Is 1888 Casting a Long Shadow?November 2, 2000
David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Imagine a presidential campaign matching two solid but somehow uninspiring men. One boasts a pale power of incumbency; the other--a governor from the nation's midsection--bears the surname of a former president. The skyrocketing cost of old age pensions is an issue, along with the question of what to do with a huge federal surplus.
The race is close--so close that, come Election Day, one man carries the popular vote, while the other wins the Electoral College.
Year 2000? Not yet. This was 1888.
Public opinion in this year's presidential campaign has defied all efforts to stampede it in one direction or the other. Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush remain essentially deadlocked. In Washington, the world's conventional wisdom capital, the only consensus as the balloting approaches is a nervous uncertainty.
So thoughts turn to fevered speculation. One prime topic: Could we get a split decision for the first time in 112 years? An even juicier subfantasy asks: What if the electoral vote ends in a tie?
Neither result is likely, but a split decision is entirely possible and a tie is within the realm of plausibility. Split decisions tend to arise from deep regional differences, when one candidate wins by huge margins in certain areas, while the other carries a majority of electoral votes by much narrower totals. Because the Electoral College votes are winner-take-all in most states, it doesn't matter whether a candidate wins by one vote or one million.
An Electoral College tie, meanwhile, is unprecedented in U.S. history. But state-by-state polls this year suggest more than one scenario that--if everything goes precisely--would generate a deadlock. Then the president would be chosen by the House of Representatives, with each state delegation receiving one vote.
Typically, the Electoral College makes close elections look less tight, rather than more so. In 1960, for example, John F. Kennedy edged Richard M. Nixon by a tiny popular vote margin, but the electoral vote spread sounded much bigger : 303 to 212.
Electoral College math is the not-so-secret vice of politics wonks. (Here's a wonk's dream: http://www.avagara.com/e_c/). The last time the game took a wild twist, though, was way back in 1888.
President Grover Cleveland (D) defeated Indiana Gov. Benjamin Harrison (R) by 90,000 votes, thanks to his 3 to 1 advantage in six southern states. But he lost the Electoral College. That was an election, like this one, that found America at peace, moving into a new economy, when issues of character mixed confusedly with issues of money, when one candidate sewed up the Old Confederacy while the other captured the Northeast.
Let's set the stage :
First, it's worth understanding why there is an Electoral College. Most of the Founding Fathers had some pretty serious reservations about direct popular voting. Some were philosophical -- worries about mob rule and so forth. Some were pragmatic -- the small states worried that a few big, populous states would wind up running everything.
So America got a Senate, in which states large and small have the same representation, and an Electoral College, which filters the popular vote for the White House. It's not one-citizen, one-vote, but both institutions are woven deeply into the Constitution.
No one paid much attention to popular votes until 1824. That year, three strong presidential candidates divided the election so deeply that the matter was thrown into the House. Andrew Jackson won the most votes, and the most electors, but he failed to win a majority. Third-place finisher Henry Clay threw his support to runner-up John Quincy Adams and Jackson was defeated. The Tennessee populist launched a campaign against the injustice of this, and four years later captured the White House.
After that, the 12th Amendment was ratified to fine-tune the system, and now it works this way: When citizens cast votes for president, they are really choosing electors pledged to one ticket or the other. On occasion, electors abandon their pledges, but in the vast majority of cases, the team that wins a state's popular vote, no matter how narrowly, gets all the state's electors, which equal the number of the state's congressional representatives in the House and Senate. (This number ranges from three electoral votes in sparsely populated places such as Wyoming to 54 in California. The District of Columbia gets three electors. The electoral total is 538, so in theory there could be a 269 to 269 tie.)
Enough civics. On to history :
When Abraham Lincoln won the Civil War, it was a triumph for the entire Republican Party. From 1860 to 1884, the GOP won every presidential election, despite scandal, assassination and frequently weak candidates. But as the South dug out from under Reconstruction, the Democrats gathered strength.
In 1884, Democrats shrewdly nominated the reformist governor of New York, a rotund New Jersey native named Cleveland. With an Indiana man as vice president, Cleveland leveraged a tiny 20,000-vote popular vote victory into a decisive Electoral College win. By the skin of his teeth, Cleveland added New York, New Jersey, Indiana and Connecticut to the Democratic base in the South.
Four years later, same dynamic, different result. The Tammany Hall bosses of New York City harbored a deep grudge against Cleveland, who was known above all for his integrity. The big man was bad news for political patronage. Tammany shifted New York, barely, to Harrison, a small man with a big voice whose grandfather had briefly served as the ninth president.
The choice of an Indiana governor to carry the GOP standard tipped Indiana away from Cleveland. These two changes gave Harrison his edge.
Neither man fired the imagination. The white-bearded Harrison was "a machine guy ... probably most famous for impersonating Santa Claus for his children," says Cleveland biographer H. Paul Jeffers. Cleveland, on the other hand, virtually refused to campaign.
The issues were arcane. Cleveland had resisted the explosion of special pensions voted by Congress for Civil War veterans. His cost-consciousness on this emotional issue was controversial. So was his centerpiece idea: cutting tariffs on imported goods. This was popular with rural consumers who paid high prices, but anathema to the industrial giants of the north who enjoyed the tariff protection.
It was wrong, Cleveland argued, to run big budget surpluses thanks to high tariffs, when the money ought to go back to the people. If Congress had extra money, he warned, Congress would spend it.
The split decision in 1888 provoked no outcry against the Electoral College system, perhaps because the country had recently swallowed a far more inflammatory result. In 1876, Republicans brokered a deal with the South to end Reconstruction in exchange for the votes to elect Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel Tilden, the popular-vote winner.
Cleveland narrowly won his rematch with the lackluster Harrison in 1892. He took office in time to endure a devastating depression and a bout of labor unrest. After Cleveland, the GOP owned the White House for 28 of the next 36 years, and might have won them all had it not been for an intramural squabble in 1912.
Perhaps there's a lesson to be drawn from the wild years of the 1870s and 1880s. The struggle for the White House was a recurrent chaos, but the country itself used those years to move from war-torn desperation to continent-spanning power.
If America could handle the rogue and jumbled elections of those years, the barn-burner of 2000 surely is no big deal. Maybe that's why Washington finds this idle speculation more fun than frightening.
2000 The Washington Post Company