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U. S. Elections

U. S. Elections

by William H. Benson

November 3, 2016

     In the last century, U. S. voters have witnessed at least four lop-sided presidential elections.

     In 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt destroyed Alf Landon, Kansas’s Republican governor. FDR received 523 electoral votes to Landon’s 8 votes. Only Maine and Vermont voted for Landon. Even Kansas failed to vote for Landon. FDR also received 62.46% of the popular vote to Landon’s 37.54%. By both measures, FDR won “the biggest landslide in U. S. history.”

     In 1964, Lyndon Johnson received 486 electoral votes, to Barry Goldwater’s 52. Johnson was from Texas, where he had earned the well-deserved nickname of “Landslide Lyndon,” for fixing and even rigging elections there, but he won the presidency in 1964 without fraud, and a minimum of gimmicks.

     On September 7, 1964, Johnson’s campaign televised a controversial ad. Viewers saw a three-year-old girl counting leaves on a daisy, until she gets to nine. Then, the camera zooms in upon her right eye, and viewers hear an announcer say “ten,” as if it is a countdown to a missile launch.

     Then, a mushroom cloud appears, and viewers hear LBJ’s voice, “These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.”

      The ad was designed to highlight Goldwater’s aggressive military position and his willingness to use nuclear weapons, if necessary, in Vietnam. Johnson’s campaign officials ran the ad that one time, but it swayed undecided voters to vote for Johnson, who then won 61.34% of the popular vote.

     Then, in 1972, Richard Nixon won 520 electoral votes to George McGovern’s 17. Only one state, Massachusetts, and also the District of Columbia, voted for McGovern. Even his native state of South Dakota rejected him and cast its 4 votes for Nixon, who won 61.79% of the popular vote.

     In November of 1972, few American voters knew how low Nixon’s campaign officials had sunk. Most likely Nixon did not know nor did he authorize the plumbers gang’s break-in at the Democratic Party’s headquarters at Watergate, but once he learned of it, he authorized the “cover-up.” Less than two years later, he was forced to resign from the presidency or face certain impeachment.    

      Then, in 1984, the incumbent Ronald Reagan received 525 votes to Walter Mondale’s 13. Only Minnesota, Mondale’s home state, plus the District of Columbia, voted for him. When reporters asked Reagan what he wanted for Christmas, he joked, “Well, Minnesota would have been nice.” He won 59.17% of the popular vote.

     Runaways, lop-sided elections, and landslides, when 60% vote for a candidate, demonstrate that the American people have spoken and that democracy has worked. It is the razor-thin elections that cause people to wonder, “What do the American people want?”

     For example, in the 1960 election, John F. Kennedy “triumphed by the thinnest of margins.” He received 34,226,731 votes to Nixon’s 34,108,157, a difference of only 118,574 votes. JFK claimed 303 electoral votes to Nixon’s 219, but only because Illinois and Texas had cast their votes for Kennedy.

     Right away accusations surfaced that Chicago’s autocratic mayor, Richard Daly, had stuffed the ballot box there to ensure a Kennedy win in Illinois, and that Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s vice-presidential running mate, had played similar tricks in Texas.

     Eisenhower urged Nixon to demand a recount in the two states, but Nixon instead “conceded defeat very early the morning after the election.” It is uncertain if a recount in the two states would have resulted in a win for Nixon. At a Christmas party, Nixon said, “we won, but they stole it from us.”

     In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote, 51,003,894 to George W. Bush’s 50,459,211, but Gore lost the electoral vote, 266 votes to Bush’s 271. This was the fourth time in U. S. history that the popular vote’s winner lost the electoral vote; this anomaly had occurred also in 1824, 1876, and 1888.

     The 2000 election hinged upon Florida. Bush needed 270 votes to win a majority, and he did so because he won Florida’s 25 votes, after the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 on December 12, to stop the recount there. It “ruled that the state of Florida’s court-ordered manual recount of vote ballots was unconstitutional,” because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

     Some candidates win or lose by a wide margin, others by a slight margin. Nixon did both. In 1960, he lost the closest race ever to Kennedy, but in 1972, Nixon crushed his opponent, George McGovern, and was re-elected to a second term. It was Nixon’s flawed judgement during that second campaign that led to his downfall. “Mistakes were made,” he said. It is wise to remember that the size of the win bears little relationship to the candidate’s performance once installed in the Oval Office.