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Electoral College 101
By Ken Rudin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, Sept. 15, 2000
Question: Has the House of Representatives ever had to decide a presidential election? Also, what is the best showing that a third-party candidate has ever made in the electoral college? -- Philip A. Diamond Carlton Fields, Orlando, Fla.
Answer: The presidential election gets thrown into the House when no candidate receives a majority of the electoral vote. Then each state delegation in the House gets one vote, regardless of size or population, and a majority of states would decide the next president. That has happened twice in history following the 1800 and 1824 elections.
At the start of our democracy, there was no popular vote to decide the winner. State legislatures named electors who in turn picked the president, and the candidate finishing second became vice president. In 1800, the Federalist ticket of President John Adams and Major Gen. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney squared off against the Democrat-Republican ticket of Vice President Thomas Jefferson and his running mate, former New York Sen. Aaron Burr. When the electors voted in December, the result was an unexpected tie between ticket-mates Jefferson and Burr (73 electoral votes each), followed by Adams (65) and Pinckney (64). The majority Federalist Congress, which hated Jefferson, conspired to choose Burr. But their efforts were thwarted, and the House after 36 ballots gave a majority to Jefferson.
The 1824 election was the first to utilize the popular vote in addition to the electoral vote. Four candidates sought the presidency that year. Sen. Andrew Jackson of Tennessee won the most popular votes as well as the most electoral votes 99, to 84 for Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, 41 for Treasury Secretary William Crawford, and 37 for House Speaker Henry Clay. But because no one won an electoral college majority, the election went to the House. An apparent deal between Adams and Clay (in which Adams would name Clay secretary of state in exchange for his support in the House) resulted in Adams winning the election.
See also On Throwing the Election Into the House (Oct. 29, 1999).
As for the best third-party showing in the electoral college, that honor goes to former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, who won six states in the 1912 election as candidate of the Progressive ("Bull Moose") Party, for a total of 88 electoral votes.
Question: Has there ever been a time when a presidential candidate won the popular vote but lost the election in the electoral college? -- Mike Dickerson
Answer: It happened in two instances apart from the one cited above. In 1876, Gov. Samuel Tilden of New York (D) had more than a quarter-million vote advantage over Ohio GOP Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes (51-48 percent). But the balloting in Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana, three states controlled by Republicans, was permeated by fraud and violence. A special commission created by the GOP Congress to sort out the mess voted in favor of the Republican arguments each time and awarded all three states to Hayes, who wound up with a much-disputed 185-184 electoral college majority. The 1888 election was less controversial but also saw the popular-vote loser ending up as president. Benjamin Harrison, an Indiana Republican, trailed President Grover Cleveland (D) by about 90,000 votes nationally but won enough big states to give him a 233-168 majority in the electoral college.
Question: How is it possible that Ross Perot won 18.9 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 presidential election but received no votes in the electoral college? -- N.G. Ghoudani
Answer: To win votes in the electoral college, one must carry a state. While Perot received more than 19 million votes nationwide in 1992 more than any "third" candidate in history he failed to carry a single state. His best showing was a second-place, 30.4 percent finish in Maine, winding up 316 votes ahead of President George Bush. The opposite extreme happened in 1948, when Strom Thurmond then the Democratic governor of South Carolina ran for president as a "States Rights Democrat" in the fall. He won just 2.4 percent of the popular vote but still managed to carry four Southern states, and in doing so won 39 electoral votes.
Question: Regarding your Sept. 8 column in which you said no two-term president has ever sought renomination after leaving office, I thought there was a movement for Grover Cleveland at the 1904 Democratic convention. Perhaps he did not seek the presidency, but he was certainly thought of as a potential candidate. -- Steven Ury, Los Angeles, Calif.
... And here's a related question:
Question: As for Ulysses S. Grant, who you say did not seek renomination after his two terms, you overlook his subsequent effort. Grant made no secret to his friends that he wanted the Republican nomination in 1880 and he sought to obtain it through their efforts. Given the low level of effort that candidates were expected to make at that time in seeking the presidency, this in my mind would certainly constitute a run for a third term, though one conducted in the back rooms of party bosses rather than under the glare of the public. -- Mark Klobas, College Station, Texas
Answer: Cleveland's name did surface at the 1904 convention and he did have his share of boosters, but he stayed out of the race. But I was completely wrong about Grant, who did indeed seek the 1880 GOP nomination, and in fact was the leader for the first 35 ballots. His hopes ended, however, on the 36th ballot, when the Republican delegates shifted unexpectedly to Rep. James Garfield of Ohio, who for most of the convention insisted he was not a candidate.
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