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November 2020


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U.S. Census Bureau History: Election Surprises

Samuel Tilden Political Poster

American electoral history is filled with surprises, and many people are shocked to
learn that the candidate who wins the popular vote does not always become president.
For example, in 1876, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote to
Democrat Samuel J. Tilden (pictured above with running mate Thomas A. Hendricks)
by 3 percent, but won the presidency by one electoral vote.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

This month Americans are casting ballots to vote for the candidate they believe should be elected President of the United States for the next 4 years. Although the 2020 presidential election poses unique challenges, voters may be surprised to learn that our nation's democratic process is filled with surprising outcomes, unpredictable candidates, bitter disagreements, and intriguing decisions. Whether your preferred candidate wins or loses, our democratic process remains an example for free nations around the world and can be an exciting process for all Americans who participate.

When the United States prepared to elect its first president, no other candidate was more respected than the immensely popular American Revolutionary War General George Washington. In both the 1789 Link to a non-federal Web site and 1792 presidential elections, Washington earned 100 percent of the electoral vote. However, in the presidential elections that followed, rivalries, disagreements, and differing ideas about the direction our nation should follow frequently led to bitterly contested votes and surprising outcomes.

Some of the United States' greatest statesmen, dominating personalities, and eloquent orators lost heartbreaking elections that took days or weeks to finally decide. For example, Declaration of Independence author Thomas Jefferson lost the 1796 election to John Adams before he was elected president in 1800 and reelected in 1804. In 1824, Andrew Jackson won more of the popular and electoral college votes than other candidates, but lacked a majority. The House of Representatives chose John Quincy Adams as president. Jackson returned 4 years later to defeat Adams in 1828, and won a landslide victory against Henry Clay in 1832. William Jennings Bryant lost the 1896 and 1900 presidential elections to William McKinley and the 1908 contest to William H. Taft despite being one of the most skilled debaters and passionate orators in American history. Four decades later, Harry S. Truman surprised many Americans—including Republic challenger Thomas E. Dewey and analysts at the Chicago Tribune (see photo below)—to win the 1948 presidential election. More recently, incumbent President George H.W. Bush lost the 1992 presidential election despite a 91 percent approval rating 1 year earlier following the United States' Operation Desert Storm victory.

If more than 230 years of politics in the United States and the examples provided below can teach us anything, it is that a single vote can make a huge difference in national, state, or local politics.. Political contests have been nail-biting, head-scratching, drama-filled events since our nation's founding and will continue to thrill and excite the American electorate. You can learn more about some of our nation's fascinating candidates and election surprises using census data and records.

