28 October 2012

The closest Elections - including 3 electoral backfires




There is a lot of chatter out there in the blogosphere about Romney perhaps winning in the Popular Vote but losing in the electoral college. 

We don't need to look any farther back than 12 years to know that an "electoral backfire" of this type is possible. Here is a chart of the fourteen closest elections in our Union's history, by popular vote, sorted in ascending order of winning percentage margin. Only one of those elections, 1844, was from the time before the GOP had become a National Party (out of the remnants of the Whig and Free Soil parties) in 1856.

This chart will probably surprise many:



Year
DEM %
GOP %
Other %
Margin %
DEM EC / %
GOP EC / %
EC Margin / Margin %
NPV winner
EC winner
1880
48.22%
48.31%
3.47%
GOP +0.10%
155 / 42.0%
214 / 58.0%
GOP +59 / GOP +16.0%
Garfield
Garfield
1960
49.72%
49.55%
0.74%
DEM +0.16%
303 / 56.4%
219 / 40.8%
DEM + 84 / DEM +15.6%
Kennedy
Kennedy
2000
48.38%
47.87%
4.25%
DEM +0.52%
266 / 49.4%
271 / 50.4%
GOP +5 / GOP +1.0%
Gore
Bush, Jr.
1884
48.84%
48.25%
2.87%
DEM +0.57%
219 / 54.6%
182 / 45.4%
DEM + 37 / DEM +9.2%
Cleveland
Cleveland
1968
42.72%
43.42%
13.86%
GOP +0.70%
191 / 35.5%
301 / 55.9%
GOP +59 / GOP +20.4%
Nixon
Nixon
1888
48.63%
47.80%
3.57%
DEM +0.83%
168 / 41.9%
233 / 58.1%
GOP +65 / GOP +16.2%
Cleveland
Harrison
1844
49.54%
48.09%
2.37%
DEM +1.45%
170 / 61.8%
105 / 38.2%
DEM +65 / DEM +23.6%
Polk
Polk
1976
50.08%
48.02%
1.90%
DEM +2.06%
297 / 55.2%
240 / 44.6%
DEM + 57 / DEM +10.6%
Carter
Carter
2004
48.27%
50.73%
1.00%
GOP +2.46%
252 / 46.7%
286 / 53.2%
GOP +34 / GOP +6.5%
Bush
Bush
1876
50.92%
47.92%
1.16%
DEM +3.00%
184 / 49.9%
185 / 50.1%
GOP +1 / GOP +0.2%
Tilden
Hayes
1892
46.02%
43.01%
10.97%
DEM +3.01%
277 / 62.4%
145 / 34.7%
DEM + 132/ DEM +27.7%
Cleveland
Cleveland
1916
49.24%
46.12%
4.64%
DEM +3.12%
277 / 52.2%
254 / 47.8%
DEM + 23 / DEM +4.4%
Wilson
Wilson
1896
46.71%
51.02%
2.27%
GOP +4.31%
176 / 39.4%
271 / 60.6%
GOP +95 / GOP +21.4%
McKinley
McKinley
1948
49.55%
45.07%
5.38%
DEM +4.48%
303 / 57.1%
189 / 35.6%
DEM + 114 / DEM +21.5%
Truman
Truman

The closest election we ever had in the popular vote, in 1880, between Republican James Garfield and Democrat Winfield Hancock, was won by +0.10% margin, but Garfield easily swept the electoral college. A lot of people want to say that the Kennedy/Nixon election of 1960 was the closest of all time, but it was not. It was in 1880.

I went up to 1948 for two reasons:

1.) it rounds off the list of all elections won by a margin of less than 5%.
2.) 1948 was the historic election where everyone thought Harry Truman would lose, and he did not. Which mean that pollsters and pundits were off by about 4.5 points.

So, the fourteen closest elections of all time were won with between +0.10 and +4.48%, but the general spread in the EC has been most pretty even. In nine of these fourteen close elections, the EC spread was +15% or more for the candidate who won in the EC.

Please note that every election from 1876-1896 (6 cycles in a row) is on this list. This period of time, known as the "Gilded Age", right in the middle of Reconstruction following the Civil War, was a period of very tight national elections, but still mostly to the benefit of the Republican party. Because of this, the name Grover Cleveland appears on this list 3 times, for he ran three times and lost the middle election in, you guessed it - an electoral backfire.

