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Did JFK Lose the Popular Vote?

Did JFK Lose the Popular Vote?

By Sean Trende - October 19, 2012


Right now the RCP Averages are showing an odd situation. Mitt Romney leads nationally by one point, but trails in the Electoral College by a 294-244 count. Moreover, electoral vote number 270 (right now, Wisconsin) favors President Obama by a two-point margin.

While I believe that an electoral vote/popular vote disconnect of this magnitude is unlikely, it certainly is possible that we’ll see another split between the two, especially if the popular vote is decided by less than a point. If that happens, Americans will once again receive a civics lesson in how presidents are really chosen.

In particular, we’ll be reminded of the four canonical instances where the electoral vote and popular vote went to different candidates: 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000. These are fairly well known to political junkies.

Far less well-known is that we should probably include a fifth such split: 1960.

Now, just to be clear, the argument that Richard Nixon should be credited with a popular vote win in 1960 doesn’t rest on theories about dead people voting in Chicago or cows voting in Texas. It does rest on a fuller understanding of Southern voting history.

Before going further, credit where credit is due. This analysis isn’t something I discovered on my own. Instead, it derives from a pair of articles published in PS: Political Science and Politics. The first, authored by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor Brian Gaines, appeared in the March 2001 edition of that journal. The second, by George Mason University professor Gordon Tullock, appeared in the January 2004 edition. Even back in 1960, Congressional Quarterly concluded that it was Nixon, not Kennedy, who had won the popular vote, for the reasons that follow.

If you asked your average political aficionado when the South began to leave the Democratic Party, the answer would probably be 1964. In truth, that exit has much deeper roots. A better starting date is 1938, when FDR conducted an unsuccessful purge of conservative Southerners. The Democratic share of the vote in the South steadily declined from that date forward, as the national Democratic Party fully embraced progressivism.

Things famously came to a head in 1948, when the Democratic National Convention (to Harry Truman’s private consternation) adopted a pro-Civil Rights plank in the party’s platform. The Southern delegation walked out of the convention and formed the Dixiecrat Party.

But -- and this is critical -- the goal of Dixiecrats was not to win the popular vote or Electoral College outright. They recognized this as impossible at a time when Reconstruction was still a living memory for many voters (in fact, the last Civil War veteran didn’t die until 1956).

Rather, the Dixiecrats hoped to deny either party a majority of the electoral vote. That would throw the election to the House of Representatives, where each state is allotted one vote. The 11 states from the Old Confederacy would surely hold the balance of power in such an election, and could extract assurances on civil rights from whichever party wanted the victory the most.

It didn’t come close to working (somewhat surprisingly, in retrospect), and there wouldn’t be another major effort by a Southern candidate to split the Electoral College for another 20 years. But Southern states didn’t give up their quest. In 1956, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana offered up “unpledged” slates of electors who would be free to vote for whomever they wished, and could make the difference in a close election.

This brings us, finally, to 1960. In that year, the canonical recitation advises us that Sen. John F. Kennedy defeated Vice President Richard Nixon in an incredibly close popular vote, 34,220,984 to 34,108,157. That’s a difference of only 112,827 votes.

It’s also inaccurate. Three states -- Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama -- offered unpledged slates of electors. In Louisiana, the unpledged delegates came in third place to Kennedy and Nixon, receiving only 21 percent of the vote. In Mississippi, the unpledged electors won, edging out Kennedy by three percentage points; those electors eventually voted for Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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