[Two rocking chars sit on a front porch. In one, there's an older man, maybe sixty. In the other, a young boy of about 12. Both are drinking lemonade. It's still afternoon, but the July sun is starting to set.]
BOY: Grandpa, tell me about the [election of 1860 / GOP nomination of 2012].
GRANDPA: Oh, geez, big guy. That was quite some time ago. I wasn’t much more than your age back in those days. But what a contest! What do you want to know?
BOY: Well, nothing in particular, I guess. Just what happened.
GRANDPA: Well, let me see. There were four major candidates by the time we got around to serious votin’. Other names had been tossed around, including some bigger names. A Senator. A Governor or two. But none of them panned out. Never made it to the dog days. [see here, and here]
BOY: Who were the four candidates?
GRANDPA: The strongest one of them, the fella who ended up winning, he wasn’t really a politician by trade. A politico, yes. But not really a career elected official. He had held a high office for one term, but didn’t stand for re-election. Now, don’t get me wrong, he had been in and around national politics for years, but just not as a candidate. Oh wait, let me see … scratch that, he also lost a Senate election at one point too. [see here, and here]
BOY: How’d he end up win—
GRANDPA: Hold on. Slow down. We’ll get to that. You see, it’s not usually the case that we have four candidates. Most of the time, it’s just two. But that year was special. People couldn’t decide who they wanted to support. Many of them — heck, more than half of them — knew they didn’t want the fella who ended up winning. But that didn’t add up to them being able to settle on one of the other men.
BOY: Wait, the fella that won — he didn’t get more than half the votes?
GRANDPA: Ha. No he did not. Not even close. Across the nation, he got something like 40% of the vote. He lost a lot of states, and even in the states he won, he didn’t always get half the votes. [see here, and here]
BOY: Well, then how did he win?
GRANDPA: Because getting half the votes — that’s not the way the system works!
BOY: It isn’t? I thought this was a democracy. Doesn’t the majority rule?
GRANDPA: No! In many cases, the plurality rules. A majority against you — so long is it is divided — often isn’t enough to stop you. Trust me, more than a few people messed this up at the time. All ranting and raving about how this fella couldn’t attract the majority of the national electorate to back him, how he couldn’t win in certain parts of the country, especially down south. None of it mattered, because politics is a numbers game, and the numbers that matter are not votes, but electors. [see here, and here]
GRANDPA: Yeah, you know. Electors. Delegates. The men who really make the decision. They are the key. Every state got a handful of them, roughly in proportion to their popular strength. And those states got to hand them out in whatever way they saw fit. Under law, of course. [see here, and here]
BOY: And different states did it differently?
GRANDPA: That’s right. They could hold an election. They could have the elected officials decide. Whatever they wanted. But more importantly, they could also hand out the electors by any formula they wanted. Back that year, some states gave the electors out proportionally. But a lot of states just gave all their electors to whoever got the most votes. [see here, see here]
BOY: Even if they didn’t get the majority of the votes?
GRANDPA: That’s right! And that was the key. The fella that won, he didn’t sweat not having a majority of the vote in most of the states, because he knew — just as his opponents knew — that so long as he got a plurality in a lot of those winner-take-all states, he was gonna get all the electors. And that meant that 40% of the national vote could easily translate into a landslide among the electors.
BOY: That’s funny math.
GRANDPA: Well, it cut both ways, the winner-take-all system. In a multi-candidate field, 40% of the national vote could turn into a landslide victory if you spread it around right. But it can also turn into a landslide loss if you didn’t spread it around right.
GRANDPA: Think about it. If you lost those winner-take-all states by a very slim number of votes, you got nothing. So your 40% in a state might have translated into 25 delegates, while my 39.99% translated into zero.
BOY: Did that really happen?
GRANDPA: You bet it did. The fella who ran second in the national vote, he ran into that problem in a bunch of places. In some places the fella that won got 35% of the vote and he got 32%. One state in particular — I can’t remember what it was — he lost by less than 1% of the vote. And neither of them got close to 50% of the votes in that state — the other candidates ran fairly strong. [see here, and here]
BOY: But if all the other candidates were opposed to the winner, why didn’t they organize together and run one candidate against him?
GRANDPA: That’s a good question. And there are a bunch of answers. For one, it might not have mattered. Because the voters who supported the other candidates weren’t exactly 100% united against the guy who won. A fair number of them thought of him as their second-choice. So if one of the opponents had dropped out, a lot of his voters would have drifted toward the winner. It’s just wasn’t necessarily the case that any individual opponent could have beaten him. A lot of people have been fooled by this over the years — thinking that any single opponent could have won — but that’s not true.