1888



In 1888, incumbent President Grover Cleveland (D) won in the popular vote against Republican challenger Benjamin Harrison (the grandson of William Henry Harrison, our 9th President, who served all of one month in office) by +0.83%, but Harrison easily won in the Electoral College, 233 / 168, by +65 EV (+16.5%). An interesting point here is that the margins for Harrison in the states that he won in 1888 were never really in doubt, and of the 20 states that Harrison carried in 1988, he carried 17 with more than +2.50% in margin. However, Harrison carried his home state of Indiana by only +0.44% and he carried the big swing state of New York (36 EV at that time, the largest prize in the Electoral College) by only +1.08%. If only 7,200 voters had voted differently in New York in 1888, then Cleveland would have been re-elected. But there were no challenges.

 In 1892, Cleveland came back and unseated Harrison, this time without an electoral backfire.

The other two electoral backfires did indeed have challenges, and not surprisingly, Florida was involved in both of them. But other than that one fact, these two electoral backfires could not be more different from each other:

2000




The drama of 2000 is still clear to most people, where then Vice-President Al Gore won in the Popular Vote by 0.52% but lost in the Electoral College to George W. Bush, Jr, 266 / 271, after 36 days of vote recounting in Florida and a Supreme Court decision to halt all further recounts. But if you think 2000 was bitter, it was a walk in the park compared to 1876.

1876



In 1876, for the first time since the reunification of the Republic following the all-too bloody Civil War, the Democrats seemed to have a real winner in Samuel Tilden. On election day, Tilden won in the popular vote by more than +3.00%, a clear win, but in three southern states (FL, LA and SC) plus in OR, both parties claimed that their man won the contest, so both slates of electors were called into question. For months, the total in the EC stood at Tilden 184 / Hayes 165, contested 20. Purely along party lines in all three states, the Republican state legislatures voted to accept the Republican electors. This caused a massive uproar that lasted almost three months and the cry of "Tilden, or blood!" was heard throughout the land. Only after a deal was struck whereby Hayes promised to SLOW DOWN reconstruction of the South by removing former Union troops from those states did Tilden acquiesce and allow Hayes to win in the EC, 185/184. He also accepted the vote tallies that the four states finally did send in, which made his PV winning margin +3.00%.

 One little known detail of all of this was that Colorado did not select its electors by popular vote in the election of 1876, but rather, its three electors were selected by the state legislature.

This electoral backfire is the only one in our history where the guy who lost won a majority win (over 50%) in the popular vote. It is also the closest EC win in our history: Hayes +1 Elector.

In between these extremes were a number of elections that were quite close -or at least felt pretty close - in the national popular vote, but in the EC, was a disproportionate landslide for the winner.

But there is one statistic that runs through this alot: a number between 297-303.

In 1948, 1960, 1968 and 1976 - all close elections, the winner came out with between 297-303 electors:

Truman (1948) / Kennedy (1960) : 303 EV
Nixon (1968) - 301 EV
Carter (1976) - 297 EV

So, we have the four of the six closest elections (2000, 2004 are the other two) since the beginning of the Nuclear Age where the winner of said close election was right around the 300 EV mark. This is an important detail, I think.

Right now, in 2012, if the statistics hold, then Obama is on track to win 303 electors, in spite of a close election. If this happens, then this will be the fifth time in 64 years where the winner of a close election landed around 300 EV.

There is yet another pattern that has developed over time:

Of the 14 closest elections:

2 were in the +0.10%-0.20% zone (1880, 1960) - 80 year spread
2 were in the +0.50%-0.60% zone (1884, 2000) - 116 year spread
2 were in the +0.70%-0.80% zone (1888, 1968 ) - 80 year spread
2 were in the +2.00% - +2.50% zone (1976, 2004) - 28 year spread
2 were in the +4 zone (1896, 1948) - 52 year spread

As you can see, most of these statistics have appeared in "2s"
-----------------------------------------------

3 were in the +3 to +3.50 zone (1876, 1892, 1916) - 16, then 24 year spread.

Only one election has been in the +1 zone: 1844, Polk, before the advent of the Republican party.

Were it to happen, a +1 win for either Romney or Obama would make a really new statistic under the "squeaker" elections in our history.

So, based on our electoral history of close elections and electoral "backfires", it is entirely possible for one candidate to win the popular vote, the other to win in the EC, and that up to at least +0.52% for the winning candidate in the popular vote. I think that the chances of 1876 repeating itself are nil. But a win of maybe +1 to +1.5 with the other guy winning in the Electoral College is entirely possible.

One more detail: up till now, in all three electoral backfires since the advent of the GOP, it has always been the Democrat who won in the PV, but lost in the EC. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Constructive comments and critique are always welcome. Please keep it polite and respectful.