Who Really Elects The Presidents?

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Furthermore, each of the two losses occurred in highly extraordinary, even unique, circumstances. In 1912 the Republican Party was blown in two by a revolt against the incumbent President, Taft, led by his predecessor and one-time patron, Theodore Roosevelt. With Roosevelt running as a third-party candidate, the rivals divided the majority Republican vote, which permitted the Democrat, Wilson, to win with fewer popular votes (41.8 per cent) than any candidate had received since Lincoln’s 39.8 per cent in the four-candidate donnybrook of 1860, on the eve of the Civil War. (Nevertheless, Wilson’s electoral-vote margin was conclusive: more than 4 to 1.)

The only other loss by a Presidential incumbent was Hoover’s to Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, when the country was in the trough of the Great Depression and “Hoover” had become to millions almost a dirty word. The deeper significance of Hoover’s defeat, however, came from what happened afterward as Roosevelt, combining an unexpected capacity for innovative government with vast political skill, succeeded in securing a permanent hold on millions of the voters he had drawn away from their previous Republican allegiance and made the Democrats into the country’s majority party—probably the most significant single political occurrence in the United States since Appomattox.

The factor of party affiliation appears to be almost as important as incumbency in determining the outcome of a Presidential election. In the nine elections from 1896 through 1928, during the era of Republican ascendancy, Republican candidates won seven times, losing only in 1912, the year of party fratricide, and 1916, when the incumbent Wilson was narrowly re-elected.

In 1932, as we have seen, the Democrats became the majority party, and in the ten elections since (1936 through 1972) their candidates have won six times. Once again, however, extraordinary circumstances prevailed when they didn’t. In 1952 the immense stature and popularity of Eisenhower, combined with the onus of an unpopular war in Korea, turned the tables; and in 1956 an incumbent Eisenhower was easily re-elected. Twelve years later, in 1968, an unpopular war in Vietnam and the most successful third-party campaign since Theodore Roosevelt’s, by George Wallace, again hung an albatross around the Democrats’ neck. Even so, Humphrey almost beat Nixon—though he came much closer in popular vote than in electoral vote.

Thus, from the evidence of twenty sets of election returns covering a period of eighty years, it seems that American Presidents are elected according to a few very simple rules:

  1. 1. If an incumbent is running, he will win regardless of party.
  2. 2. If an incumbent is not running, the candidate of the majority party will win. These rules have failed to apply only four times in the last twenty elections: in 1912, 1932, 1952, and 1968. From these few exceptions a final rule emerges:
  3. 3. The first two rules will fail to apply only when an election is influenced by a disaster of enormous proportions: an unpopular war, a severe depression, or a party torn in two. In such cases those whom the voters consider responsible will be penalized and their opponents rewarded regardless of incumbency or party.

Seen in perspective, then—and despite the mighty events and massive changes that have affected the United States over the last eight decades—the pattern of Presidential election results has remained remarkably consistent. Is this happenstance, or buried somewhere in the election statistics may there be a reason why?

Consider the following:

The two most populous states, California and New York, elect their governors in non-Presidential years; in both states the governorship race draws more votes than any other statewide contest except the Presidential. In 1966 in California 6,503,000 votes were cast for governor; in 1970, 6,510,000. But in 1968 Californians cast 7,252,000 votes for the various candidates for President—11 per cent more than either governorship race attracted. In New York it was the same story: 6,006,000 votes for governor in 1966 and 6,095,000 in 1970, but 6,745,000 votes for President in 1968—again, about 11 per cent more.•

• Figures for the 1972 Presidential election are omitted as not comparable because they include the new eighteen-year-old vote and the recent dramatic rise in California’s population.

From these and similar findings in other states it is clear that Presidential elections regularly attract the votes of millions of people who simply don’t vote in other elections. These purely Presidential voters probably amount to around 10 per cent of all those who vote for a President—perhaps as many as 7,500,000 in 1968, for instance.

Ten per cent of the electorate is a lot. If a large proportion of this ioper cent were to vote one way, they could easily determine the result in a close election or turn a close race into a walkaway. Normally, of course, it could be assumed that no such thing would happen and that any group of voters numbering in the millions will divide up pretty much like everybody else. But purely Presidential voters, it turns out, aren’t like everybody else.