John Quincy Adams won the election of 1824, but actually didn't even come close to winning the popular vote that Andrew Jackson had amassed in the contest. However, with four candidates running the vote was so divided that it was left up to the House of Representatives to select the new President and they chose Adams.
James Garfield won his 1880 election in the closest popular vote in U.S. History.
Warren Harding took the election of 1920 with an overwhelming popular vote margin of 26.17 percent over James M. Cox. Cox's running mate in the election was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
While it isn't easy for most people to recite the names of every president that has ever held office in the United States, some names pop up that people do know like Kennedy, Roosevelt, Reagan, Washington, Lincoln and so on.
But what about these names: Lewis Cass, Horatio Seymore, Samuel Tilden, Alton Brooks Parker, John W. Davis and James M. Cox?
These men were the lose But when looking at past presidential elections, the idea that an election could be so close (and the country so divided) as the present one, this is not a new phenomenon. In fact the chances are about one in four that any given presidential election will be close, with only four percent of the vote separating the candidates.
The problem comes in the fact that many people have a short memory about both routs and wins that are eked out of the political landscape, especially if they are on one side of the political aisle or the other. Republicans recall the big victory Ronald Reagan had over Walter Mondale in 1984 (18.21 percent victory margin) while Democrats like to think back about how Lyndon Johnson destroyed Barry Goldwater's hopes to the tune of 22.58 percent.
However most elections are not blowouts or really close. Most have been settled within a 5-12 percent margin of victory. But people often seem to want to look at the extremes, not the usual.
The close elections (out of the 46 times Americans have voted for President since 1824, when the country began tabulating the popular vote) which were decided by 4 percent or less of the popular vote number 12. Within that 12 are the most spoken about close elections of all; those where the eventual winner actually lost the popular vote, but won the election via the Electoral College. And not all of them happened in the last 40 years as some would have the public believe.
There have been four elections where the winner won only because of the
electoral college, with the first being in 1824 when Andrew Jackson was defeated by
John Quincy Adams for the Presidency. Only 356,038 people voted in that election,
but the states' electoral votes gave Adams the job despite the fact that Jackson actually got over 44,000 more votes than Adams. However this wasn't like today's elections with only two major candidates. Also running were William Harris with 47,000 votes and Henry Clay with over 46,000 votes. Each were set for a number of electoral college votes. None of the candidates had a majority of electoral college votes so the matter went to the House of Representatives. There the legislators picked from the three highest vote totals. Because of that Clay's votes went to Adams. The problem was that those running represented various shades of gray of the Jeffersonian Republican Party. Adams and Clay were known at the time as National Republicans and Jackson's followers were labeled Democratic-Republicans. It was later shortened to Democrats and Jackson became the father of that party. Clay's votes were thrown to Adams because of that.
But Jackson had his revenge on both men. In 1828, he ran again and bashed Adams right out of the job with an over 12 percent margin and in 1832 was reelected when he defeated Henry Clay by almost 18 percent.
In 1876 Rutherford B. Hayes beat Samuel J. Tilden for the Presidency, yet
he lost the popular vote by a margin of 3 percent. Twelve years later
Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland, but had .83 percent less of the popular vote than his opponent. Again, however, the scales of equality seems to have come back when in the next election (1892) Cleveland came back and beat Harrison by 3.01 percent and won the electoral college as well. This made Cleveland the only President that ever served two terms non-concurrent (1884-1888 and 1892-1896).
Then there is the most recent election in which this happened, the 2000
Presidential election. George W. Bush won the election while losing by .51 percent of the popular vote. Al Gore actually got almost 544,000 more votes.
Moving past the elections where the winners were really the losers in
terms of popular vote, the closet election ever was not the John F. Kennedy-Richard Nixon election of 1960. Of the over 34,000,000 votes cast, Kennedy only won by 112,827 or .17 percent. But one better happened in 1880 when James A. Garfield beat Winfield Scott Hancock by 9,070 votes out of four and a half million cast. There are six other elections where the popular vote was decided by less than 3 percent of the vote, including the election of 2004 between the aforementioned George W. Bush and John Kerry.
As for the blowouts, it wasn't the defeat of Walter Mondale by Reagan in
1984, although that ranks amongst the top 10. It was the election of 1920, when Warren G. Harding beat James M. Cox by 26.17 percent of the popular vote. The next to biggest margin came four years later in 1924 when Calvin Coolidge defeated John W. Davis by 25.22 percent. Franklin Delano Roosevelt beat Herbert Hoover in 1932 by 17.76 percent after the economy tanked and the nation was plunged into the Great Depression. In the next election he even throttled Alf Landon by more, 24.26 percent. He went on to another two unprecedented wins in 1940 and 1944, but his wins were diminished in size as each election came up.
Overall the average winning percentage for all 46 elections, including those that were actually popular vote losses and the overwhelming wins is 9.53 percent.
(Sources: U.S. Government record and Famous First Facts. Photos Wikipedia)