- Re-election: According to semantic literalists, a presidential candidate can only be referred to as having sought re-election if he ran once before, won, and is now on his party’s ballot for the second (or, in the case of Franklin Roosevelt, third or fourth) time. The problem with this is that it ignores those individuals who ascended to the presidency because of the death or resignation of their predecessor and then sought election in their own right – namely, Theodore Roosevelt in 1904, Calvin Coolidge in 1924, Harry Truman in 1948, Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and Gerald Ford in 1976. Each of these men, though having never run in a presidential election before, was the incumbent at the time that he sought office. This is important for two reasons: (1) It means that the people who participated in those presidential elections voted for or against these men as actual presidents whose performances could be accepted or discontinued, and not merely as potential presidents whose future conduct could only be speculated upon; (2) It means that the presidents themselves were able to use all of the powers of incumbency to aid their attempt to win another four years in office, even though they had technically not been elected to a term of their own. In short, because the campaigns in which these presidents ran bore far more similarities to other re-election campaigns then they did with campaigns in which neither candidate had ever served in the White House, it is more accurate to refer to them as “re-elections” than simply “elections”.
- Landslide: There are two possible ways of defining a landslide (a.k.a., blow-out, wipe-out, watershed, one-sided contest, etc.). The first is by measuring the difference in the popular vote percentage between the top two candidates. While this seems logical enough at first, it quickly loses value once elections in which more than two major candidates appear are taken into consideration. For example, the 1912 election saw Woodrow Wilson defeat his chief opponent, Theodore Roosevelt, by a whopping 14.4% of the popular vote. Under normal circumstances this would be considered a landslide victory, except for the fact that Wilson’s victory came primarily because there were three instead of two major candidates in that election, with Wilson gaining only 41.8% of the popular vote, Roosevelt receiving 27.4%, and the third candidate, President William Howard Taft, receiving a measly 23.2% of the popular vote. Even though Wilson thus had a significant margin of victory over both his opponents, he himself received well under a majority, and thus could not be considered by any reasonable standard to have won a landslide; indeed, in the previous presidential election, William Howard Taft had defeated William Jennings Bryan by a margin of only 8.6%, but received 51.6% of the popular vote, which is more than a majority. As such, the best way of determining which elections are landslides is by measuring the popular vote total received by the winning candidate, with those receiving the highest percentages of popular votes being deemed the winners of the greatest landslides. The cut-off that I will use, for the purposes of convenience, is 56.0%. This is more reflective of what the spirit of a landslide truly is in the first place – that is, an election in which an extraordinarily large number of voters rally behind one man to lead their country.
- Close Elections: Unlike landslides, the best way of measuring which elections were the closest is by looking at the difference in popular vote percentage between the top two candidates. That is because, unlike landslides, close elections are determined by just how evenly split the American people were between the top two candidates. The smaller the margin, the more it reflects the inability of the American people in that election to decide which of the two candidates was superior. That best captures the essence of what people think of when they hear the term “closest elections”.
Having elaborated on all of this jargon, I need only point out two more facts:
1) Popular vote margins in presidential elections were not recorded until 1824, which means that we have no data as to how many actual voters supported each of the major candidates during our first nine elections (from 1789 to 1820). This excludes the contests which elected George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, and starts us off with the election of John Quincy Adams.
2) I do not consider the Electoral College results to be reflective of the spirit of the American people during each of these political contests, and since that is the factor which I hope to measure, I am dismissing all Electoral College figures as being fundamentally irrelevant to this project.
Now, to the data…
THE AMERICAN LANDSLIDES:
Lyndon Johnson (1964) – 61.1%, Democrat, Defeated Republican Barry Goldwater
Franklin Roosevelt (1936) – 60.8%, Democrat, Defeated Republican Alfred Landon
Richard Nixon (1972) – 60.7%, Republican, Defeated Democrat George McGovern
Warren Harding (1920) – 60.3%, Republican, Defeated Democrat James Cox
Ronald Reagan (1984) – 58.8%, Republican, Defeated Democrat Walter Mondale
Herbert Hoover (1928) – 58.2%, Republican, Defeated Democrat Alfred Smith
Franklin Roosevelt (1932) – 57.4%, Democrat, Defeated Republican Herbert Hoover
Dwight Eisenhower (1956) – 57.4%*, Republican, Defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson
Theodore Roosevelt (1904) – 56.4%, Republican, Defeated Democrat Alton Parker
Andrew Jackson (1828) – 56.0%, Democrat, Defeated National Republican** John Q. Adams
* - Eisenhower’s 1956 margin was lower than Roosevelt’s 1932 margin by four-hundredths of one percent.
