For Presidents Who Lose the Popular Vote, A Difficult Path Ahead

History shows they often face substantial opposition — and have trouble getting reelected.

In 2016, Donald Trump became the fifth candidate in American history to gain the presidency without winning the popular vote. Let’s take a look at what happened to the other four:

– The first time (1824, John Quincy Adams), the candidate who won the popular vote (Andrew Jackson) alleged a “corrupt bargain,” ran again four years later, and crushed Adams by 13 points.
– The second time (1876, Rutherford B. Hayes), Gen. George McClellan threatened to raise an army and conquer Washington for Samuel Tilden, and the candidate was only allowed to take office after he essentially surrendered his entire platform to the other party by agreeing to end Reconstruction.
– The third time (1888, Benjamin Harrison), the losing candidate (Grover Cleveland) kicked up a ruckus about ballot-stuffing that led to the nationwide mandating of the secret ballot — and ran again and won four years later.
– The fourth time (2000, George W. Bush), we were subjected to a month of legal wrangling and two sets of recounts before Al Gore finally conceded — and many liberals still rejected Bush’s legitimacy during his first term.

If history is any guide, Donald Trump shouldn’t get too comfortable in the Oval Office.

It’s difficult for a candidate who’s lost the popular vote to claim any sort of legitimacy or mandate. George W. Bush was able to do so because of 9/11, which effectively reset the political landscape; the others, not so much. So don’t be surprised if Democrats fight the Trump administration from the first day to the last, just like parties who win the popular vote and lose the election have always done.

Let’s also look at the elections immediately following these instances of popular vote losers taking office:
– 1828: the losing candidate (Jackson) ran again and crushed Adams by 13 points. (He had won the popular vote by 12 in 1824, so there was little change in the outcome except for partisan consolidation.)
– 1880: neither candidate from 1876 ran again four years later, but nevertheless, in the closest popular-vote election in American history, the party that won the popular vote four years earlier came within 10,000 votes of winning it again. Democrats eventually won the presidency in 1884, in another close election.
– 1892: the losing candidate (Cleveland) ran again and beat Harrison by three points, despite the Populists taking eight percent of the vote out of Cleveland’s Midwestern flank.
– 2004: despite considerable popular good will left over from 9/11, Bush won reelection by only three points.

If history is any guide, Donald Trump shouldn’t get too comfortable in the Oval Office. Democrats will put up a strong candidate against him in 2020 — John Kerry’s three-point loss in 2004 was the worst post-popular-vote-loss performance of the four, and he still kept it close — and odds are, barring a 9/11-style reset, Trump will face a difficult reelection.

Author: Jeremy C. Young

Jeremy C. Young is a Washington, DC-based historian and the author of The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940.

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