Who Would Win Historical US Presidential Run-off Elections?

Chlodio

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Aug 2016
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This thread was inspired by another thread on the US Electoral College. What if there was no Electoral College? Fourteen US elections were won by candidates who got a plurality of votes, not a majority. Two of those elections were post 1991, and we won't discuss them, but the other 12 should provide ample fodder. Those elections were: 1844, 1848, 1856, 1860, 1880, 1884, 1892, 1912, 1916, 1948, 1960, & 1968. If there is no Electoral College to pick a winner then we have at least three choices:
1. Let the candidate with the plurality become president even though he does not have the support of a majority of voters
2. Have the top two candidates compete in a run-off election
3. Let the House of Representatives pick the president
Based on the example of 1824, I think option 3 is the worst choice. I think option 2 is best, but you are certainly free to challenge those opinions.

The plurality election Historumites are most familiar with is 1860:
Lincoln, Republican - 40%
Douglas, Northern Democrat - 30%
Breckinridge, Southern Democrat - 18%
Bell, Constitutional Union Party (Whig) - 12%

In a two man run-off between Lincoln and Douglas I see all Breckinridge and most Bell supporters going to Douglas. He would become president. I don't want to get into what would happen if Lincoln or any other historical president lost their election. If you want to talk about that, start your own thread. You can certainly argue with me if you think Lincoln could have pulled out a popular vote victory in a run-off. One improvise we'll have to accept is that neither Lincoln nor Douglas appeared on the ballet in most Southern states. For purposes of this mental exercise we'll have to assume that they were on the ballet for the run-off. Otherwise the South is abstaining and letting the North pick the president all by themselves.

There was a similar dynamic in 1856:
Buchanan, Democrat - 45%
Fremont, Republican - 33%
Fillmore, Know Nothing (Whig) - 21%
Most of Fillmore's votes came in the South where Fremont was not on the ballot. His voters were voting against Buchanan, but in a two man race I don't see Southerners voting for Fremont, so I think most of Fillmore's support goes to Buchanan. That interpretation might be more controversial than my 1860 analysis. Feel free to argue with me. That's what this thread is all about.

I intend to get to all or most of the other elections eventually. 1848 and 1912 will be next.
 
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Jan 2013
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Toronto, Canada
I agree with you about 1856, but I'm not sure about 1860. I feel like most of Breckinridge's supporters would have boycotted a run-off between Lincoln and Douglas. After all, most of them walked out of the Democratic Party rather than support Douglas as the nominee. That leaves Bell's voters. Many of them would have supported Douglas to forestall secession, but many of them had also spent years fighting Douglas as Whigs and Douglas had to win a large majority of Bell voters to overtake Lincoln. I don't know if he could have done it.

Note: All of this assumes that the runoff would be decided by popular vote. Bell and Breckinridge got relatively few votes in northern states, so Lincoln would have probably won the Electoral College regardless.
 
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Kotromanic

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
5,013
Iowa USA
Reagan didn't make it over 50 percent by very much in 1980, but that is interesting, twelve non majority elections.
 
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Chlodio

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Aug 2016
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I agree with you about 1856, but I'm not sure about 1860. I feel like most of Breckinridge's supporters would have boycotted a run-off between Lincoln and Douglas. After all, most of them walked out of the Democratic Party rather than support Douglas as the nominee. That leaves Bell's voters. Many of them would have supported Douglas to forestall secession, but many of them had also spent years fighting Douglas as Whigs and Douglas had to win a large majority of Bell voters to overtake Lincoln. I don't know if he could have done it.

Note: All of this assumes that the runoff would be decided by popular vote. Bell and Breckinridge got relatively few votes in northern states, so Lincoln would have probably won the Electoral College regardless.
Except there is no Electoral College in this speculation.

I hadn't considered a boycott. Yes, it's possible if enough Breckinridge voters stayed home and if Bell voters stayed home or voted for Lincoln that Lincoln may have won.
 
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Chlodio

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Aug 2016
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Election of 1848:
Taylor, Whig - 47%
Cass, Democrat - 42%
Van Buren, Free Soil - 10%

This one's a tough one. Who would Van Buren voters go for? Taylor or Cass?

Election of 1912:
Wilson, Democrat - 43%
Roosevelt, Progressive Party - 27%
Taft, Republican - 23%
Debs, Socialist - 6%

This one is interesting because it's the only time in US history when a third party candidate had a realistic chance to win, at least in our speculative scenario of a run-off between Wilson and Roosevelt. But if Debs voters all go for Wilson, it's very close.
 

Futurist

Ad Honoris
May 2014
22,247
SoCal
Reagan didn't make it over 50 percent by very much in 1980, but that is interesting, twelve non majority elections.
Carter also didn't make it over 50 percent by very much in 1976. He literally made it over the majority threshold by a mere 0.07%!
 
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Futurist

Ad Honoris
May 2014
22,247
SoCal
Election of 1848:
Taylor, Whig - 47%
Cass, Democrat - 42%
Van Buren, Free Soil - 10%

This one's a tough one. Who would Van Buren voters go for? Taylor or Cass?
Who out of those two would be perceived as the most anti-slavery candidate?

Election of 1912:
Wilson, Democrat - 43%
Roosevelt, Progressive Party - 27%
Taft, Republican - 23%
Debs, Socialist - 6%

This one is interesting because it's the only time in US history when a third party candidate had a realistic chance to win, at least in our speculative scenario of a run-off between Wilson and Roosevelt. But if Debs voters all go for Wilson, it's very close.
This one I could see going either way; it's essentially going to be 1916 four years earlier, but replace the GOP with the Progressive Party. I think that Wilson would narrowly win due to the likely attempts that Taft would make to undermine TR's candidacy in the runoff, though.
 

Futurist

Ad Honoris
May 2014
22,247
SoCal
Except there is no Electoral College in this speculation.

I hadn't considered a boycott. Yes, it's possible if enough Breckinridge voters stayed home and if Bell voters stayed home or voted for Lincoln that Lincoln may have won.
I still think that most of them would have viewed Douglas as the lesser evil, though.
 

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
4,913
Australia
JFK won a 303 to 219 Electoral College victory but only won the popular vote by 0.17%. If he wasn't being supported by the mafia and the teamsters union in key electorates, he would have lost.
 

Chlodio

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Aug 2016
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JFK won a 303 to 219 Electoral College victory but only won the popular vote by 0.17%. If he wasn't being supported by the mafia and the teamsters union in key electorates, he would have lost.
During the campaign there were allegations made that Joseph Kennedy Sr. was buying the election for his son. When Kennedy made his victory speech he began by saying, "Dad promised me victory but he said he wouldn't pay for a landslide."
 
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