A “watershed election” is an election which represents a major shift away from the current political situation. It’s a turning point.
The word “watershed” literally means the dividing line that separates waters flowing into different rivers.” It’s a land area which rainfall and snowfall pass through before they split and go on their separate ways to creeks, streams, and rivers.
In its figurative sense, a watershed is a moment of change and redirection. The term was first used in the figurative sense in 1878.
Watershed is usually used in a positive sense, although it doesn’t have to be. A watershed just needs to describe a break from the past. When Barack Obama was elected president, newspapers ran editorials calling it a “watershed” moment and talking about the new era that had been ushered in.
The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, ran a piece headlined “Obama’s win brings watershed moment, and change.” The article read, in part:
Within days of his inauguration, Obama began rolling back some of the Bush administration’s more insidious restrictions on public access to government information. He soon seized on expansion of health care coverage as his administration’s first-year priority.
A few years later, Donald Trump’s election was also described as a “watershed.”
The Washington Post looked back at that election in 2017, in a piece titled “A look back at a watershed election, one year later.” Here too, the watershed election introduced a period of dramatic change:
Donald Trump’s victory a little more than a year ago places last year as one of the most significant in modern American history. Not only did he change how politics is played, but he probably destroyed the Republican Party as we knew it. Most important, he will go down as one of the most effective politicians of all time, at least beyond the Beltway.
Sometimes, people disagree over what exactly constitutes a watershed election. In the lead-up to the 2008 election, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece arguing that in fact, an Obama victory would not be a watershed moment (2008: A Watershed Election?).
The paper set the bar for a watershed election pretty high. Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932 was a watershed; so was Ronald Reagan’s in 1980. Obama, though, was just a charismatic populist offering unspecified change.
Is the 2008 election likely to be a repeat of 1932 and 1980, remaking the political landscape in the process? That’s unlikely. For one thing, while the incumbent is unpopular, he is not running. And the economy, while certainly dicey right now, is a long way from the desperate problems of 1932 or the very serious ones of 1980.
Instead, the election this year is between two very different political personalities. John McCain is a moderate conservative and war hero with a solid political record but limited media skills (he still has trouble using a teleprompter) and no excess of charisma. Barack Obama is a young, very charismatic newcomer with virtually no political record but great oratorical talent who promises profound change.”