Most Presidential Elections
Produce a Clear Winner,
but 2000 Not the Only Tightly Contested Race
While the 2000 presidential election may be the most
thoroughly covered by the media, it is neither the closest in
history nor the contest requiring the longest to decide. But
it has similarities to another famous close election: the 1876
contest in which Florida played a role in electing a minority
The closest election occurred in 1800, when Aaron Burr
and Thomas Jefferson tied with 73 electoral votes each. The House
of Representatives chose Jefferson after deadlocking itself 19
The election requiring the longest to decide was the 1876
contest, when Rutherford Hayes was declared president over
popular vote winner Samuel Tilden the following March. The margin
of 185-184 occurred after weeks of political maneuvering, culminating
in a deal to remove the last federal troops from the South, ending
Tilden led in electoral votes, 184-165, with 20 votes still out,
including 19 from South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida, and
one from Oregon.
"The trouble began when Republican-dominated canvassing
boards threw out Democratic votes in South Carolina, Louisiana
and Florida," said Dr. John R. Mayfield, Samford history
department chair. "The Democrats sent theirs, and Congress
responded by establishing a 'bipartisan panel' of five senators,
five representatives and five Supreme Court justices, which of
course split 8-7 along party lines and gave the whole thing to
The decision could have been invalidated if both the House and
Senate rejected it. The House did so, but not the Senate.
"Southern Democrats said they wouldn't filibuster to prevent
Hayes from taking office in return for three things," said
Dr. Lee N. Allen, University historian. "The Republicans
agreed to remove the troops, give railroad subsidies for a southern
route to the Pacific and appoint a Southern Democrat to the Cabinet."
The troops were removed and Tennessean David Key was appointed
postmaster general, but the railroad subsidy never materialized,
What was the result of the 1876 outcome? "Hayes served one
unhappy term," said Mayfield.
Most presidential elections have returned clear winners. Democrat
Al Gore is only the third losing candidate to have a popular
majority against the winner, the others being Tilden and Grover
Cleveland against Benjamin Harrison in 1888.
But the nation has witnessed several other close races of note,
in addition to the elections of 2000, 1876 and 1800.
1824-Andrew Jackson gained 99 electoral votes, John Quincy
Adams 84, William Crawford 41 and Henry Clay 37. With no candidate
having the majority, the decision
went to the House of Representatives. Clay, the House speaker,
threw his support to Adams, who was elected. Adams then named
Clay secretary of state, and Jacksonians charged the two had
made a "corrupt bargain."
"There's no way to know for sure," said Mayfield. "We
know Adams and Clay hated each other, but both hated Andrew Jackson
1916-Four years earlier, Woodrow Wilson won when Teddy
Roosevelt ran on a third-party ticket and split the Republican
vote. Wilson ran for re-election, and the Republicans, trying
to reunite with Roosevelt's blessing, nominated Supreme Court
Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who ran a strong race, especially
on the East Coast. Hughes went to bed thinking he had won,
but a possible gaffe in California may have cost him the election.
"Hughes had passed California Governor Hiram Johnson [who
had been Roosevelt's 1912 vice-presidential candidate] in a public
building and, whether he meant to or not, failed to stop and
shake hands," said Allen. "Word got around, and it
was seen as a snub."
Hughes lost California by about 4,000 votes, and with it, the
1960-Richard Nixon, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower's
vice president, opposed John Kennedy in the campaign that introduced
televised presidential debates. The popular vote was close, with
a difference of about 120,000 out of 68 million cast. Nixon at
first challenged the count, but quickly dropped his protest.
The electoral count was 303-219, but a change in New York's 45
votes would have given Nixon the White House.
Ironically, many felt Eisenhower-who had served since 1952-could
have won a third term, had the Republicans earlier not pushed
through the 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to two terms.