6 Overlooked Facts You May Not Know about U.S. Presidential Elections

Author: David Yee
Created: 30 June, 2016
Updated: 17 October, 2022
7 min read

It's looking more and more like at least 3 presidential candidates will win electoral votes this cycle, something that hasn't happened since 1988 when Lloyd Bentsen received one electoral vote from faithless elector Margaret Leech.

But it hasn't been an uncommon occurrence for more than two candidates to win electoral votes, happening 21 times out of the 56 presidential elections so far.

Looking at these elections is interesting, because it should teach us something about our current political situation -- and possibly serve as a warning to everyone as they cast their ballots this November.

1. George Washington's 'Unopposed' Victories of 1789 and 1792

Too often history records that George Washington was unopposed in the country's first presidential elections, when in fact, 12 men collected electoral votes during the election of 1789.

Washington's election in 1789 was probably one of the most undemocratic of any election in American history, winning only 1.3% of the total population's vote (2.4 million free and 600,000 slaves in the 10 states participating).

Only Maryland and Pennsylvania chose electors by purely popular, at-large voting, with the rest of the states choosing by either state legislature votes or a hybrid of the two.

What the outcome showed was that America was still very regionally fractured as a young federal republic, with candidates from 6 states receiving electoral votes. Washington by far had the most name recognition, and carried half of the electoral vote.

By 1792, American politics was beginning to rally around the first two-party system, but 5 candidates still won electoral votes -- 3 winning at least 50 of the 264 possible.

2. 1836: The Ultimate 'Self-Spoiled' Election

If believing that a third-party try will always have a spoiling effect, almost certainly running four different candidates from the same party is going to dilute your vote.

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The Whig Party, desperate to beat Van Buren at any cost, came up with a novel strategy attempting to play on the regional divides of the federal republic -- field four regional candidates in hopes of splitting the vote up enough to win or at least make a sympathetic Jacksonian-majority House of Representatives choose.

What happened was a colossal failure, with Van Buren easily winning a larger-than-majority portion of electors.

But what is important was the fact that America was moving toward federalism, and the Whigs were doing everything they could to exploit regional popularity instead of national appeal.

No major party has ever tried this again . . . for obvious reasons.

3. 1860: Lincoln's Less-Than-Majority Popular Vote Win

Winning electoral votes is the name of the game in presidential elections -- no matter what the popular vote winds up being.

Lincoln, a relative political nobody, was nominated by the Republican Party after the front-runner, William H. Seward, was deemed 'too radical' and 'unelectable' by the party.

Lincoln's victory highlighted the issues leading up to the Civil War: Slavery, state's rights, and the growing disparity in elector allocation because of population density (and only counting slaves as 3/5 of a person).

Lincoln swept the North and West Coast, while the other three candidates regionally divided up the Southern states.

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1860 can be defined as the result of what happens when a bloc of people no longer feel that their voices are heard.

While the South had maintained parity in the Senate, they were overwhelmingly lagging behind in the House and Electoral College.

Even worse, they could not completely agree on a single candidate to represent them in whole -- although even that wouldn't have won the election.

4. 1872: The Death of a Candidate

It occasionally happens that a candidate for any office dies during the campaign, or even before taking office -- but it has only happened once in American history with a major-party presidential candidate, with odd results.

It could have been worse. The victor (Grant) could have been the one who died, causing a major crisis, but instead his challenger, Horace Greeley (famed for 'Go West Young Man'), died before the Electoral College met.

Greeley had won 66 of the 352 electoral votes, a staggering defeat that he didn't recover from emotionally, with historians often attributing his death to the distress of losing.

While it wouldn't change the outcome, the electors still had to cast their votes -- and would eventually choose between four others, with three still voting for Greeley.

Greeley's defeat was once again tied to the North/South divide, with the North still having an overwhelming number of electors -- Greeley lost by 12 percent of the popular vote, but received only a little more than 18 percent of the electoral vote.

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5. 1968: The End of the Segregation Era

Even though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 officially ended segregation nationwide, it didn't die easily -- and had one last major push with George Wallace running for the presidency under the American Independent Party.

Wallace, famous for stating 'segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever' in 1963, eventually ran for the presidency on a largely segregation oriented platform.

He swept the Deep South, winning 46 electoral votes.

But even more than the segregation era finally dying, America was torn by the Vietnam War and the lingering effects of New Deal politics.

Nixon, the winner, would join a very short list of presidents who won the election without winning their own state of residence (along with Polk and Wilson).

6. 1988: The Faithless Elector

What good is the Electoral College if they are just a rubber stamp?

This has long been the criticism of the Electoral College, and the fact that not once in our history has the Electoral College gone against the election's outcome -- even with 157 instances of faithless electors.

But 1988 marks the last time an elector broke ranks and voted against their pledge -- with Margaret Leech casting her single vote for Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate.

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Twenty-nine states, plus the District of Columbia have faithless elector laws, something that 'almost' negates the reasons for an Electoral College.

But as seen in 1872, what would happen if the victor actually died before the Electoral College met? Or even worse, committed some crime or massive scandal?

Faithless elector laws have been upheld by the SCOTUS since 1952, reasoning that as a federal republic, states have the right to govern electors.

2016: A Possible 4-way Split

With Libertarian Gary Johnson on the ballot in all 50 states and Green Party candidate Jill Stein in 21 (as of today), there is a growing likelihood that one of the two will win a few electors -- especially Johnson who is polling exceptionally strong in Utah.

Stein's greatest impact, even if she wins no electoral votes, is likely going to be in the battleground state of Florida, where elections are decided by narrow victories and every vote counts.

But in 2016, we have to look at the past to explain our present.

Like George Washington's elections that represented only a fraction of the popular vote determining the outcome, our federal republic design is now at a stalemate where 10 or fewer states determine the entire outcome of presidential elections.

Minor party candidates have never been able to shed the 'spoiler' label; especially, since the 1992 election where Perot captured almost 19 percent of the vote or the 2000 election where Ralph Nader's capture of 1.6 percent (representing 97,488 votes) of Florida's votes was seen as one of the deciding factors of the entire election.

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It's going to be hard for Johnson or Stein to capture a significant portion of the popular vote.

If Trump or Clinton wins the election, they could definitely join the list of presidents winning the election while losing their home state -- for Clinton, it is almost expected for her to win New York, for Trump it will be an uphill challenge.

America is at a turning point in its politics, where far too many are unhappy on an almost unlimited number of issues -- it's not necessarily the region divides that decided the 1860 or 1968 elections, but it is definitely a divide of just as strong ideological issues.

And the candidates are being fully pressed on these ideological divides.

When Americans go to the polls in November, they are going to decide who to vote for, or perhaps more importantly, who they are voting against.

But when the results are announced, more than half of voters are probably going to be disappointed by the outcome -- an almost certain likelihood of the next president being a less-than-majority victor in the popular vote.

While history holds at least some of the explanations to today's problems, it can't help us on the worst one of all -- lack of voter turnout.

We're historically horrible at getting to the polls in America, with the elections of 1876 and 1860 being the highest turnout at 81-percent, but we have usually hovered in the high-50's in voter turnout.

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If we ever are intent on real change, we have to break the great American institution of choosing not to choose.

Because in the end, the non-voter is the greatest spoiler of them all.

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