United States' presidential plurality victories

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In the United States, Presidential plurality victories are those elections in which the winning candidate received less than 50% of the popular votes cast but the largest share of votes.

The popular vote in an American presidential election was first fully recorded and reported in the election of 1824.[1] Since then, 19 presidential elections have occurred in which a candidate was elected or reelected without gaining a majority of the popular vote.[1] The following is a list and description of those elections in which a candidate won the election with a plurality of the popular vote. The elections of 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016 are not on this list because in those elections the winning candidate actually received less than a plurality.[2]


Election of 1844: James K. Polk[edit]

In the election of 1844, James K. Polk was a dark horse (unanticipated) nominee of the Democratic Party.[1][2] Polk faced two opponents in this election. The Whig Party nominated Henry Clay and the Liberty Party nominated James G. Birney.[1] In the general election Polk received 1,339,494 votes, Clay received 1,300,004 votes, and Birney received 62,103 votes.[1] Overall, Polk won 49.6% of the popular vote. In several large cities, Democrats fraudulently registered thousands of immigrant voters to stuff the ballot box for Polk.[1] Despite the fraudulent votes, the most important factor in Clay's defeat was Birney's candidacy, as anti-slavery Whigs in New York voted for Birney.[1] If Clay had retained one-third of the Birney vote in New York he would have won that state and the election.[1]

Election of 1848: Zachary Taylor[edit]

Zachary Taylor was a war hero from the Battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican–American War and was the Whig candidate in the election of 1848.[2] Lewis Cass was the Democratic nominee, replacing retiring incumbent, James K. Polk.[1] The Whigs did not develop a party platform and ran Taylor on his war record, while a section of the Democratic Party endorsed an expansion of slavery, which brought former President Martin Van Buren into the race as the Free Soil candidate. In the general election, Taylor received 1,361,393 (47.3%) votes, Cass received 1,223,460 votes, and Van Buren received 291,501 votes.[1] Van Buren's candidacy undermined his former party, for without him Cass would have won New York and the election.[1]

Election of 1856: James Buchanan[edit]

The election of 1856 saw the recently formed Republican Party competing in its first presidential election.[1] John C. Fremont was the party's first candidate and ran on a platform advocating the abolishment of slavery.[1] James Buchanan replaced the ineffective incumbent Franklin Pierce for the Democratic Party, and former President Millard Fillmore was the candidate of the anti-immigrant American Party, also known as the "Know-Nothings".[1] Buchanan did not campaign and carried most slave states and scored a decisive victory in the west.[1] Overall, Buchanan received 1,836,072 (45.3%) votes, while Fremont received 1,342,345 votes, and Fillmore received 873,053 votes.

Election of 1860: Abraham Lincoln[edit]

By the election of 1860, the Republican Party had become a unified force, having gained control of the House of Representatives.[1] Abraham Lincoln became the Republican nominee after his backers promised spots in a Lincoln cabinet for delegate support.[1] Stephen A. Douglas became the Democratic nominee after the Southern delegates walked out in protest over the Northern delegates refusal to endorse a pro-slavery platform.[1] The Southern Democrats nominated John C. Breckinridge, and the Constitutional Union Party nominated John Bell of Tennessee.[1] With the nation divided, Lincoln received 1,865,908 (39.8%) votes, Douglas received 1,380,202 votes, Breckinridge received 848,019 votes, and Bell received 590,901 votes.[1] Lincoln's victory marked the lowest popular vote percentage victory in the history of the United States.[1]

Election of 1880: James A. Garfield[edit]

At the Republican convention to nominate a candidate for the presidency in May 1880 the main candidates Ulysses S. Grant and James Blaine failed to collect a majority of delegates. A compromise candidate was needed.[3] James Garfield received the Republican nomination on the 36th ballot of the convention, while the Democratic Party nominated Winfield Scott Hancock on the second ballot.[1] James Weaver was the candidate for the Greenback Party.[1] Garfield ran the first "front porch campaign", while Hancock declined to campaign at all.[1] Garfield received 4,446,158 (48.3%) votes, Hancock received 4,444,260 votes, and Weaver received 305,997 votes.[1] Garfield won the popular vote by less than two thousand votes.[1]

Elections of 1884 and 1892: Grover Cleveland[edit]

Grover Cleveland, the only President to serve non-consecutive terms, also has the unique distinction of having won a plurality of the popular vote three times without ever winning a majority.

In 1884, New York Governor Grover Cleveland with 48.9% of the popular vote and 219 electoral votes narrowly defeated Republican former United States Senator James G. Blaine of Maine with 48.3% of the popular vote and 182 electoral votes.

In 1888, President Cleaveland again won a plurality of the popular vote, but lost the electoral vote (and the election) to Benjamin Harrison.

In 1892, former President Grover Cleveland received his third consecutive Democratic nomination, while incumbent Benjamin Harrison was renominated by the Republican Party.[2] James Weaver, the Greenback Party candidate in 1880, was the candidate of the People's Party and John Bidwell was the candidate of the Prohibition Party.[1] The People's Party did well, pulling thousands of votes away from Harrison.[1] Overall, Cleveland received 5,551,883 (46.2%) votes, Harrison received 5,179,244 votes, Weaver received 1,024,280 votes, and Bidwell received 270,770 votes.[1]

Election of 1912: Woodrow Wilson[edit]