** - The National Republican Party was a one-shot national organization that has no relationship to the modern Republican Party.
THE TEN CLOSEST ELECTIONS:
1880: James Garfield (Republican) vs. Winfield Hancock (Democrat) – Garfield wins popular vote by 0.1%
1960: John Kennedy (Democrat) vs. Richard Nixon (Republican) – Kennedy wins popular vote by 0.2%
1884: Grover Cleveland (Democrat) vs. James Blaine (Republican) – Cleveland wins popular vote by 0.3%
2000: Albert Gore (Democrat) vs. George W. Bush (Republican) – Gore wins popular vote by 0.5%
1968: Richard Nixon (Republican) vs. Hubert Humphrey (Democrat) – Nixon wins popular vote by 0.7%
1888: Grover Cleveland (Democrat) vs. Benjamin Harrison (Republican) – Cleveland wins popular vote by 0.8%
1844: James Polk (Democrat) vs. Henry Clay (Whig) – Polk wins popular vote by 1.4%
1976: Jimmy Carter (Democrat) vs. Gerald Ford (Republican) – Carter wins popular vote by 2.1%
2004: George W. Bush (Republican) vs. John Kerry (Democrat) – Bush wins popular vote by 2.4%
1892: Grover Cleveland (Democrat) vs. Benjamin Harrison (Republican) – Cleveland wins popular vote by 3.0%
SO…What conclusions can we yield from this information?
ANALYSIS – THE LANDSLIDES:
When it comes to the landslides, each of the elections fall into one of the four following categories:
1) Elections in which the winning candidate received an overwhelming popular majority because he has an unusually high personal popularity due to the perceived successes of his previous term (which by default makes him an incumbent);
2) Election in which the winning candidate received an overwhelming popular majority due to his status as a war hero (which can affect his popularity regardless of whether he is an incumbent).
3) Elections in which the losing candidate has an unusually severe low personal popularity due to the perception of ideological extremism.
4) Elections in which the losing candidate represents an incumbent administration that is widely perceived to have failed, thereby creating a general desire for change regardless of what the alternative candidate may represent.
There are three presidents whose landslides fall into the first category – Theodore Roosevelt in 1904, Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, and Ronald Reagan in 1984. On each occasion, the candidate had first come into office at a time of great crisis – Theodore Roosevelt ascended to power after his popular predecessor, William McKinley, had been assassinated by an anarchist at a time when radical political movements were most feared; Franklin Roosevelt came into power at the height of the Great Depression, for which the man he defeated, Herbert Hoover, was widely blamed; and Ronald Reagan came into power at the height of the economic recession of the late-1970 and early-1980s, as well as during the Iran hostage crisis and oil embargo, for which the man he defeated, Jimmy Carter, was also widely blamed. On each occasion, the president spent his first term addressing each of the major problems he faced with what was widely perceived as great success, was characterized by a willingness to make bold decisions that deviated significantly from conventional political wisdom (and such boldness often pays off regardless of its ideological content), and both men successfully used the power of the presidency in those first terms to reshape the nation’s political landscape on the basis of their personal ideology, thereby forging lasting coalitions that helped their party dominate America’s political scene for a generation. In short, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan were all elected by record landslides due to an enormous personal popularity which resulted from the perception that their administrations had been extremely successful. They were also aided by the fact that their opponents, though generally well-respected by the American public, were perceived as being milquetoast figures who had been selected primarily because their painful dullness made them least likely to offend opponents of the incumbency (Alton Parker in 1904, Alfred Landon in 1936, and Walter Mondale in 1984).
