Much was made over Hillary Clinton’s nearly 2.9-million-vote margin over Donald Trump in the 2017 presidential popular vote. But Donald Trump is far from the first person to have been elected president with less than a majority of Americans casting ballots.
In fact, since 1824, the first election in which the popular vote has been tallied, 19 of 49 presidential elections have been won by men with a plurality of the popular vote but not a majority. These “minority” presidents include Bill Clinton and Woodrow Wilson (both twice), Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush . . . and Abraham Lincoln. Trump’s win was only the fifth time that a president has actually lost the popular vote and still won the White House. Three other occasions were 1824 (John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson), 1888 (Benjamin Harrison over Grover Cleveland) and 2000 (George W. Bush over Al Gore).
However, only once in U.S. history has a candidate actually won not merely more votes than his or her opponents in a presidential election but a majority of all those cast and still lost the election. The election of 1876, which occurred in an atmosphere of corruption and intimidation, highlighted the absolute worst of partisan politics and proved a mockery of the democracy so hallowed by the founders of the republic.
The administration of Civil War hero Ulysses Grant (1869-77) had been rife with corruption, but he seriously considered running for a third term before an overwhelming resolution against it in the House of Representatives forced him to reconsider. Delegates to the Republican convention in 1876 leaned heavily toward Maine Sen. James G. Blaine through the first six ballots suddenly swung toward Ohio Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes, 384-351 on the seventh. Hayes was scarcely known outside his home state, and his primary attraction was that he was not attached to scandal. Democrats easily picked New York Gov. Samuel J. Tilden, who as state Democratic chairman gathered much of the evidence against Tammany Hall that helped break up the “Tweed Ring” in 1871.
Reconstruction had ridden herd on the Confederate states since the end of the Civil War, but Red Shirts and White Riders used intimidation during the election to suppress the vote of former slaves for Republican candidates. At the end of balloting, Tilden had clearly won the popular vote by roughly a quarter-million votes and led in the Electoral College, 184-165. However, twenty electoral votes in Florida (4), Louisiana (8), South Carolina (7) and Oregon (3) were in dispute. In the trio of Southern states, both parties claimed victory.
Who counted the Electoral College ballots was subject to interpretation that precipitated a constitutional crisis. A compromise put the decision in the hands of a 15-member commission that included Republicans, Democrats and five members of the U.S. Supreme Court. After the Illinois legislature chose one of the commission justices to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate, and he accepted, a replacement was named to the commission, which voted 8-7 along party lines in a series of rulings favoring Hayes in every state controversy.
A continuing crisis was averted after Democrats, meeting behind closed doors, agreed to accept the tight result in exchange for infrastructure improvements in the South – many of which never took place – and the reinstatement of home rule in the old Confederacy. The Compromise of 1877 effectively ended Reconstruction – and brought in the era of Jim Crow.
Modernists might say, with legitimacy, that Hayes would have won those Deep South states in a fair election in which terror and intimidation did not keep the black vote at bay. Arguably, too, historians might claim with a likelihood of truth that Tilden won all three of the Confederate states and Hayes won Oregon, which would have resulted in a 201-168 Electoral College victory for Tilden. As it was, Hayes won the election in a 185-184 squeaker, thanks to a decision not entirely unlike the Supreme Court 5-4 vote that halted vote counting in Florida in 2000 and decided the election for “minority” President George W. Bush.
The whole concept of the Electoral College is again under attack. Many believe it is a relic of a colonial past in which states considered themselves, not the nation, to be sovereign and each refused to yield its prerogative as an equal in the newly United States of America. Others believe that the Electoral College effectively disenfranchises the tens of millions of Americans who vote in the minorities of their respective states and discourages millions more from taking part in elections altogether.
If the travesties of 1876 do not convince, however, two other presidential elections might serve as exemplars of the lopsided nature of the Electoral College. In 1968 Nixon won little more than 43% of the popular vote but garnered nearly 56% of the electors. In 1992 Clinton got an even smaller portion of the popular vote but almost 69% of the electors: one man a Republic, one a Democrat. Is it really the partisanship that keeps Americans from tearing down this artifice, or is it merely conventionality and our provincial nature?
“The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876.” Digital History ID 3109. 2016. Acquired 13 April, 2017. http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=2&psid=3109
“Samuel Tilden Biography.” National Park Service online. Gateway National Park.
https://www.nps.gov/gate/learn/historyculture/samuel-tilden-biography.htm Acquired 13 April, 2017.
“United States Presidential Election, 1876.” Wikipedia. August 2010. Acquired 13 April, 2017.
Wormser, Richard. “Hayes-Tilden Election, 1876.” Public Broadcasting System. “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow: Events.” http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_election.html. Acquired 13 April, 2017.