidate Firsts below. They will watch the following 8 clips, taking note of each candidate and which "first" they represent.

    Explain the distinction between being a nominee and a candidate, and a difference between representing a major and a minor party. For example, while Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to be a party's nominee for president, Shirley Chisholm was the first female candidate for a major party 100 years later.

  • As students watch the clips, direct them to take notes of what they see and hear. They should pay attention to the way the candidates address their unique candidacy, if at all, and the way others react to them. Some of these reactions will be inferred from the concerns the candidate addresses.

  • Conclusion

    Instruct students to answer the final concluding questions. These questions can be amended as the 2020 campaign progresses to reflect changes to candidates.

    • Which of the candidates from the video clips do you think successfully addressed any questions or doubt about their unique candidacy in the clips? Explain why you believe their message was successful.

    • Of the nominees on this list before 2020, only Presidents Kennedy, Reagan, and Obama were elected, while Woodhull, Chisholm, and Clinton were not. Why do you think that is the case?

    • Of the nominees for the 2020 campaign, many represent a possible first and feature potentially the oldest and youngest candidates, campaigning against the oldest president in American electoral history. Why do you think there are so many historic firsts running in 2020?
  • Extension

    • Research the other potential 'firsts' in the 2020 campaign: Bernie Sanders (Jewish, oldest), Tulsi Gabbard (Hindu), Kamala Harris (Indian-American), etc., to find how they have addressed their unique candidacies and the reactions of the public.

    • Research the other firsts in American politics: Sandra Day-O'Connor (first female Supreme Court Justice), Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (first Latina senator), Johnston Murray (first Native American governor), or Rep. James Langevin (first quadriplegic to serve in Congress). Explain the significance of their experience.

    • Explore the impacts of the end of Reconstruction on African American representation. For example, PBS Pinchback became America's first black governor in 1872; there would not be another for 100 years. Look up graphs of African American representation, noting the change after 1877 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Additional Resources


  • Candidate
  • Endorsement
  • Inaugurated
  • Incumbent
  • Intolerance
  • Major Party
  • Minority
  • Nominee
  • Suffrage
  • Third Party


Campaigns & ElectionsU.S. History


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