Sabato's Crystal Ball

Conventional Wisdom Watch

Will this really be another squeaker election?

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics March 3rd, 2004

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Understandably, everybody is convinced that the November election will be another squeaker like 2000. Maybe it will be — but history suggests otherwise. The last time the United States had two extremely close presidential elections in a row was in the 1880s. In 1884, Grover Cleveland (D) defeated James G. Blaine (R) by a mere 23,000 votes out of over 10 million cast. (Electorally, it was also close: 219 to 182.) In 1888, Cleveland was ousted by Republican Benjamin Harrison by an Electoral College vote of 233 to 168, even though Cleveland had gained a popular vote advantage of 95,000, out of a total of over 11 million cast. In 1892, Cleveland won his second term on his second try, and rather easily – by a full 3 percentage points over Harrison (365,000 votes out of about 12 million cast, and 277 to 145 in the Electoral College).

The nation actually had four close elections in a row, starting in 1876 with the famously disputed election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden (decided by an Electoral College vote of 185 to 184). Then in 1880, Republican James A. Garfield won a true popular vote squeaker, by less than 10,000 votes out of over 9 million cast.

These four consecutive cliffhangers of 1876, 1880, 1884, and 1888 (plus the relatively close 1892 contest) represented a brief period when the two major parties were at near-parity. Republican William McKinley changed all that in 1896 with his “realigning election” victory that kept the GOP as the country’s governing party from 1897 to 1933, with the exception only of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency (1913-1921) that was produced by the Bull Moose third-party candidacy of former President Theodore Roosevelt.

Which brings us to the real question: Was 2000 the start of another cliffhanger era like 1876-1892? The Crystal Ball doubts it, but did analysts in that bygone era expect a series of squeakers after the first one in 1876? One suspects not!