There is no historical record of the popular vote in our country’s first nine presidential elections. We only have that data beginning with the 1824 contest between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Since that time, there have been thirteen candidates who have received as much as 55 percent of the vote. That’s a pretty strong indication that this country has always been very politically divided. We’ve had a total of fifty-eight presidential elections. Of the forty-nine elections for which we have popular vote records, only four times have more than six in ten voters cast a ballot for the winning candidate.
Here are those elections:
1964: Lyndon Johnson, 61.05%
1936: Franklin Roosevelt, 60.80%
1972: Richard Nixon, 60.67%
1920: Warren Harding, 60.32%
Those were all landslide elections, but the list is slightly different if you look at the largest (by percentage win) Electoral College victories in history.
1936: Franklin Roosevelt, 98.49%
1984: Ronald Reagan, 97.58%
1972: Richard Nixon, 96.65%
1864: Abraham Lincoln, 90.99% (the South did not vote)
1980: Ronald Reagan, 90.89%
Ronald Reagan’s 18.21 percent popular vote victory in 1984 was the seventh biggest ever. In 1980, he won by 9.74 percent, which only comes in 21st-place. Obviously, the size of a popular vote victory is an imprecise predictor of the size of an Electoral College victory. But here’s one way of looking at the relationship between these two variables: of the 13 candidates who got at least 55 percent of the popular vote, the worst Electoral College performance came from Ulysses S. Grant who won 81.25 percent of the ballots during his 1872 reelection campaign.
The takeaway is that, if a candidate gets north of 55 percent of the vote, they are going to win a thumping Electoral College victory. Even cracking 53 percent is a good indication that the election will be decisive. In 2008, Barack Obama just missed that plateau at 52.93 percent. That was considered a big win, but it still left us with a pretty strong red/blue divide. It didn’t change the political landscape in the same way as the elections on the lists above.
Obviously, both Lincoln and Harding died in office, but both of their victories augured a new period of dominance for the Republican Party, just as FDR’s massive reelection did the same for the Democrats. LBJ and Nixon both game to grief during their terms, but the size of Nixon’s 1972 reelection would haunt Democrats for several generations and it foretold the coming of the Reagan Revolution.
Perhaps it’s most useful to look at what happens to the losing party when their presidential candidate gets destroyed by 55 percent or more of the vote. The record indicates that it forces some pretty significant changes in approach, although there can be a bit of lag time as old habits die hard.
I’ve heard many people say that our country is currently so divided that it’s inconceivable that any major party presidential candidate could get less than 45 percent of the vote in a one-on-one contest. I do not believe this.
A look at some early head-to-head polls indicates that we’re currently still in the narrow band, but there’s plenty of reason the believe that these margins could get worse for Trump rather than contract towards historic norms.
Democratic firm @ppppolls surveys early 2020 head-to-head contests:
Biden 53%, Trump 41%
Sanders 51%, Trump 41%
Harris 48%, Trump 41%
O’Rourke 47%, Trump 41%
Warren 48%, Trump 42%
Booker 47%, Trump 42%
Gillibrand 47%, Trump 42%
Trump approval: 40/57https://t.co/bATutAFANR
— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) January 22, 2019
To begin with, if Biden and Trump were to split the undecided vote, the former vice-president would already be ahead 56-44, which would place him between Andrew Jackson’s 1828 victory and Teddy Roosevelt’s decisive 1904 reelection. Regardless of which candidate Trump is judged against, he’s currently holding at 41-42 percent, but what if he loses a few points because of scandal or poor performance or some national or economic catastrophe?
I continue to believe that the Democrats have it in their grasp to break the red/blue divide and win a landslide election in 2020. I think this has to be the goal. Winning narrowly isn’t going to give them enough power to govern. For the GOP, losing narrowly isn’t going to create the needed impetus to change.
It’s too early to use poll numbers to judge which Democrat has the most potential to win the needed landslide, but the candidate with the broadest possible support will be a surer bet than the one with the most enthusiastic partisan support. There’s a big difference between winning with 53 percent and 55 or 60 percent.
Trump will do half the work for the Democrats simply by being the worst president in our nation’s history. The other half, though, is going to be up to Democratic primary voters. They need to think it terms of a candidate who can break out of our divisions and deliver a transformative and uniting hammer blow.