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So You Think Trump’s Victory Was an Outlier Because the Election Was so Close?

Many Americans in the recent Presidential Election of 2016 came to the conclusion that since they were unhappy with the choices of the two major political parties, that they would either stay home and not vote, or vote for a third party or independent nominee, and it would have no effect on the result. Clearly, that was a misconception, but not for the first time. In an even dozen elections the lax attitude toward voting, and often the impact of third parties determined the election of leaders who transformed American history in significant ways.

The first time we can see this happening is the Presidential Election of 1844, with Democrat James K. Polk defeating Whig nominee Henry Clay, due to the close election result in New York and Michigan, caused by the impact of the small Liberty Party and its nominee James G. Birney, which took enough votes (about 15,000 in New York and about 3,600 in Michigan) that Polk won. He snared New York by about 5,000 votes and Michigan by 3,400. Polk’s national popular vote lead was only about 39,000.

Four years later in 1848, Whig Zachary Taylor defeated Democrat Lewis Cass and Free Soil Party nominee Martin Van Buren, the former Democratic President from New York, who remained popular in his home state. Van Buren ended up second to Taylor, and in so doing, effectively gave the state to Taylor, with New York having the most electoral votes. Massachusetts and Vermont also had Van Buren end up second ahead of Cass, giving those states to Taylor as well, insuring Taylor’s victory.

The post Reconstruction years saw four straight elections in which very close, small margins decided the winner of the Presidency. In 1876 Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican nominee, was behind nationally in popular votes by about 250,000, but since three states in the South (Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida) were still under military occupation, they had contested results. A special Electoral Commission was set up, including five Congressmen, five US Senators, and five Supreme Court Justices. On a straight party line vote, 8-7, Hayes was chosen over Democrat Samuel Tilden, and therefore, had a one vote margin of 185-184.

In 1880, Republican James A. Garfield had only a 9,000 vote lead nationally over Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock, and won by only 20,000 votes in New York, which had it gone to Hancock, would have given Hancock the election in the Electoral College. Garfield also won by small margins in Indiana, Oregon, and Connecticut.

In 1884, Democrat Grover Cleveland won over Republican James G. Blaine, due to New York, Cleveland’s home state, which he won by only about 1,000 votes. Cleveland also won by close margins in Indiana, Connecticut, New Jersey, Virginia, and West Virginia, and only had a popular vote lead nationally of about 57,000.

In 1888, Republican Benjamin Harrison defeated President Cleveland, although Harrison lost the national popular vote by about 90,000. Harrison won New York, Cleveland’s home state, by about 15,000 votes, and his home state of Indiana by only about 2,000, and was also a narrow winner in California and Ohio. It was said that notoriously fraudulent balloting gave Harrison the victory in both New York and Indiana.

In 1916, Democratic President Woodrow Wilson defeated Republican Charles Evans Hughes by winning California’s crucial 13 electoral votes. His margin? Just 3,800 votes. Wilson also won New Hampshire by 56 votes, the smallest margin ever for any state in any election for President.

In 1948, Democratic President Harry Truman defeated Republican Thomas E. Dewey by winning small popular vote margins in Ohio, California, and Illinois, winning all three by less than one percent of the vote, along with Idaho and Nevada. Had Dewey won the first three states listed, he would have won the election in the Electoral College, even while losing the popular vote.

In 1960, Democrat John F. Kennedy defeated Republican Richard Nixon by winning very close races in Illinois and Texas, while only having a 112,000 popular vote lead nationally – two tenths of one percent of the total vote. Illinois was won by about 9,000 votes and Texas by 46,000 votes, and in both states, there were accusations of voter fraud. The influence of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and Organized Crime in that city was a major factor. Texas had a history of vote fraud; Lyndon B. Johnson won his first Senate race in Texas in 1948 by the grand total of 87 votes. Additionally, Delaware, Hawaii, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, and New Mexico were also very close races.

In 1976, Democrat Jimmy Carter defeated Republican President Gerald Ford by two percentage points nationally, but only won 23 states and 297 electoral votes. If there had been a switch of fewer than 7,000 votes in Hawaii and 11,000 votes in Ohio, Ford would have won and served a full term in the White House.

In 2000, Republican George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore due to the contested election results in Florida. After court actions in the Sunshine State and the intervention of the US Supreme Court a declaration of victory for Bush by 537 votes statewide was enough to give Bush 271 electoral votes, one more than the number needed to win. This was the second closest electoral vote ever, after 1876. Bush also won New Hampshire by the small margin of 7,000 votes, slightly more than one percent of the vote in that state. In both Florida and New Hampshire, Green Party nominee Ralph Nader won enough votes to take the states away from Gore; Patrick Buchanan, the Reform Party nominee, won about 4,000 “butterfly” ballots in Palm Beach County, Florida, with confusion by Gore voters as to the proper place to punch a hole in the ballot, therefore also affecting the electoral results in Florida.

Finally, in the Presidential Election of 2016, Republican Donald Trump won over Democrat Hillary Clinton, despite losing the popular vote to her by 2.85 million votes. This was the largest margin ever for a popular vote winner losing the Electoral College. Michigan was won by Trump by about 10,000 votes; Wisconsin by about 22,000 votes; and Pennsylvania by about 46,000 votes, with all three cases being less than one percent of the vote. About 79,000 votes out of 137 million decided the 45th President of the United States. So any thought that voting does not matter or has little effect was disproved yet again.