Musings on Politics & Policy

An attempt to take an open minded view of current topics,
strip away excess detail and arguments,
and get at underlying issues —

Friday, January 28, 2005

Voting Statistics

Karl Rove is sharp, but has a glib tongue and freely manipulates statistics. It's easy to be caught off guard when one doesn't have the instantaneous research to fact check and respond to his prepared sound bites. When Juan Williams interviewed him on January 20tha, Karl Rove said, "He [President Bush] received the highest percentage of the vote since 1988 of any candidate for President. In fact, there were only two Democrats in the 20th century who got a higher percentage of the vote than this President did, and they were FDR and LBJ." When asked about polls contesting a mandate, he quickly responded, "you can read anything you want," followed by, "let's not conduct government by polls," and, "but, if you want to toss up polls, I'd be happy to quote numbers all day long...."

Karl Rove wants to have his cake and eat it too. But, let's not be snowed by his glib tongue. It doesn't take much research to shed some light on the numbers behind the numbers. [See, for example, the University of Michigan Government Documents Center.] First, it should be noted that the U.S. population is, and has been, on a growth curve. In 1988 the voting age population was 183 millionc. In 2004, the voting age population was 218 milliond. In fact, if we look back in time, the total number of votes for Abraham Lincoln was smaller than the number of votes that constituted Bush's margin of victory over Kerry. Such numbers are almost meaningless except as a demonstration of population growth. On a percentage basis, Lincoln got 40% of the vote in a four way split in 1860. He got 55% in a two way race in 1864 as a war time Presidente.

Karl Rove's facts are accurate as far as they go. George W. Bush did receive the highest percentage of the vote of any Presidential candidate since 1988. He also received more votes than any candidate for President, ever. These statistics are accounted for by the facts that the population has been growing, the turnout has increased from 1996 to 2000 to 2004, and 2004 was the first essentially two-way race since 1988. The intervening races between 1988 and 2004 had significant third party candidates who took a large enough percentage of the vote to prevent the main party candidates from attaining a simple majority. They arguably affected the outcome of each of those elections. That said, if we look at margins of victory as a percentage of the vote, Clinton beat Bush Sr. by 5.5% of the vote, Clinton beat Dole by 8.5% of the vote, and Gore actually beat George W. Bush by 0.5% of the vote. So Bush's 2.5% victory over Kerry was his first popular vote victory, and the margin was not large. [All candidate statistics from Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.]

One could also point out that John Kerry received more votes than any previous Presidential candidate in history. That's like breaking a world record and still losing a race.

"There were only two Democrats in the 20th century who got a higher percentage of the vote than [George W. Bush did in 2004]". Yes. That's true. Does it mean anything? There were 25 Presidential elections from 1900 through 1996. Of those, 12 were won by Democrats and 13 by Republicans. Of the 12, four were won by FDR, and all four gave FDR more than 51% of the vote. LBJ accounts for another. That leaves only 7 additional Presidential elections won by Democrats. But 15 of the 25 elections were three way, four way, or even five way elections {using 1% of the vote as a cutoff to define a viable candidate}. Of the remaining 7 elections won by Democrats, the only one with less third party drain than the 2004 election was the 1960 election of JFK. Most had much more. In 1912, Wilson, the Democrat, beat Theodore Roosevelt, running as a Progressive, by 42% to 27%, with the incumbent Republican, Taft, taking only 23%. We had a Democrat beating out a former President, Roosevelt, and the incumbent Republican, with a margin of victory of 15%, but not getting a simple majority, because it was a five way race. The Socialist, Eugene Debs, took 6% of the vote. In 1976, Carter took 50.08% of the vote, but Eugene McCarthy took 0.91%. It could easily be argued that McCarthy was more progressive than Carter; and, if he had not run, those who voted for him would have voted for Carter rather than for Ford, giving Carter 50.99% and beating Bush's 50.73% (which we hear in the press routinely rounded to 51%).

The 1960 election is interesting; because, although it was a two way race, 0.45% went for unpledged electors, and neither candidate got a simple majority. Kennedy took 49.72% of the vote, and Nixon took 49.55% of the vote.

What we know about 2004 is that the country is intensely divided, the voting age population is continuing to increase, the turnout was higher than it has been since the 1960's, and it was essentially a two way race, with Nadar taking an insignificant 0.38% of the vote. It was a close election, and one could also say that more voters voted against George W. Bush than against any president in history. That's a fact, just like Karl Rove's facts. But how much does it mean? Over hyped, isolated facts tell us more about the person doing the hyping than they do about the election.


aA Conversation with Karl Rove, Morning Edition, January 20, 2005, National Public Radio.

bElection 2004, University of Michigan Government Documents Center.

cFederal Election Commission.

dU.S. Census Bureau .

eDave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.


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