  • Controversial presidential elections are not a recent phenomena. The outcome of the 1800 presidential election was so ardently contested that it was decided by the U.S. House of Representatives. The Democratic-Republican Party ticket of Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr won the popular vote against incumbent Federalist President John Adams and his running mate Charles C. Pinckney. However, Jefferson and Burr each received the same number of electoral votes to become president. Under these circumstances, the U.S. House of Representatives selected the president with the loser becoming vice president. After 35 tied House votes, a 36th vote finally elected Jefferson as president and Burr as vice president. In the election's aftermath, Congress passed and the states ratified the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requiring the electoral college to cast separate votes for president and vice president, thus ending the practice of awarding the presidency to the candidate with the most votes and vice-presidential title to the runner up.
  • Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to mount a campaign for president representing the Equal Rights Party in 1872 with Frederick Douglass as her vice-presidential running mate. Douglass refused to acknowledge the nomination and Woodhull was unable to vote for herself because she had been arrested the day before the election for publishing an "obscene" account of an affair between minister and social reformer Henry Ward Beecher and Brooklyn Women's Club founder Elizabeth Richards Tilton. Woodhull's Equal Rights Party won few votes and no electoral votes, but women's suffrage activists Susan B. Anthony and Virginia Minor gained notoriety attempting to vote in the election. The U.S. Supreme Court would eventually hear Minor's suit against the St. Louis, MO, registrar of voters, ruling that voting was not a privilege of citizenship on March 29, 1875 Link to a non-federal Web site. As a result, women's suffrage was not guaranteed until ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on August 18, 1920.
  • Splitting the Republican vote with Progressive "Bull Moose Party" candidate Theodore Roosevelt, President William H. Taft lost the 1912 presidential election to Democratic challenger Woodrow Wilson by the greatest margin of any incumbent president in U.S. history—receiving just 24 percent of the popular vote and 8 electoral college votes. In his characteristically optimistic concession, Taft stated that, "No one candidate was ever elected ex-President by such a large majority."
  • Eugene Debs was the Socialist Party of America candidate for president in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. During the 1912 election Debs received 6 percent of the popular vote, and in Florida, placed second behind Woodrow Wilson and ahead of the Republican candidate William H. Taft. Eight years later, Debs' candidacy earned the highest number of votes for a Socialist Party candidate—897,704—despite campaigning from the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, GA. Two years earlier, Debs had been found guilty of sedition following a June 16, 1918 speech in Canton, OH, that urged Americans to resist the military draft raising troops to fight in World War I. Debs was sentenced to 10 years and disenfranchised for life. President Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence to time served December 25, 1921.
  • The winner of some presidential elections have been decided by a very small number of popular and/or electoral votes and the candidate winning the most popular vote does not always become president. In the 1960 presidential election between John F. Kennedy (D) and Richard M. Nixon (R), Kennedy won the popular vote by just .17 percent. Nixon won 26 states compared to Kennedy's 22 state win, but Kennedy prevailed with 303 electoral votes. The 1876 presidential election was even closer with Republican Rutherford B. Hayes losing the popular vote to Democrat Samuel J. Tilden by 3 percent; however Hayes defeated Tilden by a single electoral vote to become president. More recently, Democratic candidate Al Gore lost the 2000 presidential election to Republican George W. Bush despite winning the popular vote by approximately 530,000 votes. In 2016, Republican Donald Trump won the electoral vote and presidency, but Democrat Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by approximately 2.8 million.
  • On July 1, 1971, the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, lowering the legal voting age from 21 to 18. The U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey estimated that there were more than 11.9 million 18- to 20-year-olds in the United States in 2019. If this age cohort voted as a group for a single candidate, they could have impacted the majority of presidential elections since the amendment's ratification. Only Richard Nixon (1972) and Ronald Reagan (1984) had popular vote margins exceeding 10 million since 18-year-olds began voting.
  • In the case of a tie, some elections have been decided by games of chance. Bryce Edgmon who represents the 37th Congressional District in Alaska's House of Representatives (which includes portions of the Kodiak Island Borough, Aleutians East Borough, Lake and Peninsula Borough, Bristol Bay Borough, and the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area) won the tied 2006 Democratic Primary by a September 25, 2006 coin toss. Similarly, a tied election in the 1990 Illinois House of Representatives Election between candidates in the state's 55th District was initially decided by a coin toss at Chicago, IL's State of Illinois Building, but the Illinois Supreme Court Link to a non-federal Web site later overturned the tie-breaking toss.
  • Every vote really does matter! A tied vote in the 1980 New Hampshire 16th District Republican Senate Primary could have been avoided if incumbent Frank Wageman had not been hospitalized and unable to cast a ballot. The tie was broken in Concord, NH, using numbered balls in a bottle. When Wageman's ball came out of the bottle first, he was declared the primary winner. (His challenger, Eleanor Podles returned in 1982 to defeat Wageman.) Other 1-vote elections included the 2010 race for the House of Representatives seat for Vermont's Windsor-Orange-1 District, the 1986 Vermont House of Representatives Chittenden 7-4 District election, and the 1982 New Hampshire Senate District 8 race.
  • Since 1964, only four elections saw more than 60 percent of the total voting age population cast its vote—the 1964 presidential election pitting Democratic incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson against Republican Barry Goldwater; the 1968 presidential election in which a popular vote margin of less than 1 percent elected Republican Richard M. Nixon over Democratic challenger Hubert Humphrey; the 1972 landslide victory of incumbent Richard M. Nixon over Democrat George McGovern; and the 1992 contest in which Democratic candidate William J. Clinton won the election with 43 percent of the popular vote against incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush and Independent candidate H. Ross Perot.
  • Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt won the 1936 presidential election with the greatest landslide victory in American history. Winning 60.8 percent of the popular vote and 523 (98.5 percent) of the electoral vote to defeat Republican challenger Alfred M. Landon. Forty-eight years later, President Ronald Reagan defeated Democratic candidate Walter Mondale with 58.8 percent of the popular vote and a record 525 (97.6 percent) of the electoral college votes.
  • "Third-party" candidates can disrupt elections and draw votes away from more popular candidates, but they have never won a presidential election in the United States. H. Ross Perot won 18.9 percent of the popular vote—a record for an Independent Party candidate—in the 1992 presidential election that saw Democrat William J. Clinton defeat incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush. Despite the strong showing at the polls, Perot did not receive any electoral college votes. Progressive Party candidate Theodore Roosevelt received 88 electoral votes in the 1912 presidential election against Woodrow Wilson and William H. Taft; Constitutional Democrat John C. Breckenridge won 72 electoral votes in 1860 against Abraham Lincoln, Democrat Stephen Douglas, and "fourth party" Constitutional Union candidate John Bell (who won 39 electoral votes); and American Independent candidate George Wallace won more than 9.9 million popular votes (13.5 percent) and 46 electoral college votes in the 1968 presidential election pitting him against Republican Richard M. Nixon and Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey.

