Consider the following scenario. Articles of impeachment are voted on in the House of Representatives against the President, who is acquitted in the Senate. This comes after a divisive war, which pitted political elites and their followers throughout the country against each other. Deeply resentful sectional differences continue to poison the political atmosphere. Then comes a disputed presidential contest, involving allegations of fraud and election stealing. The winner secures a slender victory in the Electoral College with fewer popular votes than the loser. Charges of treason and shady political deals accompany accusations of lying from one end of the country to another. To make matters worse, embittered partisans wave the bloody shirt against their defeated enemies… Wait a minute. What’s the bloody shirt have to do with anything? Easy: the above situation applies to the election of 1876, of course.
Two principle elements missing from this description include a crucial Supreme Court decision and angry partisans waving the hanging chad (or dimpled chad—take your choice). But similarities between what took place a century and a quarter ago and today are interesting and perhaps instructive. The impeached President in question was Andrew Jackson, who succeeded Lincoln after the Civil War. Regional bitterness burned the political landscape; one party accused the other of treason. And Rutherford B. Hayes became President only after a Congressional Commission awarded the Republican nominee the disputed electoral votes of four (not one) States. The Democratic nominee, Samuel J. Tilden, won the popular vote by 51% to 47.9%. Democrats screamed stolen election for decades afterwards and were particularly outraged when a Republican, James A. Garfield, won the next election. The difference in popular vote was miniscule: 48.3% to 48.2%. But, and here’s the kicker, the difference in Electoral College votes was considerably more: 214 to 155. In short, the election that took place after the notorious contest in 1876 was won with fewer than two thousand popular votes in a total of nearly nine million votes cast. Now that’s close.
It’s also highly unusual and not likely to be repeated, regardless of the steady drumbeat offered by pundits in this election season about how evenly divided the country is. Political commentators, like generals, tend to re-fight the last war; current or future contests offer too many uncertainties to be gauged with any confidence. Hence reliance upon the previous election, which remains fresh in the minds of activists throughout the country, especially those determined not to permit the past to repeat itself.
They may or may not be encouraged by another political fact. Incumbent presidents running for reelection have either won big or lost big, a pattern that offers no exceptions, at least in terms of Electoral College votes. Consider recent examples, starting with Eisenhower, who won handily over Adlai Stevenson in 1956. Next comes Lyndon Johnson, who buried Goldwater in one of the biggest landslides in American political history. Nixon won his re-election bid in 1972 over McGovern with little problem, and Jimmy Carter beat Ford by nearly sixty Electoral College votes in 1976, although the popular vote margin was not very great. Carter of course was swept away by Reagan in 1980, as was Walter Mondale in 1984. Bill Clinton beat his Republican opponents in 1992 and 1996, and neither election was close in either popular or Electoral College votes. In short, when incumbents run for re-election, probably the best predictor is a coin flip; but don’t expect that quarter to land on its edge. It’s either one way or the other.
Does that mean that the 2004 election won’t be a nailbiter? Of course, it’s possible; anything is possible, including an exact tie in Electoral College votes. Now, that really would be a nightmare! In fact, any scenario involving very close popular votes in the battleground states undoubtedly would generate bitter charges of election fraud and flood the country with lawyers. There would be lawsuits and counter-lawsuits, criminal investigations, judicial interference, and perhaps even the creation of a congressional commission to investigate the mess and render a decision.
Where does this leave us, then? Consider the following advice for both Democrats and Republicans. You should hope that your guy wins or loses by a significant margin in Electoral College votes, because perhaps we can all agree that the last thing this country needs is a repeat of the election of 2000.
Or, for that matter, the election of 1876.