Decision 2024: Electoral College Scholarship

David B Morris
10 min readFeb 19, 2024

How The 3 Closest Presidential Elections of the 20TH Century Poke Holes Into Some of the Reasons Why Some Want it Abolished

The closer we get to November you are going to hear far more than you ever want to about the flaws in the electoral college. There’s been a drumbeat about since 2016, but it’s going to be impossible to ignore it for the next ten months.

I have heard these argument countless times before over the past decade and will hear them countless times again. They argue that is the product of an outdated system that is fundamentally broken and racist. They argue that if we live in a democracy, we must let every vote count and not let the states have all the power. They will argue that it is part of a system that allows power to be in the hands of the few and not the many. And some variation on it will be echoed on every news media outlet, every late night comedy show and every progressive and Democratic website, all of which comes down to the same message: to save America, we must abolish the electoral college.

The fact that almost all of the people pushing this message are members of the Democratic tent is something that they will try their hardest to make you forget. They will say that this has to do with saving the country from Trump or the Republicans (one in the same in their eyes) and nothing to do with the fact that, in the 21st century had their been no electoral college, the Democrats would have won five of the last six Presidential elections by the popular vote. Don’t pretend that any of the people shouting the loudest are doing this out of the desire to completely save democracy.

And it doesn’t escape me that by far the loudest shouters on this are leftists who never miss an opportunity to make it clear that all Republicans do not deserve to have a voice. At all. Not their own news networks, not in the mainstream media. To them, the sole purpose of the Republican party is someone Democrats can defeat. They love to scourge all Republicans — not just their officials but people who vote for them — as evil incarnate and unworthy of living in this country, much less voting in an election. I’ve already written how when David Brooks pointed out that 2500 regions of the country voted for Trump in 2020, Slate reacted to this by saying ‘nobody lived there’. So many of these people think that red states have too much power as it is (read, any). By making sure the popular vote was the only way to count Presidential elections, they would be removing the necessity to have to court Republicans in those same states and just concentrate on building their bases in the regions ‘where everyone lives’.

All of this is a horrible idea, obviously. But what makes it more telling is that this a strategy the Democratic Party has actively been playing towards for longer then you might think — before the Tea Party, before Fox News, before Rush Limbaugh, before Reagan even. Indeed when you look at the three closest Presidential elections in terms of the popular vote leading up to the 2000 election, you realize that the Democratic Party has slowly but surely been building a strategy designed for the model they seemed locked into today.

In this article I will look at the three closest Presidential election in the 20th century: 1960, 1968 and 1976. In it I will show how the Democratic Party has slowly but surely been turning away from the rural voters for even longer than the Republican tried to embrace them — and how the one major attempt in the 20th century to reform the Electoral college may have had less to with electoral reform then trying to negate a threat to the established order.

(Note: I have gone over much of this material in many of my historical series in 2023 many of them involving the same figures I will list here. I will do my best to avoid repetition.)

As I mentioned in my article on the Kennedys, in the 1960 Presidential election it was Republican Richard Nixon who attempted to run the first ever 50 state campaign. He spent much of the election attempting to build on the coalition that Eisenhower had managed to assemble in his two Presidential landslides, winning between a third and 35 percent of the African-American vote while making major inroads into the South.

What I did not mention was that the Kennedy campaign chose a procedure that, in hindsight, bears a resemblance to 21st century Republican campaigns, an effort to win just enough votes to get the Presidency and no more. This decision meant focusing on the biggest electoral prizes which at the time were New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Texas and California. They also decided to focus most of their campaign in regional areas, mainly the South, New England and the Atlantic States.

This decision did not sit well with many party elders or for that matter Democratic Congressmen who wanted the Presidents help in close elections but could not get their time on campaign swings.

Here is an electoral map of the 1960 campaign:

First note that both strategies bore fruit. Nixon carried far more states than Kennedy (26 to 22) as well as more of the country; as Theodore White wrote in his book on this election, Nixon carried five regions of the country, while Kennedy carried only three.

Second, Kennedy did carried five of the seven states that were prizes, losing only California and Ohio. (We shall leave out the cases for fraud in Texas and Illinois.) Those five states amounted to 145 electoral votes, more than half what Kennedy needed to win. The Kennedy campaign had made clear the Democrats could do better if they concentrated more on the urban states than the rural ones, a lesson that would be hard to unlearn.

Moving on to 1968, it is worth noting that one of the biggest factors in that year’s race was the threat that George Wallace was to both parties. As I mentioned in my article on Wallace, both the Republicans and the Democrats were aware of the threat he mustered. Nixon, who was relying on a Southern strategy, was competing more for Wallace’s votes in the South, while Humphrey spent much of the campaign hoping that the presence of Wallace in the North could take enough votes away from Nixon for him to win. Everybody was terrified at the possibility Wallace could carry enough votes — 70 to 80 — to throw the election into the House of Representatives.

