For those voters who have come of age in the 21st century, the extremely close presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 must seem like the norm. But that is hardly the case. Over the course of American history, there have been more presidential elections decided by landslide margins than have been determined by narrow margins.
Of the 46 contests held since nationwide tallies of the popular vote began in the early 1800s:
- Twenty elections (or 43 percent) have been decided by a landslide margin of 10 percentage points or more.
- Twelve others (26 percent) have been clear-cut victories settled by margins ranging from 5 to 9.9 percentage points.
- Fourteen presidential contests (30 percent) have been determined by fewer than 5 percentage points.
The 2000 and 2004 elections fit snugly into the latter category. But in considering how unusual this is, ponder the fact that only once before in the nation’s history have there been at least three close presidential elections in a row. That streak occurred in the late 19th century, and ended with the decisive election of 1896 that tilted the political balance toward the Republicans for a generation to come. Might the 2008 election be so definitive?
Neither party gained the upper hand in presidential voting from 1876 through 1892. Each race was decided by a margin of 3 percentage points or less. Three contests were won by the Republicans, two by the Democrats.
And two of the elections that the Democrats lost in this period–those of 1876 and 1888 were Electoral College “misfires”–Democratic victories in the popular vote, Republican triumphs in the all-important electoral vote. That was the same dynamic evident in 2000, when Democrat Al Gore defeated Republican George W. Bush by more than 500,000 votes in the popular tally, which was trumped by Bush’s 5-vote edge in the Electoral College.
Figure 1. PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS: MORE LANDSLIDES THAN CLOSE CALLS
There have been more landslides than close calls in the history of presidential elections. However, the latter have occurred often of late while it has been nearly a quarter century since a candidate won the popular vote by a margin of at least 10 percentage points.
|Type of Elections (margins in % points)||Number of Elections||Last Election of This Type|
(less than 5%)
|14||2004 – BUSH (R)* by 2.4% over Kerry (D)|
(5% to 9.9%)
|12||1996 – CLINTON (D)* by 8.5% over Dole (R)|
(10% and up)
|20||1984 – REAGAN (R)* by 18.2% over Mondale (D)|
Note: The last name of the winning candidate in each election is capitalized. An asterisk (*) indicates an incumbent president.
Source: Guide to U.S. Elections (CQ Press).
A common tie between these two time periods, past and present, is their virtually static and closely divided electoral maps.
In the late 1800s, the geography of partisan loyalties reflected allegiances born of the Civil War and before. By and large, the then-young Republican Party was identified with the North and Union; the Democratic Party was associated with the South and the states of the old Confederacy.
With one region pitted against the other, the Republicans had a slight advantage, given the greater electoral vote tallies of the growing industrial states of the Northeast and Midwest. The Democrats needed to poach a few big Frost Belt states to win, which they occasionally did. When they were largely penned into their base south of the Mason-Dixon line, they lost.
Yet below the surface appearance of a nation politically becalmed, the United States was undergoing a major upheaval. The late 1800s was a period of industrialization, massive immigration, and territorial expansion–with eight states west of the Mississippi River joining the Union in the last quarter of the 19th century.
An exploding voter turnout accompanied rapid population growth, as the number of presidential ballots cast jumped by nearly 45 percent from 1876 to 1892. In addition, the country was buffeted in the early 1890s by a sharp economic downturn during the second term of Democrat Grover Cleveland, and the party had suffered sharp losses in Congress in the midterm election of 1894.
In short, the nation was poised in 1896 to break strongly to the Republicans, which it did. In one of those watershed elections that comes along once every generation or so, the GOP behind William McKinley and his astute campaign manager, Mark Hanna, soundly defeated the Democrats and their peripatetic young candidate, William Jennings Bryan. The latter championed the struggling agrarian interests of the South and West; the former advocated for the business and working classes of the industrial Frost Belt.
The two candidates mounted entirely different types of campaigns. McKinley offered a veneer of calm and dignity, receiving visiting delegations of voters on the front porch of his Canton, Ohio, home. Bryan took to the road projecting energy and fervor. Widely known as the “boy orator of the Platte,” he was a rhetorical master who crisscrossed the country delivering hundreds of speeches to millions of voters.
