A Jacksonian Curse? Defying the Democratic ‘Lock’ on the Electoral College

President Donald Trump’s tenure in the Oval Office has extended past six months, but his surprise electoral victory and the ongoing saga of his presidency ensures the arcane electoral college system remains at the forefront of many American minds.

Trump’s victory disproved the notion that Democrats have a ‘lock’ on the electoral college. Narrow wins in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin show that Democrats can no longer count these states among the perceived ‘blue wall’ of Democratic dominance in future elections.

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Andrew Jackson, Thomas Sully , 1824

In fact, the Republican Party appears to have a stronger base in the socially conservative Southern and Great Plains states, which will make it even more of a challenge for the Democrats to win in the future.

The failings of the electoral college?

Many of the Democratic faithful remain outraged at the defeat of their presidential nominee. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million ballots, yet was soundly beaten in the electoral college. Clinton’s defeat revitalised the push to abolish the electoral college in favour of the president being the winner of the popular vote. Such a change would end an institution ingrained in American political tradition, not to mention within the nation’s political psyche. Yet, such reform is supported by an array of political scientists and politicians alike.

Within a week of Trump’s electoral victory, retiring Senator Barbara Boxer introduced a bill “proposing an amendment to the Constitution” that would “abolish the electoral college” in favour of the “direct popular election of the President and Vice President of the United States.” Subsequently, in January 2017, Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee proposed a joint resolution before the new Congress to achieve this goal.

Criticism of the electoral college weighs heavily upon the winner-take-all system in place, whereby, no matter the margin of victory, the entirety of a state’s electoral votes (aside from those of Maine and Nebraska) are granted to the candidate that attains a plurality of cast ballots.

Opponents of the electoral college deem this undemocratic, whilst supporters contend it reflects the overall will of each state’s population and the original design of the American founding fathers. Such opposition to the electoral college is by no means a new phenomenon, nor is Clinton’s electoral college defeat an anomaly in US presidential elections.

Could a similar result occur in the future?

It has been well publicised that Trump is the fifth president elected despite having lost the popular vote. The first of these instances occurred in 1824 when, after the collapse of the Federalist Party, four candidates representing the Democratic-Republican Party, the only major political force that remained, competed to be appointed the 6th President of the United States.

From the four-man field, Andrew Jackson emerged the winner of the popular vote, garnering 41.4% of votes cast. Jackson, however, attained just 99 electoral votes, shy of the required 131, yet ahead of his closest rival, John Quincy Adams, who had won 84. Consequently, the election was decided by the House of Representatives where, in defiance of the popular result, Adams won the requisite support to claim the presidency.

Jackson, outraged by his loss as he had initially polled 10% higher than his rival at the election, deemed Adams’ victory a “corrupt bargain” between the newly-elected president and their fourth-placed opponent, John Clay. Clay, as Speaker of the House, had the status to play kingmaker and, due to his disdain for Jackson, he withdrew from the race and endorsed Adams. In return, Clay was appointed Secretary of State. Four years later, with his newly-formed Democratic Party behind him, Jackson exacted his revenge as he comfortably defeated Adams to claim the presidency.

In the near two centuries since, four candidates have suffered a similar Jacksonian electoral college defeat despite attaining a plurality of the popular vote.

All four of these candidates were Democrats.

In addition to Clinton in 2016, New York Governor Samuel Tilden in 1876, then-President Grover Cleveland in 1888, and then-Vice President Al Gore in 2000, were defeated by their respective Republican opponents in the electoral college despite their popular vote victories. Although each of these Democratic candidates attained a plurality of votes, only Tilden, who lost the 1876 election in what was deemed the ‘fraud of the century’, won a majority in the popular vote (50.9%). Despite the widespread anger at her loss in 2016, Clinton did not replicate Tilden’s feat. In garnering 48.1% of the popular vote, she failed to attain a majority.

Clinton’s loss echoes that of Jackson in 1824, which was the first presidential election in which no candidate attained a popular vote majority. This defeat is, however, indicative of a greater trend of electoral performance among Democratic nominees. In the 46 presidential elections since Jackson left office, Democratic nominees have won a popular vote majority on just 11 occasions. Further, just six of the thirteen directly-elected Democratic presidents since Jackson received a majority of the popular vote, and only four since the Civil War.

By comparison, only four of seventeen directly-elected Republican presidents (inclusive of Trump) never attained a majority of the popular vote, reflective of the party’s consistent ability to attain the confidence of the American populace.

Clearly, the Democratic Party, despite its nominees having attained a plurality of the popular vote in all but one of the past seven presidential elections, by no means have a ‘lock’ on the electoral college. In fact, the Democratic Party has consistently struggled over the course of almost two centuries to win a popular vote majority, let alone the electoral college and presidency.

Perhaps the initial ‘corrupt bargain’ that denied Andrew Jackson the presidency was an omen for the Democratic Party, which has since experienced, on four occasions, the curse of winning a plurality of the popular vote only to be denied the presidency.

John Charles Pilbrow is a MPhil at Monash University