Who Really Elects The Presidents?

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In the aftermath of the 1972 election we believe professional politicians might find the thoughtful essay that follows worth a little study; it might save them time and money in 1976. The author, Mr. Marshman, a former journalist with Life and a sometime screenwriter, has been a successful advertising man for a good many years and is currently with the D’Arcy-MacManus & Masius agency. As good ad men must be, he is a student of people in the mass. It is some proof of his conclusions that, with superb confidence, he sent us this piece before the November election and found it unnecessary to change a word afterward. —The Editors

Each United States Presidential election seems to hit a new high of something or other, and 1972’s was no exception: the longest and most gruelling series of primaries ever; the raising and spending of unnumbered millions in campaign funds; vituperation that likened the President of the United States to Adolf Hitler and accused his opponent of seeking to run up the white flag of surrender to the country’s enemies.

There were more polls, more panel shows, and more appeals to pressure groups than ever before. The delineation of real or imaginary campaign issues transcended the calculated to approach the Jesuitical. Yet the expected happened: Nixon was reelected by a huge margin, and even the most fanatical McGovernites seem to think that the country will somehow survive.

So—what did it all prove? Did the hoopla and the ads and the dirty work really make a difference, or are they mostly noisy distractions surrounding abrief and private event—the action of the citizen in the voting booth— which, in truth, they influence very little?

These questions are asked after every Presidential election, of course. The answers—particularized in terms of that year’s candidates and issues—always seem to support the idea that frantic electioneering pays off. And the elections themselves grow ever more grand and gross. But once we raise our sights from individual elections and look at many in perspective, patterns emerge that support a different view of what factors are critical to winning.

For example, regardless of how closely our Presidential elections may be contested, they almost always result in clear-cut, unarguable victories. I n the last twenty elections (1896 to 1972, inclusive) on fifteen occasions the winning candidate has won by a decisive margin—that is, by at least 10 per cent more popular votes than the number received by the candidate who lost, a difference that regularly results in electoral-vote victories on a scale of 2 to 1, 3 to 1, or even more.

Of the five “close” elections two were won by popular-vote margins of more than 9 per cent: McKinley over Bryan in 1896 and Truman over Dewey in 1948. Though the former was an extraordinarily tense election and the latter one of the great surprise victories in American political history, neither can remotely be called a squeaker, especially since in both cases a healthy electoral-vote margin substantiated the popular vote.

Probably the most famous close election was Wilson over Hughes in 1916. Even then, however, Wilson ended up with a popular-vote margin of almost 7 per cent, though for once the electoral-college vote was so close that a single state, California, which Hughes was expected to carry and Wilson won by a whisker, made the ultimate difference.

In popular-vote terms the two closest elections have both been recent: Kennedy over Nixon in 1960 (a margin of less than one half of i per cent) and Nixon over Humphrey in 1968 (less than 2 per cent). Owing to third-party candidates both victors entered office as minority Presidents, and Nixon’s 43.4 per cent of the popular vote in 1968 was one of the lowest ever recorded for a winner.

After this unimpressive showing to have won re-election in one of the greatest of United States Presidential landslides appears a tremendous achievement, especially for a candidate notably lacking in personal popularity. In historical perspective, however, Nixon’s triumph of last November seems somewhat less remarkable.

In seven of the last twenty elections the voters have been faced with essentially the same choice as in 1972: an incumbent President running against the candidate of the party that four years earlier had lost the White House. In all seven instances the incumbent President won: 1900 (McKinley over Bryan for the second time), 1916 (Wilson over Hughes), 1924 (Coolidge over Davis), 1936 (Franklin Roosevelt over Landon), 1956 (Eisenhower over Stevenson), 1964 (Johnson over Gold water), as well as 1972.

Not only did the incumbents all win, but six of the seven increased their party’s popular-vote margin over what it had been in winning the White House four years previously—excluding only Wilson, in the squeaker election of 1916. And five of the seven victories, the exceptions being 1900 and 1916, were of landslide proportions.

Added evidence of the electoral strength of incumbents comes from their overall record. Sitting Presidents have run to succeed themselves in thirteen of the last twenty elections (the seven already referred to, plus 1904, 1912, 1932, 1940, 1944, and 1948). They have won eleven times and lost only twice.