Through the late summer of 1896, the two parties battled on fairly even terms. But Republicans enjoyed superior funding and organization, which with the troubled economic backdrop enabled them to successfully promote McKinley as the “advance agent of prosperity.” That fall the string of close presidential elections was broken, as McKinley triumphed by a clear-cut margin of 5 percentage points and 95 electoral votes.
In the process, the GOP refashioned the electoral map, locking in the industrial states of the Northeast and Midwest for virtually the entire generation to come, while also penetrating south of the Mason-Dixon line to win a quartet of border states from Delaware to Kentucky.
President Bush’s campaign strategist, Karl Rove, had hoped to replicate the 1896 election for this generation of Republicans. Yet ironically, it is the Democrats who may be on the verge of a big breakthrough election in 2008.
The last two presidential contests have seen the two parties battle to a virtual tie, with Democrats dominating the populous Northeast and Pacific Coast and Republicans enjoying hegemony in the South, the Plains states and the Mountain West.
Yet conditions have steadily changed in recent years to the Democrats’ advantage. The Bush administration, defined by the seemingly unending war in Iraq, has reached almost historic depths of disapproval. Economic conditions are worsening. Republicans have already lost both houses of Congress, and recent voter registration trends clearly favor the Democrats.
Whether this is enough to produce a map-changing, watershed election in 2008 remains to be seen. But don’t bet against it… For one point that history makes is that to have three closely contested presidential elections in a row would just not be normal.
Figure 2. THE NATION’S CLOSEST PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS
Although the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 were quite close, that has not been the norm throughout American history. Barely 30 percent of allpresidential contests (14 of 46) have been decided by a margin of less than 5 percentage points in the popular vote. The majority of these close elections were for open seats, and most have occurred in clusters, topped by a five-election run in the latter part of the 19th century where neither party had an advantage of more than 3 percentage points in the popular vote.
|Year||Candidates||Type of Election||Popular Vote||Electoral Vote|
|1844||POLK (D) – Clay (W)||Open Seat||1.4%||65|
|1848||TAYLOR (W) – Cass (D)||Open Seat||4.8%||36|
|1876||HAYES (R) – Tilden (D)||Open Seat||– 3.0%||1|
|1880||GARFIELD (R) – Hancock (D)||Open Seat||0.1%||59|
|1884||CLEVELAND (D) – Blaine (R)||Open Seat||0.7%||37|
|1888||HARRISON (R) – Cleveland (D)*||Incumbent seeking reelection||– 0.8%||65|
|1892||CLEVELAND (D) – Harrison (R)*||Incumbent seeking reelection||3.0%||132|
|1916||WILSON (D)* – Hughes (R)||Incumbent seeking reelection||3.1%||23|
|1948||TRUMAN (D)* – Dewey (R)||Unelected incumbent running||4.4%||114|
|1960||KENNEDY (D) – Nixon (R)||Open Seat||0.2%||84|
|1968||NIXON (R) – Humphrey (D)||Open Seat||0.7%||110|
|1976||CARTER (D) – Ford (R)*||Unelected incumbent running||2.1%||57|
|2000||BUSH (R) – Gore (D)||Open Seat||– 0.5%||5|
|2004||BUSH (R)* – Kerry (D)||Incumbent seeking reelection||2.4%||35|
Note: The last name of the winning candidate in each election is capitalized. “W” stands for the Whig Party. An asterisk (*) indicates an incumbent president. A minus sign before the popular vote margin indicates an Electoral College “misfire” in which the electoral vote winner received fewer popular votes than his major-party opponent. Popular vote margins are based a comparison of the nationwide percentages for the top two candidates when rounded to tenths of a percentage point.
Source: Guide to U.S. Elections (CQ Press).
Author’s Note: In the presidential election of 1896, William Jennings Bryan ran as the nominee of both the Democratic and Populist parties, although with different vice presidential running mates and in some states, different sets of electors. A number of sources combine the Democratic and Populist votes for Bryan into an aggregate total, which results in a McKinley victory of less than 5 percentage points and would mean the 1896 election should be classified as a close election. However, the source used in this column, Guide to U.S. Elections, did not combine the Democratic and Populist tallies for Bryan in states where different sets of electors were fielded. The result: a McKinley victory margin over Bryan of 5.3 percentage points using this methodology.