Close Presidential Elections in History


In the history of U.S. Presidential elections, there have been landslides and there have been squeakers. Furthermore, there have been a number of cases where the popular vote winner did not become President. Join Active Minds® as we examine that most peculiar of American institutions—the Electoral College—and how it has contributed to some colorful Presidential contests in our history.

Key Lecture Points

  • Historically, there have been times when the winner of the popular vote in the Presidential elections did not go on to become President, a curious outcome of that most peculiar of American institutions—the Electoral College. The 1824 (Adams beat Jackson), 1876 (Hayes beat Tilden), 1888 (Harrison beat Cleveland) and 2000 (Bush beat Gore) elections are all instances where the winner of the popular vote did not win the Presidential election.
  • Interesting in three these cases is how a 3rd party, either Congress or the Supreme Court, mediated the results of the election, with neither the people nor the electors actually determining the outcome in the final instance. Also similar is the manner in which bargains (read: quid pro quo) were often (alleged to have been) struck between the 3rd party and the candidate that was ultimately victorious. For example, in exchange for victory in the 1876 election, Hayes returned the favor to Congress by promising to end Reconstruction and remove troops from the South.
  • While the 2000 presidential election bears remarkable resemblance to earlier “close call” elections, there are also deep contrasts. As in 1824 and 1876, a 3rd party mediated the outcome of the election—yet, this party was the Supreme Court, and not Congress as in earlier cases. Further, the role of the media is pronounced and significant in the 2000 elections, and is less so in earlier cases. And, more technical matters, both legal as well as dealing with ballot configuration (i.e. butterflies and chads), took center stage in 2000, and did not so as visibly in earlier cases.

Exploration Questions

  • What do you think about the Electoral College? Is it outdated? Or, is it still an important institution?
  • Are election disputes simply part and parcel of living in a democracy or a republic? What other countries have also recently experienced election disputes? Are they similar to ours?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you remember the controversy surrounding the 2000 Elections? Was it upsetting? Invigorating?
  • How do you feel about the role of the media in presidential campaigns?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Gumbel, Andrew. Steal This Vote: Dirty Elections and the Rotten History of Democracy in America. Nation Books, 2005. 362 pages. Gumbel makes the controversial argument that “free and fair” elections are more the exception than the rule in the US. Written in the wake of the tumultuous 2000 election, the author details the history of votes bought, sold, cast multiple times, suppressed, miscounted, and made by pets.
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  • Fortier, John. After the People Vote: A Guide to the Electoral College, 3rd edition. AEI Press, 2004. 102 pages. In addition to being a guide book to the Electoral College, After the People Vote also features several essays by eminent scholars of political science and election law. AEI scholar Norman J. Ornstein provides a short history of disputed elections prior to the 2000 election, and John C. Fortier explains what happened in the 2000 election and the significance of Bush v. Gore. In addition, AEI scholar Walter Berns, the late University of Chicago professor Martin Diamond, Yale law professor Akhil Amar, and University of California-Berkeley law professor Vikram Amar present arguments for and against the electoral college.
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