Dewey Defeats Truman Newspaper

President Harry S. Truman holds a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune with the headline "Dewey Defeats Truman."

As voting results were reported late on election day November 2, 1948, the newspaper predicted that Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey would win the 1948 Presidential
Election
and began distributing the paper declaring Dewey the winner. Only after receiving late election results did it become clear that Truman would win a surprise victory
that has since been immortalized by photographs of newly reelected President Truman jubilantly holding the erroneous edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune.

Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute.




Voting Data


The U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey (CPS) collects data on reported voting and registration in election years and later provides data by turnout, age, race, and Hispanic origin.

In 2018, CPS data showed that 49 percent of the total U.S. population (nearly 122.3 million people) voted in the midterm election. During the 2016 presidential election, 56 percent (more than 137.5 million) of all Americans went to the polls.

Since the 1980s, women have voted more than men in nearly every election. In the 1980, and 1984 to 2018 elections, women's voting rates ranged from a high of 62.3 percent in 1992 (versus 60.2 percent of men), to a low of 39.6 percent in 2014 (versus 37.2 percent of men).




Voting Buttons
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Perennial Candidate


For more than 60 years, Republican politician Harold E. Stassen was the definition of a "perennial candidate"—a person who frequently, but often unsuccessfully seeks election to political office.

After serving as Minnesota's 25th governor from 1939 to 1943, Stassen unsuccessfully campaigned as a Republican candidate in 1948, 1952, 1964, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, and 1992 presidential primaries.

Between 1958 and 1990, he also unsuccessfully campaigned for terms as Governor of Pennsylvania; Mayor of Philadelphia, PA; U.S. Senator and Representative for Minnesota; and a return to the Minnesota's governor's office in 1982.

Despite his numerous election defeats, Stassen remained such a popular and well-respected politician that Minnesota named its St. Paul Department of Revenue headquarters for him in 1998.

Harold Stassen died in 2001, in Bloomington, MN.











Ford Swearing In Ceremony
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Did you know?


Gerald R. Ford is the only person to serve as vice president and president of the United States without a vote of the electoral college.

Following Vice President Spiro Agnew's resignation on October 10, 1973, Congress nominated Speaker of the House Gerald Ford to the vacant position and he was sworn into office on December 6, 1973.

In the wake of the Watergate Scandal, President Richard Nixon resigned from office on August 9, 1974. In accordance with the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Ford was was sworn in as the nation's 38th president.















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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: December 14, 2020