There are two presidents who fall into the second category – Andrew Jackson in 1828 and Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. Although Jackson was elected to his first term in 1828 and Eisenhower was re-elected to a second, both won by large margins primarily because of the high esteem in which they were held as a result of their heroism in war. Jackson’s election in 1828 was also aided by the fact that he had won a plurality of the popular vote in the previous election (1824), but had lost in the Electoral College when the House of Representatives (which is Constitutionally responsible for deciding elections in which no single candidate received more than 50% of the Electoral College vote) chose John Quincy Adams over him, a “theft” led many to view Jackson as the victim of a great injustice. Eisenhower, meanwhile, had the benefit of incumbency in 1956, since at that time he was completing his first four years as president. That said, most polls from the time indicate that the American people were mixed in their opinion of whether Eisenhower had been successful as president during that first term; their decision to keep him in power came predominantly from their affection for his record in World War Two, with the prevailing sentiment being that his first term was mediocre, which was at least acceptable.
There are three presidents who fall in the third category – Herbert Hoover in 1928, Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and Richard Nixon in 1972. On each occasion, those candidates won because the opposing party nominated a candidate widely perceived to have been an extremist. In 1928, Herbert Hoover ran against Alfred Smith, a New York Governor whose progressivism, though decisively left-wing in nature, did not deviate considerably from the liberalism of previous Democrats, but whose Catholicism caused a large percentage of the American population to view him as being too ideologically extreme and untrustworthy for the presidency (Smith was the first Catholic to ever receive a major party’s nomination for the presidency, and unlike John Kennedy in 1960 and John Kerry in 2004, was destroyed by widespread social distrust of the people of his faith). In 1964, Lyndon Johnson ran against Barry Goldwater, a candidate who was widely perceived as being an extreme right-winger and was thus distrusted with the same vehemence with which people feared Alfred Smith. In 1972, Richard Nixon ran against George McGovern, who was widely perceived as being an extremely left-winger and was thus viewed with equal fear and distrust by large majorities of voters.
In each of these elections, there were other factors that contributed to each candidate’s defeat; Hoover was running as the political heir of incumbent Calvin Coolidge at a time when America was prosperous at home and at peace abroad, Johnson was extremely popular due to his deft handling of American anxieties after the brutal assassination of his predecessor, John Kennedy, less than one year earlier, and George McGovern made several serious mistakes in his campaign that called his integrity and competence into question as well as his ideology. Even so, most polls suggest that, although Hoover and Johnson would have won had their opponents not been perceived as extremists, their margins of victory would have been considerably smaller, while another Democrat running against Richard Nixon in 1972 (most notably Edmund Muskie and Hubert Humphrey) had a strong chance of actually defeating him, which McGovern never did.
There are two presidents in the fourth category – Warren Harding in 1920 and Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. Although Harding’s opponent in 1920, James Cox, was a former newspaper publisher and Ohio governor who had never served as president, Cox had the bad luck of being viewed as the successor to incumbent President Woodrow Wilson, a man whose foreign and domestic policies had made him a pariah throughout America by 1920. While Cox himself was not viewed with any particular animus, Americans by 1920 were extremely dissatisfied with President Wilson, and thus rejected Cox unilaterally due to his outspoken support of Wilson’s policies. Franklin Roosevelt, meanwhile, had the good luck of running against the very man who was so unpopular with the public; as mentioned before, Hebert Hoover was widely blamed for the Great Depression, so that all Franklin Roosevelt had to do to win in 1932 was avoid scandal and stay alive.
ANALYSIS – CLOSEST PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS;
The most outstanding fact about these elections is how, with one exception, they are all concentrated within three short periods in American history: Four of them took place in the 1880s-1890s (1880, 1884, 1888, and 1892), three of them took place in the 1960s-1970s (1960, 1968, and 1976), and two of them took place in the 2000s (2000 and 2004). What defined each of those periods?
