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To Millennials, a candidate who loses the election despite winning the popular vote would seem commonplace. Of the last 5 elections, it’s happened twice. I’ve been alive for 7 elections, so this event has occurred in about 30% of the elections that have taken place during my lifetime. Pretty standard at this point.
The perception that this is unremarkable couldn’t be further from the truth, however. Mind-boggling as it may be to this country’s younger generation, the popular vote carried an Electoral College victory the entire 20th century. Before that, the winner of the popular vote conceded the presidency only 3 other times, spread throughout the 1800s.
Hillary Clinton is likely to win the popular vote by the largest margin ever for a candidate defeated outright in the Electoral College, and her lead even outstrips that of a handful of former presidents. That said, she certainly does not hold the largest percentage difference. As of 7pm EST yesterday, she was ahead of Trump by 1.7% with over 2 million votes more than him.
This respectable lead is eclipsed by Andrew Jackson, who, in 1824, won the popular vote by 10.5% but still lost the election to John Quincy Adams because he didn’t hold a majority of the electoral votes. Two other candidates, William H. Crawford and Henry Clay, held 11.2% and 13% of the popular vote, respectively, obstructing Jackson’s path to the White House by a whopping 32 electoral votes, almost 25% of the total needed to win.
Per the Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution, when no candidate secures a majority of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives decides who will be president from among no more than the top 3 performers in the popular vote. Adams was chosen instead of Jackson, to the great bitterness of Jackson and his supporters.
From the Twelfth Amendment:
The person having the greatest Number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President.
The election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 both outshines Clinton’s defeat in percentage difference in the popular vote as well as Jackson’s defeat in its acrimonious resolution. Hayes captured the presidency with 185 electoral votes, exactly the number required at the time for a majority. However, there were 20 electoral votes from Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Oregon that were hotly disputed.
To settle the debate, a deal was struck, called the Compromise of 1877, which gave Hayes all 20 electoral votes in exchange for withdrawal of federal troops stationed in the South since the end of the Civil War. This produced the devastating consequence of bringing an end to the Reconstruction Era, an event with harmful repercussions that have reverberated through the subsequent 140 years.
Out of all 5 occurrences, the third, in 1888, was the only election that wasn’t highly contentious. Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote to the incumbent Grover Cleveland by a slim 0.8%, but captured 65 more electoral votes. The most notable feature of the election, other than this incongruence of the popular and electoral votes, is the fact that only 2 states switched parties in the electoral vote from the preceding election. This wouldn’t happen again until 2012, when Obama took both Indiana and North Carolina.
Astonishingly, the Electoral College would not diverge from the popular vote for another 112 years when, in 2000, George W. Bush secured the presidency against Al Gore despite losing the popular vote by over 550,000 votes. Bush captured 271 electoral votes to Gore’s 266 in an election that required 270 electoral votes, barely sneaking away with one of the narrowest electoral victories in our nation’s history, with a 0.009% margin.
Florida ultimately clinched the Bush victory, but not before intense conflict ensued over the vote count in that state. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Bush v. Gore, ultimately decided against a recount, granting Bush Florida’s 25 electoral votes. The final vote count in Florida landed Bush with a mere 537 vote lead out of 5,825,043 total votes — an unthinkably tiny 0.00009% margin.
As I sit her contemplating those numbers, two of the eeriest, most unbelievable parallels have emerged. Because a District of Columbia elector abstained in that election, there was a total of 537 electoral votes cast instead of 538, equivalent to the 537 total popular vote lead Bush attained in the state of Florida. Wait, it gets weirder. Bush took the Electoral College by 5 votes — 5 divided by 537 total votes equals a 0.009% margin of victory in the Electoral College. And, as noted above, recall that Bush specifically won the state of Florida by a 0.00009% margin in that state’s popular vote.
Now if that isn’t the creepiest coincidence you ever did see, I’m not sure you’re seeing straight. It might just be the most improbable parallel of all time. OF ALL TIME. Statisticians, punch some numbers for me, would ya?
Anyway, take a peek at these clippings from Wikipedia with the breakout of these 5 elections.