The results of American Presidential elections have never been as simple, straightforward, clean and uncluttered as many might believe. The media impression especially, of our history of elections, is overwrought with both certainty and patriotic zeal. Our first 4 elections were filled with confusion and desperation, partly because Electors were chosen by the states, without popular elections, and when they voted, they cast 2 votes – 1 for President and 1 for Vice President – but they didn’t vote twice! They just cast 2 ballots each. Thus, in 1800 the Electoral College ended in a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, each with 73 votes. The House of Representatives had to settle the matter, which they did by voting 10-4 in favor of Jefferson. But, even then, in the House vote, 2 states decided not to vote for either candidate. They abdicated their responsibility, letting the other 14 states make the decision.
Even in our very first Presidential election, in 1789, while George Washington did receive 69 votes, 18 other men also received Electoral Votes and – strange as it may be to believe – 24 Electors refrained from voting at all! For example, New York appointed its 8 Electors too late for them to be recognized as authorized voters. They were denied standing, refused certification, and not allowed to vote at all. So, in the very first Presidential election in our history, the State of New York, and therefore all its people, went unrepresented. If Washington was to be “The Father of His Country,” New York must have been raised by a single mother.
Again, in 1792, 6 Electors abstained from the vote for reasons left unrecorded. In the next election, in 1796, John Adams squeezed by Thomas Jefferson 71-68, but what’s largely been forgotten is – Thomas Pinckney got 59 votes; Aaron Burr got 30, Samuel Adams got 15; Oliver Ellsworth got 11; George Clinton (who got 50 Electoral Votes in 1792) got another 7 and 15 other men also got votes. Confusing? You bet. And then came the 1800 tie with Jefferson and Burr. After that, the Constitution was amended to choose the Vice president separately from the President and everyone thought things had been fixed.
There are no reports of the popular vote until the election of 1824. Many still think of that election as the most corrupt in our history. Andrew Jackson, the Hero of the War of 1812, won the popular vote with 41%. John Quincy Adams received only 30% of the popular vote, but the election went to the House of Representatives, just as it did in 1800, and Adams was named President over Jackson. Unlike Al Gore in 2000, who met the same fate with respect to the popular vote, Andrew Jackson spent the next 4 years telling anyone who would listen that the American people had been robbed of their vote. Jackson never conceded, never gave in to his “defeat.” In 1828, Jackson was redeemed, trouncing Adams in a rematch 56%-44%.
In the years preceding the Civil War, we had a series of minority Presidents – that is to say, Presidents who failed to capture a majority of the popular vote. Presidents Polk, Fillmore and Buchanan all won with less than 49% of the vote and then came the pivotal election of 1860. Abraham Lincoln emerged as President, in a contest among 4 candidates, but Lincoln scored an all-time low for any winner getting only 39% of the vote.
Following the reunion of The Union, and up to the turn of the century, we had a series of corrupt Presidential elections in which the “winner” of the popular vote was twice denied the Presidency – in 1876 and again in 1888 – and in the last 25 years of the 19th century we had 5 Presidents with a minority of the popular vote – Hayes in ’76; Garfield in ’80; Cleveland in ’84; Benjamin Harrison in ’88; and Cleveland again in ’92.
In the new century, the US went into a World War in Europe under a minority President. Woodrow Wilson barely won the 1912 election with 41% of the vote. Teddy Roosevelt had 27% and Wm. Howard Taft got 23%. The 1912 election was perhaps our most democratic ever. Even the Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs was able to garner 6% of the popular vote. Nevertheless, Wilson won and assumed the Presidency with a majority of the country against him. Running for reelection as a wartime Chief Executive, Wilson won a second term, but still failed to break the 49% barrier.
More recently, after World War II, we went through another half-dozen Presidents who failed to get a majority of Americans to actually vote for them. Harry Truman got 49% in 1948; JFK also got 49% in 1960; Richard Nixon got only 43% when he won in 1968; and both our most recent Presidents have been minority vote getters. Bill Clinton, although elected twice, got only 43% of the vote in 1992 and 49% in 1996. Of course, in the election of 2000 we saw – for the 4th time in our history! – a “winning” President who didn’t manage to beat his opponent in the popular vote. George W. Bush won in 2000 with 47%, but more than a half-million votes less than cast for Al Gore. Gore chose a different path from that taken by Andrew Jackson 176 years earlier. Instead of standing up for the many millions of Americans who voted for him, Gore went on to explore other interests. Quite rightly, he has vanished from electoral politics since.
What does this portend for the next Presidential election? Does it signify anything? Some believe the 2008 election will be a landslide – not even close – while others think it will end up with as narrow a victory as we have seen in 2000 and 2004. Whatever your prediction, it appears that the “loser” in 2008 may get as many as 60 million Americans to vote for them. No matter who wins, tens of millions of our fellow citizens will not be happy with the result.
If those who look for a very close contest turn out to be right, they will have guessed in accordance with our 219 years of a checkered history of Presidential election results, and therefore, another such questionable decision should not surprise anyone.