Here’s a map for the final vote of 1968:

Several things to note. In 1964 LBJ had carried 44 out of 50 states with 486 electoral votes. Four years later, Humphrey carried 13 states and the District of Columbia. LBJ had won 61 percent of the popular vote; Humphrey got 42.7 percent. And yet despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of the country had lost faith in the Democratic Party over the last four years, Humphrey very nearly won.

In part that is because, like JFK eight years earlier, he managed to carry four of the seven greatest electoral prizes: Texas, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New York. These four states accounted for 118 electoral votes, more than sixty percent of his final count. Nixon, it is worth noting, carried almost every state he had won in 1960 (Washington and Maine went back to the Democratic side). The major difference was, not only had much of the south gone Republican, but he carried Illinois. Had California gone to Humphrey, the election would have been thrown to the House of Representatives.

I think it is in part to avert this chaos that in 1969 Birch Bayh and Emmanuel Celler worked together to produce the electoral reform act. That said, part of me also wonders how much of it was done to negate ‘the Wallace factor’.

Wallace had managed to get 10 million votes and carried five states. He had nearly achieved his goal of throwing the election to the House. Both parties were terrified of the threat Wallace had demonstrated — not necessarily because they disagreed with his rhetoric or even some of his goals, but because how much of a threat it was to the political system. For the next decade both parties would spend a fair amount of time trying to win Wallace voters, and part of me wonders if the reason this reform received such initial massive bipartisan support was in order to negate him as a threat. The fact that Nixon gave initial support for the reform may have been to the results of the 1968 election and his fears for his own reelection.

In any case the vote ended up dying in the Senate to a filibuster, as has been reporter. Left out of the discussion is that after the 1968 election, the Senate was still overwhelmingly Democratic (58 Democrats, 42 Republicans.) Furthermore the motion to deny cloture on the filibuster was denied by 36 votes from Senators from Republican and Democratic states. Yes most of the Senators were from small states who would lose power if this happened, but it does not change the fact that fifty years earlier, even after an election that could have led to weeks of chaos in the aftermath of a tumultuous year, neither side wanted to change the system. The bill died after the 1970 elections.

Let us wrap this up with the 1976 election. It is worth remembering that, for all the beatification Jimmy Carter has received both by Democrats in the left in the last quarter of a century, for his Presidency and his campaign for the Democratic nomination, most of the Democrat establishment had little use for him. Those who viewed him at all only did so as a force to remove George Wallace, now in a wheelchair but still viewed as an electoral threat, as a force in national politics. After Carter managed to defeat Wallace, the rest of the party wanted to get rid of him but he had built up to much support. The liberal wing — particular those led by the Kennedys — never warmed up to him.

It also must be remembered that in the fall campaign, Carter campaigned poorly. After the Democratic convention, he had a 38 percent lead over Gerald Ford. After the Republican convention nominated Ford, it had dropped to eighteen percent but Carter still had an overwhelming margin. Over the next three months Ford wore it down until on election day, it was considered a tossup:

Here are the final results for 1976:

For the third straight close election, the Republican candidate had carried more states than the Democrat. Ford had managed to win 27 states to Carter’s 23 and DC. Indeed, had only 38,000 votes flipped from Democrat to Republican in Ohio and Mississippi, Ford would have won in the electoral college 272 to 266, even though he would have lost by over 1.5 million votes in the popular count.

The map, it’s worth noting, has a striking resembling to both 1960 and 1968, though there are difference. Ford carried the entire Western United states as a block, but he also carried three major electoral prizes, including Michigan and Illinois. Carter carried four of the seven major electoral prizes: Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio which count for 119 electoral votes. Like Kennedy, the major reason for Carter’s triumph is because he almost entirely carried the South. In this case, it was a necessity because unlike Kennedy and Humphrey, he did poorly in the Midwest and also lost Connecticut and New Jersey. (New Jersey was worth 17 electoral votes and a major prize.) Carter was only able to make up for this loss to carrying Mississippi and Alabama, something neither of his predecessors had managed to do.

All three of these maps show very clearly that as early as 1960 the Democrats were doing extremely poorly in the plains states and the Southwest, ‘where nobody lived’. It also makes very clear how well the Democrats were doing primarily in the urban states. Obviously there were countless other factors that led to this but it does not change the fact that the Democrats had decided that campaigning in the rural states was increasingly becoming a losing proposition.

This problem became existential when the South essentially became Republican after Reagan’s landslide. There had been signs of it well before this, as I have mentioned, but this one-two punch crippled the Democrats ability to campaign nationwide to the point that they have practically never recovered from. With the exception of Howard Dean’s 50 state campaign in 2006, they have not tried since despite the fact of Obama’s landslide 2 years later.

Much of the argument to abolish the electoral college is based on a sort of geographical prejudice by many in the Democratic coalition. They argue that red states gave up on progress years ago, so why should they bother reaching out now? What these electoral maps shine a light on is the real fact that the liberal establishment made the decision to give up on them, and the red states have decided to return the favor ever since.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.