Second, some of other candidates thought they could win. Couldn’t blame them for trying! Although the math of the election was pretty obvious, in retrospect, from the get-go, a lot of people thought it was a wide open field. Including the other candidates. So none of them really wanted to give up until it was clear they were beaten, and by that point they were all beaten.
It was also probably the case that at least one, and maybe all, of the candidates weren’t even trying to win, just trying to keep the main fella from getting a majority of the delegates. To get the vote into a brokering situation, where they thought they might have more leverage. And in that case, it sometimes would be correct for everyone to keep running in opposition. You know, you beat him in that state, I’ll beat him in this one, and so forth.
BOY: But that still doesn’t explain the situation. There aren’t usually 4 candidates. What happened?
GRANDPA: Well, it was a crazy time. Tension had been building within the system for a while. You see a war had occurred about a decade earlier, and it left an incredible political mess in its wake. A pretty strong cleavage had developed within the electorate, and there was a somewhat radical movement afoot that threatened to shake up the traditional political alliances. So you had this new radical grassroots element threatening to capture things, and the traditionalists and the old guard trying to resist it. [see here, and here]
BOY: So it was a gradual thing?
GRANDPA: Kinda. And it was definitely coming to a head that year. But a few events actually created the long, drawn-out, multi-candidate race. You see, the Supreme Court had just a few years prior issued a decision, and that decision had really opened up the floodgates. Totally rearranged the playing field and the candidates’ calculus. [see here, and here]
BOY: Must have been some decision.
GRANDPA: Indeed. But that’s not all. Two of the opposition candidates, as well as their respective followers, really hated each other. And again, this is another reason they couldn’t simply combine. They had been part of the same movement years before, but the events of the decade, as well as their personal animosity for each other and respective egos, had driven them apart. [see here/here, and here/here]
BOY: Wow, they must have really hated each other.
GRANDPA: Yup. One of them was strongest in the South, the other ran well in the old west, east of the Mississippi. What some call the Midwest now. And while some people deny it, it was pretty clear that the one fella took that Supreme Court decision and more or less used it as a sledgehammer to try to destroy the other fella.
BOY: What about the fourth candidate, you haven’t said anything about him?
GRANDPA: Well, he was never really considered a serious contender. He had a base of support among a very narrow strip of the electorate, but it really wasn’t enough to make much difference. And his platform was also really orthogonal to the rest of the candidates. Sure, it dealt with the pressing issues of the day, but not in a way too many voters were considering them at that point. He only got about 10% of the vote. [see here, and here]
BOY: Why didn’t people gravitate toward the guy who won? What didn’t voters like about him?
GRANDPA: Well, it was partially an artifact of the 4-way race. More choice just reduces your percentage. Still, I appreciate your question. It was largely two things. As with all candidates, some voters just didn’t like him. But a lot of the voters who were on the fence, voters who might have voted for him, simply didn’t trust him. He had been kinda late to his positions, I guess, and that made him somewhat unpalatable to those who might have been his base, and slippery to everyone. But mostly people were searching for something that simply wasn’t available. All our political heroes of the previous generation — the men who had held the disparate strands together in the past — had died. But their shadows loomed large over the election. [see here, and here]
BOY: I see. So the stakes were pretty high?
GRANDPA: They were. The nation was more or less deadlocked over some fundamental issues, and whoever won the election was going to have a pretty big hand shaping the future.
BOY: I would have loved to see the campaign!
GRANDPA: Honestly, that was the strange part. The campaign seemed utterly detached from reality. There was a lot of debate, of course. And everyone was saying things related to the keys issues. But it didn’t seem like anyone wanted to wrestle with the fundamental problems at hand. In a lot of ways, it felt like the same old song and dance. The confetti came out, the rallies were held, and the past allegiances determined the outcome. Some people saw that we were on a precipice, but mostly it was just politics as usual.
BOY: Who’d you vote for?
GRANDPA: Wasn’t old enough to vote, but great-grandpa voted for the guy who came in fourth. Ha! [But, then again, maybe he cared about the union first and foremost? -ed]
BOY: So it was pretty memorable, I guess, grandpa.
GRANDPA: Yes. It was one hell of a contest, not one I’ll soon forget. Quite different than anything I ever read about that came before it, in form if not in substance, at least. And boy was it consequential. Wow.
BOY: Why, what happened after the election?
GRANDPA: A lot. But that’s a story for another time…