Every four years, the United States is engulfed in election fever. For the entire year, we watch Presidential candidates from both major parties get narrowed down to just two choices.
Then those two campaigns duke out for the big prize — The White House.
Election year starts with a buzz that gradually grows into a crescendo on election night. Sometimes these Presidential races can get very nasty and downright entertaining.
This is especially true when the election is very close. Here are the eight (8) closest Presidential elections in United States History — from the widest among them to the narrowest.
1880: James Garfield (R) vs Winfield Hancock (D)
President Garfield won by 59 electoral votes
The election of 1880 was a fight over tariffs — as was typical during those times. Republicans believed in strong tariffs to protect American businesses from competition in the world market. Conversely, Democrats preferred more relaxed tariffs.
This was an open race since President Hayes refused to seek a second term. Garfield tallied the most electoral votes and won 214 to 155.
However, this victory was the narrowest in history among winning Presidents that won the popular vote. Garfield edged Hancock by less than 10,000 in the popular vote.
1888: Benjamin Harrison (D) vs Grover Cleveland (R)
President Harrison won by 37 electoral votes
The election of 1888 was a straight forward hard-fought race. Harrison made no political bargains with anyone, yet he received countless pledges from supporters.
One exciting aspect of this election was that Cleveland switched political parties. While Cleveland won the popular vote by less than 100,000 votes, Harrison won the battle of electoral votes 233 to 168.
1884: Grover Cleveland (D) vs James Blaine (R)
President Cleveland won by 37 electoral votes
While the major issue for Americans during the 1884 election was tariffs, that topic quickly took a back seat to bitterness and mudslinging. These two candidates got very hostile toward one another.
It was discovered that some 10 years earlier, Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock with his mistress. The Republicans were relentless in their attacks on the morals of Cleveland. Ultimately, it came down to one last state — New York.
Cleveland managed to win New York by less than 1200 votes and became President. He was the first Democrat to win the Presidency in the Post-Civil War era.
1848: Zachary Taylor (Whig) vs Lewis Cass (D)
President Taylor won by 36 electoral votes
The Election of 1848 was an open race as President Polk chose not to run for re-election because of illness. Taylor was quite popular with his promise of no future wars. The big issue of the day was whether or not to allow slavery in the newest territories in the western United States.
The Democrats had a solid record of prosperity and peace in those territories, so they would be hard to beat. Popular opinion was that only if the Whig Party nominated Taylor could the Democrats be defeated. And that was precisely what happened.
Taylor was one of only two Presidents that belonged to the old Whig Party before the party was permanently dissolved in 1852.
2004: George W. Bush (R) vs John Kerry (D)
President Bush won by 35 electoral votes
For the most part, the election of 2004 was quite non-eventful. Although it wasn’t officially decided until later in the night, it followed what the polls had already forecasted.
Unlike Bush’s first election, he won the popular vote for his re-election bid and amassed 286 electoral votes.
1916: Woodrow Wilson (D) vs Charles Hughes (R)
President Wilson won by 23 electoral votes
The 1916 Presidential Election was a nail-biter that went down to the wire. America had to wait for several days on the western states to report their tallies.
When it was all said and done, Wilson won 277 electoral votes to Hughes’ 254 and 30 of the 48 states. During those times, only 266 electoral votes were needed for victory; if Hughes had won California and its 13 electoral votes (at that time), he would have been President.
Wilson became only the second President in US history to be re-elected with a lower electoral percentage than his first victory.
2000: George W. Bush (R) vs Al Gore (D)
President Bush won by 5 electoral votes
On Election Day, Al Gore won the popular vote. Bush won most states in the rural Midwest, the South, and the Rocky Mountain region, while Gore carried most states on the Pacific Coast, the Northeast, and the Upper Midwest.
Gore also led in electoral votes by 255 to 246, but neither candidate had gotten the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. A few states were too tight to call — such as New Mexico and Oregon — but Florida would determine the winner with its 25 electoral votes.
The news media had first awarded Florida to Gore based on exit polls, but as more votes were tallied, they switched and awarded Florida to Bush later in the night. The Gore campaign insisted that the votes in Florida be recounted by hand.
The Bush Campaign appealed to the US Supreme Court, which ordered that the recount be stopped. They then awarded Florida to the Bush Campaign.
1876: Rutherford B. Hayes (R) vs Samuel Tilden (D)
President Hayes won by 1 electoral vote
This election between Democrat Samuel Tilden of New York and Rutherford B. Hayes was perhaps the most controversial and hostile in US history. Tilden not only led in electoral votes, but he also won the popular vote.
However, 19 electoral votes from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina (all Republican states) were in dispute. There was also an alleged discrepancy with Oregon’s vote count as well.
Accusations of rampant voter fraud induced Congress to establish a special electoral commission to name the winner. This committee was made up of Supreme Court justices and fifteen congressmen.
This commission announced its decision just two days before the Presidential inauguration. The final vote was 8–7 down party lines and awarded the disputed electoral votes to Hayes, making him the winner.
Have close presidential elections become the new standard?
Doesn’t it seem that we see even closer presidential races every four years? Is this something that we can expect from future presidential elections?
To better understand the United States election process, we need to examine the national popular vote margin from the end of the Civil War. This was precisely when our current two-party system took pretty much the same form it has now.
As we evaluate the data from that period, it is easy to determine that we are witnessing US history’s most competitive presidential politics.
For instance, the 2016 contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump became the eighth straight presidential race where the national popular vote margin was less than ten percentage points.
In other words, from 1988 through 2016, every single presidential election saw a difference of popular vote percentage points listed in single digits. That has been the longest stretch of close presidential elections since the Civil War – since there was a string of seven single-digit margins from 1876 through 1900.
Among these most current close elections, two saw nominees winning the national popular vote but failed to win the required Electoral College. Those two were the presidential elections of 2000 and 2016. Before 2000, the last time a nominee won the popular vote without winning the Electoral College they happened in 1888.
Close margins of victory
These single-digit margins may not seem to be a close election to some. For instance, the 7-point victory by Barrack Obama in 2008 didn’t feel like a tight contest at all. But we did get some perspective on this; we only need to consider the elections from 1904 through 1984. Out of those 21 total elections, only nine have single-digit margins. The remaining 12 presidential contest was one-sided blowouts.
These facts leave us to wonder why competitiveness was so high in the presidential elections from the late 19th century. And additionally, why are we currently seeing the closest presidential elections in US history?
The obvious answer lies in the rising levels of political partisanship that we see today. According to VoteView.com, the widest ideological gaps between America’s two political parties in Congress occurred during both times.
Furthermore, recent polling from Pew Research indicates that the American public has gradually become much more polarized. Research data has also observed two peaks in partisanship during current times and the late 19th century with consistent state voting patterns. And it is not a coincidence that Electoral College maps from these polarized periods look similar from one election to the next.
Americans need to accept that we live in the most political era of highly competitive presidential races since the end of the Civil War. Not only is partisanship extreme, but the opinions from the White House are also more polarized – at least they are being perceived as such.