- The Gilded Age: Four of our nation’s closest elections occurred right in a row – the elections of 1880, 1884, 1888, and 1892. Not coincidentally, these elections correspond exactly with the period known in American history as the Gilded Age, or the interim period separating the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction (which continued the political climate of the Civil War even after the armed conflict had ended) from the rise of the progressive movement and conservative reaction (which began with the nomination of William Jennings Bryan by the Democratic party in 1896). In short, these close elections occurred at a time when, due to a lack of divisive ideological issues (such as divided the parties in the Civil War and Progressive eras), there were no meaningful differences between the philosophies, policies, and candidates of the two major parties. As such, Americans were divided evenly between them, with most people supporting one of the two parties because of geographic loyalty (with the North favoring Republicans and the South favoring Democrats) or due to convictions on uninspiring issues such as civil service reform or tariff rates.
- The Countercultural Era: Unlike the Gilded Age elections, these elections (1960, 1968, and 1976) took place at a time when there were very significant differences between the ideologies of the two major parties. That said, the candidates running from each major party during these elections were widely perceived as moderates, even centrists, and thus failed to inspire enthusiastic support from their bases or convince the American people that there was a meaningful difference between the two of them. It is interesting that the two elections which took place between these three were the contests of 1964 and 1972, both of which were defined by one of the parties nominating an ideological zealot who appealed very strongly to their base. Whereas those elections were lost by landslides, elections in which the nominated candidate was a lackluster centrist were inevitably quite close. Although their reputations today are quite different from what they were at the time they ran, the six candidates who ran in these three contests (Democrats John Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, and Jimmy Carter, and Republicans Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford) were all widely perceived at the time as being centrist tweedle-dees.
- The Bush Era Elections: Although I am too close to these contest to be as objective as would otherwise be ideal, I suspect historians looking back at these elections will find that they are very similar to their counterparts from the 1960s and 1970s. In spite of what liberals think of him, George W. Bush was never so much liked by the conservative base of the Republican party as he was viewed as a palatable second-choice, while Albert Gore and John Kerry were perceived as lifeless centrists who did not speak for the liberal movement but inspired passion simply because they weren’t Bush (Gore’s image among the left has changed since his 2000 election, while Kerry’s has not). I suspect that those two elections will be viewed as contests in which each candidate received support not because of what he was for, but rather because of who he was against – supporters of Bush in 2000 and 2004 didn’t feel passionate for him but despised liberals, while supporters of Gore and Kerry didn’t care for either of them but were adamantly opposed to everything Bush stood for.
JUST FOR THE HELL OF IT...
Here is the data on the popular vote received by every victorious presidential candidate in the elections between 1824 and 2008:
1) Lyndon Johnson (1964) – 61.1%, Democrat, Defeated Republican Barry Goldwater
2) Franklin Roosevelt (1936) – 60.8%, Democrat, Defeated Republican Alfred Landon
3) Richard Nixon (1972) – 60.7%, Republican, Defeated Democrat George McGovern
4) Warren Harding (1920) – 60.3%, Republican, Defeated Democrat James Cox
5) Ronald Reagan (1984) – 58.8%, Republican, Defeated Democrat Walter Mondale
6) Herbert Hoover (1928) – 58.2%, Republican, Defeated Democrat Alfred Smith
7) Franklin Roosevelt (1932) – 57.4%, Democrat, Defeated Republican Herbert Hoover
