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Electoral Fun

October 20, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’ve had some fun the last two days reviewing the popular and electoral vote counts for past presidential elections. It all started when I decided to find a list of all vice-presidential candidates in order to compare them (within the limits of my historical knowledge) with Sarah Palin. I found a table at infoplease and quickly realized that lots of vice presidential candidates were new to me.

By the way, it’s worth recalling the fact that Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution states that “after the choice of the President, the person having the greatest number of votes of the electors shall be the Vice President.” Until the passage of the 12th Amendment, there was a single pool of candidates. The candidate with a majority of the electoral votes became president; the runner-up became vice president. If the top vote getter did not receive a majority, the House got to vote. The 12th Amendment was passed by Congress in 1803 and ratified by the states in 1804, in time for the 1804 election. Under its terms, the presidential and vice presidential pools were separated.

I quickly lost interest in examining the qualities of vice presidential candidates. Instead, fascinated by the popular and electoral vote numbers, I began to examine elections in which one or the other or both were close. For a closer analysis of this, I recommend Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Clicking on Results, one is led to data for the most recent election (2004) and a list of years on the left margin. Clicking on any year leads to data for that year.

Let’s look for example at 1960. (This was the first presidential election I was old enough to pay attention to, but without much understanding. I couldn’t figure out, for example, why Kennedy had someone named Johnson as a running mate but Nixon had a building.) Clicking on it, you’ll be reminded that Kennedy beat Nixon by a popular vote margin of 34,220,984 to 34,108,157 and an electoral vote margin of 303 to 219. I always remember this as a nail biter, with the shenanigans in Illinois. The electoral vote suggests it wasn’t so close after all. Clicking on Popular Vote State-Level Data on Leip’s atlas entry for 1960, we are led to the voting results by state, where we see that in Illinois, the vote for Kennedy was 2,377,846 to 2,368,988. Now that’s close. And 27 electoral votes were at stake. Switch them from Kennedy to Nixon and the electoral vote becomes 276 to 246. We can go one step further. Missouri voted for Kennedy 972,201 to 962,221. Imagine a slight change in voting there, switch the 13 electoral votes to Nixon, and Kennedy wins 263 to 259. Neither has a majority! (A lot of strange things happened that year, including some electoral voters giving their support to Harry Byrd.) The election goes to the House!

This is what I mean by electoral fun. The scenario I just described can be found in the Leip atlas entry for 1960 by clicking on the “What if?” button. Another scenario described there under “What if?” has New Jersey switching a little over 11,000 votes to Nixon, along with the switches of less than 5000 votes in each of Illinois and Missouri that give them to Nixon, in which case he wins the election.

Here are some other years worth checking out:

1800: You know this one. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tie with 73 electoral votes apiece. Sitting president John Adams gets only 65 electoral votes, with Charles Pinckney just behind at 64. The House chooses Jefferson.

1824: No wonder Andrew Jackson didn’t like John Quincy Adams. Jackson gets 99 electoral votes to Adams’ 84. Jackson wins the popular vote too. But he doesn’t have a majority and the House chooses Adams.

1876. Of course. This was a bitter one, a precursor to 2000. Samuel Tilden wins the popular vote, 4,286,808 to 4,034,142. Rutherford Hayes wins the electoral vote, 185 to 184. Results are disputed in several states. Congress meets to resolve the disputes and declares Hayes the winner.

1968: Nixon has a narrow margin over Humphrey in the popular vote, 31,783,783 to 31,271,839, but the electoral vote isn’t so close, 301 to 191. Of course, George Wallace is a major factor, with 9,901,118 popular votes and 46 electoral votes. The Dave Leip atlas provides this “what if” scenario: a change of 41,971 votes in three states (Missouri – 10,245 votes; New Jersey – 30,631 votes; and Alaska – 1,095 votes) from Nixon to Humphrey results in no electoral majority, throwing the election into the House.

1976: Another close one. Carter wins the popular vote over Ford by 40,831,881 to 39,148,634 and the electoral vote by 297 to 240. The what if? Move 5,559 votes in Ohio and 17,624 votes in Wisconsin from Carter to Ford and he wins the election. (Note that there’s a missing electoral vote. That’s because one Washington State elector cast a vote for Reagan rather than Ford.)

2000: A real close one. Gore wins the popular vote by 51,003,926 to 50,460,110 and the electoral vote by 291 to 246, with the District of Columbia elector (in principle for Gore) abstaining from voting. As for the what if, a tiny change in Florida’s popular vote gives the electoral vote to Bush.

What? Bush actually won the Florida popular vote? But then he would win the electoral vote 271 to 266. He did? But then he would have won the election. He did? Really? The Supreme Court said so? Um. Gosh. What about the House?

I better re-read the Constitution.

Categories: History, Politics
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