US history

Contested presidential contests

That was then (March 4, 1825, 1877 and 1889)

Until the Twentieth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified on January 23, 1933, the inauguration of the President took place on March 4 in the year after the November presidential election, which always takes place in a leap year. Three times in the nineteenth century, Presidents were inaugurated who had been elected despite the fact that an opponent had received more popular votes. In each of those cases the circumstances were different.

The election of 1824

The election of 1824 differed from elections in subsequent years in that there were four candidates, each of them affiliated with the same political party, the Democratic-Republican Party. The four candidates were Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and William H. Crawford. Jackson won the popular vote with 152,901, followed by Adams with 114,023, Clay with 47,217 and Crawford with 46,979. The electoral college results gave Jackson 99 votes, Adams 84, Crawford 41, and Clay 37. The Constitution stipulates that to be declared winner of the election, a candidate must receive a majority of the electoral votes. Although Jackson had more of the popular votes and more electoral college votes, he was thirty-two votes short of the required majority. The Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution, adopted on June 15, 1804 specifies that if no candidate receives the requisite majority of electoral votes, then the House of Representatives has the responsibility of electing the President:

The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President.

Clay, who had the fewest electoral college votes was eliminated from the ballot that the House voted on. Each State was given one vote in this special election. Votes were cast on February 9, 1825. John Quincy Adams won by one vote and so was inaugurated on March 4, 1825. Andrew Jackson, bitter at having lost the election despite having had the most votes in both the popular election and the electoral college vote, left the Democratic-Republican Party and formed a new party, the Democratic Party. In 1888, Jackson, running as the first Democratic candidate for President, defeated Adams by a substantial margin in a bitterly fought election during which Jackson’s opponents nicknamed him Jackass. Rather than regarding the nickname as an insult, Jackson loved it so much that he adopted the jackass as a campaign symbol; later on the Democratic Party adopted the donkey as its official symbol.

The election of 1876

The election of 1876 was a contest between the Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, the former governor of New York, and the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, former governor of Ohio and before that Representative of Ohio in the House. Tilden won the popular vote with 4,288,546 to Hayes’s 4,034,311. Tilden also won more electoral votes, receiving 184 to Hayes’s 165. Because the electoral votes of Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and Oregon could not be counted for various reasons, Tilden’s 184 electoral votes fell one vote short of the required majority. At that time, Union troops were still stationed in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina as part of the Reconstruction following the American civil war, which had ended eleven years earlier. Those three states struck a bargain that was never written down, the terms of which were that they would cast their electoral votes for Hayes if the Republican government would agree to withdraw all Union troops from those states, the only states of the former Confederacy in which Union troops were still stationed as what the Southern States saw as an occupying force. Moreover, the Southern States asked that in exchange for their votes for Hayes, the Republican cabinet would have at least one member from one of the former states of the Confederate States of America. If these demands were not met, then the Southern States as a bloc would filibuster when the results of the House vote was sent to the Senate for confirmation. In what came to be called the Compromise of 1877, the conditions were agreed to, and the twenty electoral votes that had been disputed were all awarded to Hayes, which made the electoral vote 185 to 184. It is impossible for an electoral vote to be any closer and still decisive—a tie vote would result in the House electing the new President—so this remains the narrowest electoral college victory on record. The results of this election proved disastrous for African Americans in the South, since it empowered the Southern Democrats, who went on to work aggressively to disenfranchise black voters and to put into place discriminative legislation that came to be known as Jim Crow laws. African American voters throughout the United States felt betrayed by the Republican Party, the Party of Abraham Lincoln, the party that had freed them from slavery.

So great was the hostility toward Hayes as his inauguration approached that there were threats of an armed insurrection on March 4, 1877. His predecessor, President Ulysses S. Grant, tightened security and brought in troops to discourage disruptions. The inauguration went smoothly and peacefully, but many Democrats refused to acknowledge Hayes as a legitimate President and for the entire time he was in office nicknamed him Rutherfraud and referred to him as His Fraudulency. To this day, the election of 1876 is probably the most controversial presidential election in the history of the United States. Like John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes served only one term before being defeated by fellow Republican James Garfield in the 188o Republican Party convention. Unlike Adams, he was not given a chance by his party to run for a second term in office. To this day, Tilden remains the only presidential candidate to get more than 50% of the popular vote and to lose the election nevertheless.

