I’m sure by now you’re aware that Donald Trump has won enough electoral votes to be named President-Elect in the United States. Whatever you think of that, I’m sure you’re also aware that a large number of people think there’s something wrong, either with the electoral college, with democracy, or with Americans in general.
And while you may think this is the worst presidential election screwup in history, I guarantee you there are at least six others that could be considered just as bad.
6. 2000: Bush vs Gore — The year 2000 introduced us to the phrase hanging chad, because some areas of Florida still used punched paper ballots. I happened to be living in Florida at the time, and my ballot was “draw a line to connect these two dashes next to the candidate you prefer”, which doesn’t sound very technological either. In the end, Bush won the election by a tiny margin.
The fallout: One of the biggest problems with elections, even today, is exit polling. The moment the polls close, numbers become available, and they may not be accurate. I was in a bar with some classmates watching the returns, and they called Florida pretty early for Bush… but then un-called it… but then re-called it. If they hadn’t done that, maybe the results would have been different. But thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, we’re on the lookout for as much news as possible and we’ll grasp at any crumb we can get our hands on, and the news organizations know that. So that’s not going to change.
5. 1948: Truman vs Dewey — Pretty sure every American who paid even the slightest bit of attention in history class knows that the newspapers printed headlines of “Dewey Defeats Truman” because everyone thought Truman had no chance. But Truman won 303 electoral votes and 49.6 percent of the popular vote (4.5 percent more than Dewey), and other than one elector in Tennessee not voting for Truman despite him carrying the state, there really wasn’t much to it.
The fallout: In looking at the numbers on Wikipedia, what strikes me most is that Strom Thurmond — the third-party Dixiecrat candidate — won 39 electoral votes despite only carrying four states and getting under two million popular votes. For comparison, Dewey got just under 22 million popular votes, and Truman got just over 24 million. A lot of people say that the electoral college system is unfair — maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t — but clearly nothing changed, including the media’s propensity to call the election before it’s done.
4. 1920: Harding vs Cox — Warren G. Harding still holds the record for the greatest landslide victory in American history — 60 percent of the popular vote, compared to Cox’s 34 percent (with Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist candidate, taking 3.4 percent and various other third parties filling out the rest). Cox won almost the entire “south” — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, the Carolinas, Texas, and Virginia — and Harding won everything else. It was also the first election where women were allowed to vote, and the first time election returns were broadcast live.
The fallout: Well, KDKA, I’m sure you thought you were doing a good thing by broadcasting the returns — especially given that your signal was strong enough to be heard across almost the entire eastern US — but if you hadn’t done that, maybe we wouldn’t be in the 24-hour election media shitshow that we face every two years.
3. 1888 and 1892: Harrison vs Cleveland — Grover Cleveland remains the only US president to serve two non-consecutive terms. In 1888, Cleveland won the popular vote, 5.5 million to 5.4 million, but Harrison won the electoral vote, 233 to 168. This was the third time this happened (it also happened with Jackson, Tilden, Gore, and Hillary Clinton). In 1892, Cleveland returned with a victory, 5.5 million to 5.1 million and 277 to 145, with Populist candidate James B. Weaver claiming one million popular votes and 22 electoral votes.
The fallout: I’m not sure there really was one, but I think it’s interesting that nonconsecutive presidential terms has only happened once in American history. In the early days, the same people tended to show up in government, and nowadays we have the Bush and Clinton political dynasties. Things don’t change because the people don’t change.
2. 1824: Adams vs Jackson — This was the first (and so far only) election to be decided by the House of Representatives, via the 12th Amendment. Neither Adams nor Jackson won a majority of votes — and to make matters worse all four major candidates were from the same party, the Democratic-Republicans. A special election was held in 1825 and, after Henry Clay threw his support behind Adams, Adams was able to win the presidency, despite the fact that, during the general election, Jackson won a plurality of both popular and electoral votes.
The fallout: This was the first time the candidate who won the most votes didn’t win the presidency, although Jackson only got a plurality, not a majority. Still, Jackson came back four years later to defeat Adams, and did so with a clear majority (642,000 to 500,000 and 178 to 83). This may have been due to an expansion of the right to vote prior to 1828.
1. 1801: Jefferson vs Burr — No, I’m not getting all my information from Hamilton here, I promise. After John Adams was defeated in the general election, the electors voted the exact same number of votes for both Jefferson and Burr — both Democratic-Republicans. To win, the candidate would need a majority vote of nine states, but it took 36 ballots to get there. Jefferson won all of them, but not by enough — until number 36. And yes, Alexander Hamilton did sway some voters over to Jefferson’s side due to his ongoing feud with Burr.
The fallout: Without this election, there would not be a 12th Amendment, and who knows what would’ve happened in 1824/1825 without it? That amendment, by the way, clearly lays out that the electors must vote specifically for a president and a vice president, whereas in the past the person who came in second became the vice president by default. From 1800 to 1804, Burr was never really trusted by Jefferson and didn’t get much say in things. Yes, the 12th Amendment may have led to better unity in the White House, but given the clear divides between beliefs and political policies in our latest elections, perhaps it would have been better to have the vice president be someone who is opposed to many of the president’s policies. At least then maybe both sides would have a vocal supporter (and opponent) at the highest level.
Speaking of Alexander Hamilton, I can only wonder what would have happened if he’d run for president in 1800. What if he’d won? What would the country be like? I’m not enough of a historian to say for certain (most of the above is research I did specifically for this column), but I’m sure it would have been interesting.
Got an idea for a future “Six of the Best” column? Tweet it to me @listener42.
When she was a little girl, Amy Holland’s father started losing his memory. The moment she realized, she vowed to find a way to save him. Two decades later, Amy has dedicated her life to studying the brain, while her father is almost a complete blank slate. But soon Amy will discover the horrible secret of what caused her father’s memory loss, and there will be only one way to save him: to forget everything she knows. Find out how it all ends in Memories of My Father, available for pre-order now and coming to your Kindle on Sunday. Don’t forget.