8) Dwight Eisenhower (1956) – 57.4%, Republican, Defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson
9) Theodore Roosevelt (1904) – 56.4%, Republican, Defeated Democrat Alton Parker
10) Andrew Jackson (1828) – 56.0%, Democrat, Defeated National Republican John Q. Adams
11) Ulysses Grant (1872) – 55.6%, Republican, Defeated Democrat/Liberal Republican Horace Greeley
12) Dwight Eisenhower (1952) – 55.2%, Republican, Defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson
13) Abraham Lincoln (1864) – 55.0%, Republican/Union, Defeated Democrat George McClellan
14) Franklin Roosevelt (1940) – 54.7%, Democrat, Defeated Republican Wendell Willkie
15) Andrew Jackson (1832) – 54.2%, Democrat, Defeated Whig Henry Clay
16) Calvin Coolidge (1924) – 54.0%, Republican, Defeated Democrat John Davis
17) Franklin Roosevelt (1944) – 53.4%, Democrat, Defeated Republican Thomas Dewey
18) George H. W. Bush (1988) – 53.4%, Republican, Defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis
19) Barack Obama (2008) – 52.9%, Democrat, Defeated Republican John McCain
20) William Harrison (1840) – 52.9%, Whig, Defeated Democrat Martin Van Buren
21) Ulysses Grant (1868) – 52.7%, Republican, Defeated Democrat Horatio Seymour
22) William McKinley (1900) – 51.7%, Republican, Defeated Democrat William Bryan
23) William Taft (1908) – 51.6%, Republican, Defeated Democrat William Bryan
24) William McKinley (1896) – 51.0%, Republican, Defeated Democrat William Bryan
25) Franklin Pierce (1852) – 50.8%, Democrat, Defeated Whig Winfield Scott
26) Martin Van Buren (1836) – 50.8%, Democrat, Defeated Whig William Harrison
27) George W. Bush (2004) – 50.7%, Republican, Defeated Democrat John Kerry
28) Ronald Reagan (1980) – 50.7%, Republican, Defeated Democrat Jimmy Carter
29) Jimmy Carter (1976) – 50.1%, Democrat, Defeated Republican Gerald Ford
30) John Kennedy (1960) - 49.7%, Democrat, Defeated Republican Richard Nixon
31) Harry Truman (1948) - 49.6%, Democrat, Defeated Republican Thomas Dewey
32) James Polk (1844) - 49.5%, Democrat, Defeated Whig Henry Clay
33) Woodrow Wilson (1916) - 49.2%, Democrat, Defeated Republican Charles Hughes
34) William Clinton (1996) - 49.2%, Democrat, Defeated Republican Robert Dole
35) Grover Cleveland (1884) - 48.5%, Democrat, Defeated Republican James Blaine
36) James Garfield (1880) - 48.3%, Republican, Defeated Democrat Winfield Hancock
40) Zachary Taylor (1848) - 47.3%, Whig, Defeated Democrat Lewis Cass
41) Grover Cleveland (1892) - 46.0%, Democrat, Defeated Republican Benjamin Harrison
42) James Buchanan (1856) - 45.3%, Democrat, Defeated Republican John Fremont
43) Richard Nixon (1968) - 43.4%, Republican, Defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey
44) William Clinton (1992) - 43.0% Democrat, Defeated Republican George H. W. Bush
45) Woodrow Wilson (1912) - 41.8%, Democrat, Defeated Republican William Taft
46) Abraham Lincoln (1860) - 39.8%, Republiican, Defeated Democrat Stephen Douglas
Here are the four presidential candidates who received the presidency without winning more votes than their opponents (either by plurality or majority). They were italicized in the above list. It is worth noting that two of them managed to win as the result of legitimate (albeit morally questionable) Constitutional procedures, while the other two stole their elections.
1) John Q. Adams (1824) - 30.9%, Democratic-Republican, lost by popular plurality to Andrew Jackson, Democratic-Republican, who had 41.3% of the popular vote; received presidency honestly, through the House of Representatives.
2) Rutherford Hayes (1876) - 47.9%, Republican, lost by popular majority to Samuel Tilden, Democrat, who had 51.0% of the popular vote; stole the election.
3) Benjamin Harrison (1888) - 47.8%, Republican, lost by popular plurality to Grover Cleveland, Democrat, who had 48.6% of the popular vote; received presidency honestly, but won in the Electoral College despite receiving fewer votes through the mathematical fluke of having lost smaller states by large margins while winning a few big states by very small margins.
4) George W. Bush (2000) - 47.9%, Republican, lost by popular plurality to Albert Gore, Democrat, who had 48.4% of the popular vote; stole the election.
