Despite predictions to the contrary, including the possibility that Mitt Romney might win the popular vote while Barack Obama won the electoral vote, the results went pretty well as they did in 41 of the previous elections, in which the winners won majorities in both the Electoral College and the popular vote.
President Obama won the popular vote by more than 2.5 million votes out of a total of 120 million, and the electoral vote rather handily, 332 to 206 (62 percent of the 538 total). Historically, as we shall see, that is a fairly high percentage.
George Washington was twice elected unanimously by the Electoral College, but he ran unopposed both times. In 1820, James Monroe won all but one electoral vote, which was cast for his opponent so Washington would be the only president to receive this honor.
Others who have come close in landslide elections, winning all but one or two states, are Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 (523-8), Richard Nixon in 1972 (520-17), and Ronald Reagan in 1984 (525-13).
A few presidents have had very small majorities of the popular vote. The smallest margin was in 1880, when James Garfield won the popular vote by a mere 1,898 votes out of 8.89 million, but won 58 percent of the electoral vote.
Other close popular votes were in 1844, when James K. Polk won by less than 39,490 out of 2.64 million, and won 62 percent of the electoral vote, and Grover Cleveland, in his first election in 1884, when he won the popular vote by 25,685 out of 9.72 million, and won 55 percent of the electoral vote.
In eight elections, the winner did not have a majority, but won only a plurality of the popular vote, because third-party candidates attracted significant numbers of votes. Abraham Lincoln won against three other candidates in 1860 in the divisiveness preceding the Civil War. Grover Cleveland won in 1892, running for a second time against Benjamin Harrison (to whom he had lost in 1888) and a Peoples Party candidate.
Harry Truman, in 1948, was opposed by Thomas Dewey and two third party candidates, Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace. Lincoln, Cleveland and Truman received 56 to 62 percent of the electoral vote.
And in 1912, Woodrow Wilson ran against incumbent William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, who split the vote so effectively that Wilson walked away with nearly 85 percent of the electoral vote.
Also in this group is Bill Clinton. He did not win a majority of the popular vote, due to the candidacy of Ross Perot and his protest Reform Party in both of his two elections, but won 69 percent of the electoral vote in 1992 and 71 percent in 1996.
There have been only five elections in which the winner of the popular vote did not win the electoral vote. In 1888, Grover Cleveland won 490,596 more popular votes than Benjamin Harrison, who received 58 percent of the electoral vote. And in 1960, Richard Nixon won 118,574 more popular votes than John F. Kennedy, who received 58 percent of the electoral vote.
The other three could be called "stolen" elections.
The most recent was the 2000 election in which Al Gore won 544,683 more popular votes than George W. Bush, but lost the electoral vote 271 to 266, when the Supreme Court stepped in and stopped the recount of disputed ballots in Florida while Bush was still ahead by 537 votes, giving him the state's 26 electoral votes.
In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes had 254,235 fewer popular votes than Samuel Tilden, and thought he had lost the election. But three southern states had submitted dual sets of electoral votes, so a 15-member electoral commission was appointed, which voted along party lines to award all of the disputed votes to Hayes, making him the winner by one electoral vote.
The most glaring case was the 1824 election, in which there were four candidates, all from the same party. Andrew Jackson won 151,271 popular votes and 99 electoral votes, and John Quincy Adams won 113,122 popular votes and 84 electoral votes, but because of the 78 electoral votes won by the other two candidates, no one had the required majority. Under the Constitution, the House of Representatives selects the president, and it picked Adams.
Incidentally, the election of 1800, in which Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr were tied, each with 73 electoral votes, also went to the House. After 35 tie votes, the House finally elected Jefferson.
Somehow we seem to manage, despite the vagaries of our presidential election process.
- "As I See It" appears on the first and third Thursdays of the month. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.