When told that the New England transcendentalist Margaret Fuller had grandly declared “I accept the universe,” the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle dryly remarked: “She’d better.” Much ink and indignation has been spilled concerning whether Donald (“I am much more humble than you would understand”) Trump will “accept” the election’s outcome. The nation, like the universe of which it is the nicest part, will persevere even without the election result being accepted by the fellow who probably will be the first major-party presidential nominee in 20 years to receive less — probably a lot less — than 45 percent of the vote.
When the Jimmy Carter/Walter Mondale ticket lost 44 states in 1980, Mondale used his elegant concession remarks to herald “a chance to rejoice”: “Today, all across this nation — in high school cafeterias, in town halls, and churches, and synagogues — the American people quietly wielded their staggering power. . . . Tonight we celebrate above all the process we call American freedom.” Today, such political grace notes are rare as the nation slouches toward its first dyspeptic landslide — an electoral-vote avalanche for a candidate regretted by a majority of the electorate.
Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860 with the lowest percentage of the popular vote (39.9) of any electoral winner in history. He received fewer than the combined votes for two Democratic rivals, the Northerner Stephen Douglas and the Southerner John Breckinridge. This did not prevent Lincoln from becoming the nation’s greatest president. Majorities, however helpful, are not necessary. In 14 of the 39 elections since 1860 the winner did not get a majority of the popular vote, including Woodrow Wilson (twice), Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton (twice), Democrats all.
Carter’s 50.1 percent of the popular vote in 1976 was the only time in the 40 years after 1964 that a Democratic presidential candidate would win a majority of the popular vote. Ronald Brownstein of the Atlantic notes, “Since the 1828 election of Andrew Jackson that historians consider the birth of the modern two-party system, no party has ever won the presidential popular vote six times over seven elections.” By the evening of Nov. 8, the Republican Party likely will have lost the popular vote for the sixth time in seven elections, and will have lost three consecutive elections for the first time since the 1940s.
In the past four elections (2000-2012), no loser has fallen below 45 percent of the vote and no winner has reached 53 percent. This year’s winner is unlikely to become just the fourth nominee of the world’s oldest party (following Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson) to win more than 53 percent. The loser, however, could plunge close to the 37.4 percent that George H.W. Bush received in 1992 when Ross Perot took 18.9 percent of the vote.
This year’s winner probably will be the first Democrat since Grover Cleveland to become president without enjoying Democratic control of both houses of Congress. (Cleveland, the last conservative Democratic president, vetoed more bills during his two, non-consecutive terms than all of his predecessors combined.) This year will be the fourth of a particular kind of Republican disappointment since World War II. In 1946, 1994, 2010 and 2014 Republicans won huge victories in off-year elections but two years later lost the presidential election.
Thomas Jefferson said “the boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave,” but some waves have become less turbulent. For example, in 2004, 13 states enacted — 11 of them by referendums — prohibitions on same-sex marriage. Three elections later, this issue has virtually disappeared from political discourse.
Americans might feel as though they are living through an unceasing and unprecedented political maelstrom, but by one measure there is unusual stability: The nation is nearing the end of a third consecutive two-term presidency, something that has occurred only once before in U.S. history — the Virginia dynasty of the third, fourth and fifth presidents (Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe). Of the five presidents in office from the inauguration of Kennedy in 1961 through the departure of Jimmy Carter in 1981, not one served two full terms.
The last Democrat directly elected (that is, not counting Truman or Johnson, who were elected after inheriting the office) to succeed a Democrat was James Buchanan, arguably the worst president ever. One hundred and sixty years later, Republicans fearing four Clinton years can reasonably hope there will be no more than four: The likelihood of Democrats winning a fourth consecutive presidential term will be reduced if the Republican Party reverts to its practice, adhered to since it chose John C. Fremont in 1856, of nominating a Republican.
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