Past instances of surprising U.S. presidential election results could foreshadow the Trump-Biden slug-fest
My first real-time American presidential election was 1960, and it was experienced in a very different world. The Dublin newspapers followed the story but not exhaustively. There was no Irish television service and radio news bulletins were confined to 15 minutes, including the weather.
The major information conduit for the election was my father’s weekly copy of Time magazine, which meticulously recorded John F. Kennedy’s steady progress to the Democratic nomination, followed by the tension-infused weeks of the fall campaign as he gradually edged ahead in the regular Gallup polling snapshots.
Although Time’s publisher Henry Luce was a Republican, the coverage was Kennedy-positive. As my father speculated, Kennedy obviously had friends at the magazine. In fact, the decisive consideration was the personal relationship between Luce and Joe Kennedy, the family patriarch.
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Presidential years were sometimes predictable, but not always. The biggest shock probably came in 1968.
Early on, it looked like a prospective contest between the embattled Democratic incumbent, Lyndon Johnson, and (perhaps) the Republican governor of Michigan, George Romney. But Romney self-destructed before 1967 was out, Johnson withdrew, and assassinations and riots followed. When the dust finally settled, Richard Nixon – the man Kennedy had beaten eight years earlier – was en route to the White House. A year of absolute tumult wound up turning back the clock!
Surprises also came in other flavours. For instance, 1980 was purportedly “too close to call” until the scope of Ronald Reagan’s sweep prompted Jimmy Carter to concede more than an hour before polls closed on the West Coast. What had been billed as a night of nail-biting drama was effectively over before it began.
The 2000 election was a different matter entirely. Early in the evening, the television networks awarded Florida to Democrat Al Gore, only to retract the call a couple of hours later, by which point it was clear that the state would be decisive. Then, in the wee hours, they awarded it – and the presidency – to George W. Bush, and the word came that Gore had privately conceded. It all seemed to be over.
However, just as I was finally heading to bed, there was another development: Gore withdrew his concession, and the networks pulled their calls shortly thereafter. It took the U.S. Supreme Court to finally resolve the issue a full five weeks after Election Day.
Still, you’d have to go a long way to top, or even match, the election of 1824. In what was then a 24-state universe, no fewer than four candidates won Electoral College votes, but nobody crossed the requisite majority threshold.
Andrew Jackson – who also led the popular vote – had 99, John Quincy Adams had 84, William Crawford had 41, and Henry Clay was at 37. So, pursuant to the 12th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the final word was passed over to the House of Representatives, for which purpose each state delegation is allocated a single vote. And because the choice is restricted to the top three electoral vote winners, Clay was automatically eliminated.
This had happened once before (in 1800), in which case the House chose the candidate who’d amassed the most electoral votes. But not this time. Instead, Adams prevailed by a single vote.
Needless to say, Jackson was outraged, and charges of corruption filled the air. The fact that Clay supported Adams and was subsequently appointed Secretary of State added grist to the mill.
The prospect of something like this happening in 2024 is generally considered remote. It is typically associated with a scenario where a third-party candidate wins sufficient electoral votes to prevent anyone from reaching the magic 270. But winning electoral votes isn’t easy. A strong showing isn’t enough; you must actually win one or more states.
Strictly speaking, though, a third-party spoiler isn’t even necessary.
While approximately 155 million votes were cast in 2020, it all came down to tiny margins in just three of them – Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin. Biden won all three by a combined margin of 42,918. Had they gone the other way, the Electoral College would’ve been deadlocked at 269-269, in which case the 12th Amendment would’ve kicked in, thus handing the decision to the House. And because Republicans controlled more state delegations than Democrats, Trump would’ve been legitimately re-elected.
Is this an improbable prospect for 2024? Yes, it certainly is.
But imagine the ensuing melodrama were it to happen!
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit.
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