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Gilbert: Electoral Effect

10/23/12 5:55PM By Peter Gilbert
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(Host) With the presidential election fast approaching, commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert took a look at previous elections. There he found some landslides, some extremely close races, and some very interesting stories.

(Gilbert) From historian James McPherson's history of the American presidents it's clear that presidential elections make for great stories - like 1872, when one of the two candidates died after the election but before the Electoral College met. Fortunately for the country if not for him, the deceased was Horace Greeley, the losing candidate. His Electoral College votes were divided among several people, and President Grant was easily reelected.

The greatest presidential landslide was 1964 when Johnson defeated Goldwater with 61.1% of the vote. Nixon came close to that in 1972, winning 60.7% of the vote against McGovern.

Close elections included 1880, when James Garfield beat Winfield Hancock by fewer than 2,000 votes out of nine million; that's two one-thousandths of one percent.

Four years later, Democrat Grover Cleveland took New York by just a thousand votes to beat Republican James Blaine, thanks to a Republican political attack that backfired. Republicans called Democrats the party of "rum, Romanism, and rebellion." Catholics and others were outraged, and the Republican lost.

But four times in our history the popular vote didn't decide the election at all. You might say that the greater the gap between the more popular loser and the winner, the greater offense to the will of the majority. Perhaps by coincidence, that offense diminished over the course of those four elections, at least numerically. In 1824 John Quincy Adams was elected by the House of Representatives after losing the popular vote to Andrew Jackson by an impressive ten percent. But in what some called the "corrupt bargain," one of the other candidates in the four-way race, Henry Clay, threw his support behind Adams, Adams won and Clay became Secretary of State. In the infamous 1876 election between Hayes and Tilden, Tilden got three percent more votes than Hayes, but lost. In 1888, when President Grover Cleveland ran for reelection, he received eight-tenths of one percent more votes than Benjamin Harrison but lost. And in 2000, Gore received a half of one percent more votes than Bush (that's about 544,000 more votes), but lost. You need 270 electoral votes to win; Bush won with 271.

When the Electoral College produces a tie, as it did in 1824, the election goes to the House; there each state gets one vote. While unlikely, there are a number of scenarios in which Obama and Romney end up in an Electoral College tie. In that case, it's likely the new Congress would choose Romney to be president.

But there's no guarantee that the 538 electors will vote for the candidate they're supposed to. Only about half the states have laws requiring them to do so. If there were a 269-269 Electoral College tie and one elector switched his or her vote to the other candidate, that candidate would have a 270-268 victory. Just imagine the firestorm.

Whatever the outcome this Election night, it'll be history in the making.

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