The election of 1888

In 1884, the Democratic Grover Cleveland of New York was elected by a narrow margin over his Republican opponent,  James G. Blaine of Maine. His victory is credited to a substantial number of reform-minded Republicans voting for the Democratic candidate rather than for their own party’s candidate. These Republicans, who were jocularly known as Mugwumps, derived from a word meaning “big shot” in one of the Algonquian languages. Their dissatisfaction with Blaine stemmed from their associating him with the corruption that was at that time rife in the Republican Party, especially in New York.

When Cleveland ran for re-election in 1888, his opponent was Benjamin Harrison, grandson of the ninth President of the United States, William Henry Harrison, who served as President for only one month before dying of pneumonia. (It is said that W.H. Harrison gave the longest inaugural address of any President, and then he served the shortest time.) In the election of 1888, although he won the popular vote by getting 5,534,488 to Benjamin Harrison’s 5,443,892, Cleveland lost the electoral college vote. Harrison got 233 votes to Cleveland’s 168. Although Harrison received only 47.80% of the popular vote, he was awarded 58.10% of the electoral votes. Like his two predecessors who had won the Presidential election despite losing the popular vote, Harrison served only one term before being defeated. His opponent in 1892 was Grover Cleveland again, who this time won both the popular vote and the electoral college vote by comfortable margins and thus became the only President in United States history to serve two non-consecutive terms, being both the 22nd and the 24th US President.

This is now (January 20, 2001 and 2017)
The election of 2000

As was mentioned above, the Twentieth Amendment changed Inauguration Day for the President from March 4 to January 20. In 1937, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first president to be inaugurated on that date. Sixty-four years later, on January 20, 2001, George Walker Bush was sworn in as 43rd President of the United States after a controversial election victory over his opponents, Albert Gore (Democratic Party), Ralph Nader (Green Party), Pat Buchanan (Reform Party), Harry Browne (Libertarian Party), Howard Phillips (Constitution Party) and John Hagelin (Natural Law Party). Gore received 51,009,810 votes to Bush’s 50,462,412 and Nader’s 2,882,955. The remaining candidates together received the remaining 1% of the popular votes. Despite Gore’s getting a plurality of the popular vote with 48.38% of the total votes cast, Bush won the electoral vote by a narrow margin of 271 to 266, none of the other candidates receiving any electoral college votes. Unlike the three previous Presidents who had won the election despite not winning the popular vote, George W. Bush was successful in his bid for re-election. In 2004 he won 50.73% of the popular vote and received 286 electoral votes to Democratic candidate John Kerry’s 251.

The election of 2016

On January 20, 2017, Republican Donald J. Trump was sworn in as President after winning a surprise electoral college victory over his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Clinton won 48.03% of the popular vote with 65,853,625, while Trump came in second with 62,985,106 votes (45.94%). Two other candidates who got over one million votes were Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson (3.27% with 4,489,233) and Green Party candidate Jill Stein (1.06% with 1,457,222). When the electoral votes were counted, Trump received 304 of the 306 pledged for him (two of the electoral college voters who had pledged for him, both from Texas, voting for Republicans other than Trump) to Clinton’s 227.

Concluding observation

If one looks at how various pollsters and historians have ranked the US Presidents, it appears that none of those who were sworn into office after losing the popular vote have had particularly stellar presidencies. Of the three 19th century Presidents in that category, the highest ranking is John Quincy Adams whose aggregated ranking places him in 21st place out of the forty-three Presidents who have been ranked. Hayes comes in 25th and Benjamin Harrison 29th. The 21st century President who was elected despite losing the popular vote, George W. Bush, is ranked 34th. Winning despite losing does not seem to be a formula for presidential success.

Author: Dayamati Richard Hayes

Jemez Springs, NM, USA

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