2) Herbert Hoover (1928) – 58.2%, Republican, Defeated Democrat Alfred Smith
3) Franklin Roosevelt (1932) – 57.4%, Democrat, Defeated Republican Herbert Hoover
4) Andrew Jackson (1828) – 56.0%, Democrat, Defeated National Republican John Q. Adams
5) Dwight Eisenhower (1952) – 55.2%, Republican, Defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson
6) George H. W. Bush (1988) – 53.4%, Republican, Defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis
7) Barack Obama (2008) – 52.9%, Democrat, Defeated Republican John McCain
8) William Harrison (1840) – 52.9%, Whig, Defeated Democrat Martin Van Buren
9) Ulysses Grant (1868) – 52.7%, Republican, Defeated Democrat Horatio Seymour
10) William Taft (1908) – 51.6%, Republican, Defeated Democrat William Bryan
12) Franklin Pierce (1852) – 50.8%, Democrat, Defeated Whig Winfield Scott
13) Martin Van Buren (1836) – 50.8%, Democrat, Defeated Whig William Harrison
14) Ronald Reagan (1980) – 50.7%, Republican, Defeated Democrat Jimmy Carter
15) Jimmy Carter (1976) – 50.1%, Democrat, Defeated Republican Gerald Ford
Richard Nixon (1960) - 49.6%, Republican, Lost to Democrat John Kennedy
18) Grover Cleveland (1884) - 48.5%, Democrat, Defeated Republican James Blaine
Albert Gore (2000) - 48.4%, Democrat, Lost to Republican George W. Bush
23) Zachary Taylor (1848) - 47.3%, Whig, Defeated Democrat Lewis Cass
Charles Hughes (1916) - 46.1%, Republican, Lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson
Thomas Dewey (1948) - 45.1%, Republican, Lost to Democrat Harry Truman
26) William Clinton (1992) - 43.0% Democrat, Defeated Republican George H. W. Bush
Hubert Humphrey (1968) - 42.7%, Democrat, Lost to Republican Richard Nixon
Andrew Jackson (1824) - 41.3%, Democratic-Republican, Lost to Democratic-Republican John Q. Adams
Some interesting trivia:
- When there were three sets of candidates who received the same percentage of the popular vote (Roosevelt in 1932 and Eisenhower in 1956, Reagan in 1984 and Bush in 2004, and Hayes in 1876 and Bush in 2000), I calculated down to the hundredth of a percentile to find out which candidate had technically received more than the other, and ranked them accordingly.
- The president to be elected with the smallest popular vote was John Q. Adams in 1824 (30.9%), followed by Abraham Lincoln in 1860 (39.8%) and Woodrow Wilson in 1912 (41.3%). The president to be elected with the largest popular vote was Lyndon Johnson in 1964 (61.1%), followed by Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 (60.8%) and Richard Nixon in 1972 (60.7%).
- Only three of the candidates who received popular majorities had to do so in races in which there were more than two major candidates running - Martin Van Buren (1836), Calvin Coolidge (1924), and Ronald Reagan (1980).
- Twelve of the candidates to receive popular majorities (50% or more) were Democrats, seventeen were Republicans, and one was a Whig.
- Although there have been four candidates in American history who have won popular pluralities without receiving the presidency in that election, only one of those candidates received an actual majority - Samuel Tilden, the Democrat of 1876. Equally interesting is the fact that the two popular vote winners who lost their elections through legal means defeated the candidate who beat them in the following contest, and were thus able to serve as president (Jackson and Cleveland), while the two who were victims of political theft (Tilden and Gore) never got to serve. Finally, it is worth noting that no Democrat has ever been elected without winning the most popular votes, while three Republicans have been elected that way as has one Democratic-Republican (the party established by Thomas Jefferson and dissolved after ruling in a one-party system during the 1820s).
- Only three candidates have ever won the popular vote more than twice - Andrew Jackson (1824, 1828, 1832), Grover Cleveland (1884, 1888, 1892), and Franklin Roosevelt (1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944).
- Only six men have ever received a popular majority more than once - Andrew Jackson (1828 and 1832), Ulysses Grant (1868 and 1872), William McKinley (1896 and 1900), Franklin Roosevelt (1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944), Dwight Eisenhower (1952 and 1956), and Ronald Reagan (1980 and 1984). Of course, if Barack Obama wins more than 50% of the popular vote in 2012, he will become the seventh president on that list.