Words by: Jesús del Toro
In the history of US presidential elections, there have only been five occasions when a candidate who has not obtained the majority of the popular votes has ended up winning, including Donald Trump’s win in 2016. This can happen because it is something called the Electoral College that decides who will be the next resident of the White House, not the popular vote.
Every state has a number of votes in the Electoral College equivalent to the sum of its federal representatives and senators in Congress, and at least 270 of these votes are needed to be elected president. In general, the candidate who has won the most popular votes in each state also gets the electoral votes. But this has not been the case in five of the 58 presidential elections in US history.
John Quincy Adams (1824)
John Quincy Adams, son of second US president John Adams, ran in a unique election: It closed the age in which the presidents were the Founding Fathers (i.e. George Washington, Adams senior, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe), paving the way for a new generation and new popular forces in US politics.
Four candidates ran: Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, William Crawford and John Quincy Adams, all members of the same party, the Democratic-Republican Party, after the Federalist Party got overshadowed some years before. The vote was strongly divided, but it was Jackson, the military hero of the War of 1812 and victor over the British in New Orleans, who got more votes, without achieving the required majority in the Electoral College.
Jackson was also the first great US politician to represent the interests and vision of the new regions to the west of the 13 original colonies, during America's process of expansion.
None of the candidates managed to win in the electoral process as such (Jackson got 152,901 votes compared to Adams' 114,023, but he was 32 electoral votes short of winning) and, therefore, in accordance with the Constitution, the House of Representatives was responsible for electing the president.
Adams managed to do some political manoeuvring and, in alliance with Henry Clay, the candidate with the fewest votes but who was the powerful Speaker of the House, was elected president. This arrangement caused an uproar due to leaving out the candidate with the most votes, and Jackson described it as a "corrupt bargain" – even more so after Adams named Clay his Secretary of State.
Four years later, Jackson, with his recently created Democratic Party, challenged Adams again and defeated him by a wide margin.
Rutherford B Hayes (1876)
In the case of Rutherford B. Hayes, no candidate won enough votes to be elected president, so the decision was made by Conress. The Democrat Samuel Tilden won 184 electoral votes, one fewer than he needed to win, and he had beaten the Republican Hayes – who had gotten 165 electoral votes – by 250,000 popular votes.
But Hayes and the Republicans refuted the electoral result in three states where both parties claimed victory. Those three states had a total of 20 electoral votes, and therefore the decision on the matter would tip the balance. Congress created a commission of representatives, senators and Supreme Court judges to decide, and the 20 votes were given to Hayes, who was elected with a difference of one electoral vote.
It is claimed that decision had a behind-the-scenes deal that included a promise from the Republican Hayes – whose party, led years earlier by Abraham Lincoln, held power during the Civil War and retained it following the victory over the southern Confederacy – to withdraw the army from the southern states that were Democratic strongholds, and with it began the end of the period known as Reconstruction.
Hayes also promised not to seek re-election and after his four-year term retired to his home in Ohio.
3. Benjamin Harrison (1888)
The 1888 election between the president pursuing re-election, the Democrat Grover Cleveland, and the Republican Benjamin Harrison (grandson of President William Henry Harrison) was especially tense, with allegations from both parties that they were buying independent voters and also with efforts to suppress the vote of African Americans in southern states.
The country was thus divided into two blocks: the south voted for Cleveland and the north and west for Harrison, and although the incumbent president won more popular votes, 90,500 more than Harrison, barely a 0.8% difference, he lost the Electoral College, where the Democrat got just 168 votes against the Republican's 233.
But Cleveland got his revenge. Four years later, in 1892, he ran again and this time defeated Harrison, making Cleveland the only president in US history to govern for two non-consecutive periods.
4. George W. Bush (2000)
The 2000 election was the first in 112 years in which the candidate who won the popular vote failed to win the presidency.
The vice president and Democratic candidate Al Gore got 50,999,000 votes nationally and beat the Republican candidate George W. Bush by 545,000 votes (0.5%). However, the race was very close in the Electoral College and the whole matter was settled with the votes from the state of Florida.
An unprecedented situation then occurred. The TV networks, which in the age of mass media have had a unique role in the broadcasting of the election results, announced that based on exit polls and other data, Gore had won Florida. That meant that Gore was the president-elect. But as the formal count went on, Bush ended up winning Florida by a difference of 537 votes, and with it he had a total of 271 electoral votes, one more than needed to win.
It is claimed that the discrepancy between the exit polls and the formal count was due to a significant number of ballots, especially in some counties, that had anomalies, for example issues with the position of the holes (punched card ballots were used) that indicated who the citizen had voted for.
Gore then decided to challenge the result and the Supreme Court of Florida ordered a recount, which due to the number of votes and complexity of their review was slow and difficult. Faced with the possibility that it would not be possible to finish this count before the legal deadline to form the Electoral College, which would entail an unprecedented constitutional crisis, the US Supreme Court voted, with 5 votes in favour and 4 against, to suspend the recount and recognise the result of the original count. Bush was then the first president-elect in the context of a Supreme Court decision.
5. Donald Trump (2016)
In a highly polarised and tense election, the Republican candidate Donald Trump achieved a surprising victory over the Democrat Hillary Clinton by obtaining a significant advantage in the Electoral College, despite failing to win the majority of votes at national level.
Clinton obtained 2.8 million votes (2.1%) more than Trump at national level, to a large extent driven by comfortable wins in very populous and strongly Democrat-leaning states such as California and New York. But Trump managed to get a historic upset in the result in three states – Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – that for years had voted in favour of the Democratic candidates and, it had been assumed, would go to Clinton this time.
But Trump managed to convince enough voters in those states to tip the balance in the Electoral College and win the office of president. His triumph was by a minimal yet decisive margin: in an election where 136 million citizens voted, Trump won by 22,748 votes (0.8%) in Wisconsin; 44,292 (0.7%) in Pennsylvania; and just 10,794 (0.2%) in Michigan. Thus, although Clinton won the support of many more citizens than Trump at national level (something that particularly stung him), she remained behind in the Electoral College, with 227 votes to Trump's 304.