Feb. 18, 2013
On the third Monday in February we honor those select Americans who were elected president of the United States. But we rarely, if ever, take time to honor the also-rans.
Not just any old also-ran deserves to be honored, of course. Thousands of people have sought the presidency, but that doesn’t mean they’re especially worthy of recognition. Some candidates, though, have come within a handsbreadth of winning election to the highest office in the land, only to fall short in ways that must have added to the sting of defeat.
Throughout US history, three near-miss hopefuls actually received more votes than their opponents, only to be denied once all the rules were followed.
Andrew Jackson, 1824
In the case of John Quincy Adams’ election over Andrew Jackson in 1824, the pain of defeat only lasted four years.
Jackson was elected in 1828 in a rematch against Adams, this time devoid of Henry Clay and William H. Crawford of Georgia. Clay and Adams made a deal in 1824 that ensured Jackson, despite carrying 12 states and getting the most votes, would not assume office. The American people were not impressed, rejecting Adams soundly in 1828. Jackson was elected with 56 percent of the popular vote in his one-on-one rematch against Adams.
Samuel Tilden, 1876
If winning the most votes got a person elected president, Samuel Tilden would have been the first Democrat elected president since James Buchanan’s pre-Civil War victory of 1856. In the 1876 presidential election, Tilden easily won the national popular vote, getting roughly 51 percent to Hayes’ 48 percent.
But Hayes edged Tilden 185-184 in the closest electoral race in US history. The Southern states of Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana sent two sets of electoral votes to Congress, leading to Hayes’ eventual inauguration as president. Additionally, an Oregon elector was disqualified that year, preventing a tie. Tilden came closer than any candidate in history to winning the presidency without actually assuming office.
Al Gore, 2000
Al Gore’s tough loss in 2000 can be blamed on a number of factors, from an inept campaign that failed to deliver his home state of Tennessee to his choice of a vice-presidential running mate to his feud with incumbent President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair. In the final analysis, however, it all came down to Florida.
Gore appeared headed for victory on the night of Nov. 7, 2000, when the major networks declared the vice president had won the crucial state, just as Clinton had won it in 1992 and 1996. But the announcement was premature. A variety of factors caused the networks to withdraw their projections of a Gore victory, and within a few hours, Fox News called the Sunshine State for eventual President George W. Bush. Even though the call at Fox was made by Bush’s cousin, John Ellis, the other networks followed suit and projected Bush as the winner.
But that move proved premature also, as none of the networks had taken into account that Florida law had an automatic recount provision for elections in which the top two finishers were separated by less than half a percentage point. Gore, apparently, had not taken this into account either, because he called Bush to concede soon after the networks reversed their call and projected that Bush would Florida.
By morning, though, with actual returns showing the race still too close to call, Gore reversed his concession and made the decision to lawyer-up and fight for the presidency. The fight dragged on for days until the Supreme Court, in Bush v. Gore, effectively declared Bush president by ruling that the possibility of harm from possibly counting illegal votes outweighed the right of qualified voters to have their legal votes counted.
Given the contentious state of affairs in the United States today, something equally strange or stranger than the presidential elections of 1824, 1876 and 2000 seems well within the realm of possibility for 2016, especially if Republican-dominated state legislatures succeed in attempts to reallocate electoral votes based on congressional districts.
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