Former President Theodore Roosevelt challenged his hand-picked successor, President William Howard Taft, for the Republican nomination.[2] Despite losing 10 of 12 Republican primaries, the party regulars renominated Taft on the first ballot.[1] Roosevelt refused to concede, formed the Progressive Party and became its nominee.[1] Woodrow Wilson outlasted Champ Clark and became the Democratic nominee on the 46th ballot, while Eugene Debs was the nominee of the Socialist Party.[1] In the general election, Taft and Roosevelt split the Republican vote, ensuring the victory of Wilson.[1] Wilson received 6,293,152 (41.8%) votes, Roosevelt received 4,119,207 votes, Taft received 3,486,333 votes, and Debs received 900,369 votes.[1] If Roosevelt had received the Republican nomination, he most likely would have won the election.[1]

Election of 1916: Woodrow Wilson[edit]

The election of 1916 was not the divisive election that 1912 had been.[1] Woodrow Wilson was renominated easily, and Theodore Roosevelt backed the Republican candidate, Charles Evans Hughes, which meant there would not be a Progressive candidate.[1] However, the Socialist Party did nominate a candidate: Allan Benson. In the general election, Wilson received 9,126,300 (49.2%) votes, Hughes received 8,546,789 votes, and Benson received 589,924 votes.[1] Without the Socialist Party, Wilson would have won a comfortable majority vote.[1]

Election of 1948: Harry S Truman[edit]

Incumbent President Harry Truman was a decided underdog coming into this election.[1] South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond was the candidate of the States' Rights Party, and former Vice President Henry A. Wallace was the candidate of the Progressive Party, which split the Democratic vote three ways.[1] This made Republican candidate Thomas Dewey the favorite to win the election.[1] However, President Truman campaigned hard and despite some newspapers (like the Chicago Daily Tribune) calling the election early for Dewey, Truman pulled out one of the biggest upsets in election history.[1] Truman received 24,179,345 (49.6%) votes, Dewey received 21,991,291 votes, Thurmond received 1,176,125 votes, and Wallace 1,157,326 votes.[1]

Election of 1960: John F. Kennedy[edit]

Kennedy received 112,827 (0.17%) more votes than Nixon nationwide. Kennedy also won a 303 to 219 Electoral College victory. However, Nixon won the popular vote contest in more individual states (26 to 22).

Election of 1968: Richard Nixon[edit]

The assassination of Robert Kennedy left Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy competing for the Democratic nomination.[1] Humphrey won the nomination but the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago was a disaster with the police battling peace activists who were protesting the War in Vietnam.[1] The Republican convention went much more smoothly with former Vice President Richard Nixon receiving the nomination on the first ballot.[1] Alabama Governor George Wallace was a candidate of the American Independent Party.[1] By election day the race was neck and neck, with Nixon pulling out a slim victory.[1] Nixon received 31,785,480 (43.4%) votes, Humphrey received 31,275,166 votes, and Wallace received 9,906,473 votes.[1]

Election of 1992: Bill Clinton[edit]

The effect of Ross Perot's candidacy has been a contentious point of debate for many years. In the ensuing months and years after the election, various Republicans asserted that Perot had acted as a spoiler, enough to the detriment of Bush to lose him the election. While many disaffected conservatives may have voted for Ross Perot to protest Bush's tax increase, further examination of the Perot vote in the Election Night exit polls not only showed that Perotinton,[4] but of the voters who cited Bush's broken "No New Taxes" pledge as "very important," two thirds voted for Bill Clinton.[5] A mathematical look at the voting numbers reveals that Bush would have had to win 12.2% of Perot's 18.8% of the vote, 65% of Perot's support base, to earn a majority of the vote, and would have needed to win nearly every state Clinton won by less than five percentage points.[6] Furthermore, Perot's best results were in states that strongly favored either Clinton or Bush, or carried few electoral votes, limiting his real electoral impact for either candidate. Perot appealed to disaffected voters all across the political spectrum who had grown weary of the two-party system. NAFTA played a role in Perot's support, and Perot voters were relatively moderate on hot button social issues.[7][8]

Furthermore, Bush's approvals never went above 45% from February 1992 until weeks after the election, according to Gallup.[9] In the recent history prior to 1992, only Jimmy Carter's term saw such numbers, during which he lost to Ronald Reagan.[10] During the portion of the race when Perot had (temporarily exited), Bush continued to trail Clinton consistently, with polling numbers often double digits behind the Arkansas governor.[11]

Election of 1996: Bill Clinton[edit]

President Bill Clinton was renominated by acclamation and faced Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole in 1996.[1] As in 1992, Ross Perot again ran an independent campaign.[1] Exit polls suggested that Perot's impact on the vote was negligible.[12] However, in both cases Perot voters prevented Clinton getting 50% of the national vote.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at au av aw ax ay az McPherson, J. (2001). To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents. Dorling Kindersly Publishing.
  2. ^ a b c d e Diller, D., & Robertson, S. (2001). The Presidents, First Ladies, and Vice Presidents. CQ Press.
  3. ^ "About President James Garfield". What is USA News. 2 September 2013. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
  4. ^ "Plurality Wins in the 1992 Presidential Race: Perot's Contribution to Clinton's Victory". Archive.fairvote.org. Retrieved 2017-03-12.
  5. ^ Schmalz, Jeffrey (November 4, 1992), "Clinton Carves a Path Deep Into Reagan Country", The New York Times
  6. ^ 1992 Presidential Election – What if Scenario
  7. ^ Public Opinion Watch, archived from the original on 2009-08-23, retrieved 2015-06-06
  8. ^ Mishel, Lawrence; Teixeira, Ruy A. (December 30, 1998), The Political Arithmetic of the NAFTA Vote (PDF), archived from the original (PDF) on November 28, 2008, retrieved June 6, 2015
  9. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-02-28. Retrieved 2009-02-28.
  10. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-02-07. Retrieved 2009-02-07.
  11. ^ "U.S. Presidential Election Center". Gallup. Retrieved 2017-03-12.
  12. ^ http://www.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/1996/elections/natl.exit.poll/index1.html