Last Updated on
There have been 5 acknowledged presidential elections in US history where the winner of the popular vote did not win in the electoral college.
However, there is a very good argument to be made that there is a sixth election that should be added to that list.
The conventional wisdom holds that John F. Kennedy narrowly beat Richard Nixon in the 1960 popular vote by 112,827 votes. However, to get to this number, you have to put a tortured spin on the numbers from one state in particular.
Learn more about numbers behind the 1960 presidential election on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
First, let me start by saying that none of the things I’m going to discuss in this episode would change the outcome of the 1960 election. The United States selects its presidents via the Electoral College, and nothing I’m going to talk about would have changed the vote in the Electoral College in the slightest.
Also, I’m not going to talk about alleged election fraud where dead people in Chicago voted, or there was ballot box stuffing in Texas. That may or may not have happened, but that is beyond the scope of this episode.
Also, I’m going to be citing a lot of numbers, and just to make it easier to listen to and follow along, I’m going to be rounding to the nearer thousand. It doesn’t really change the general conclusion, but it will make it easier to understand. If you want to dig into the numbers, they are all publicly available.
That being said….
First, a quick history of winning the popular vote and losing the electoral college.
This has happened five times which everyone can agree upon.
1824 – John Quincey Adams beat Andrew Jackson. Technically, this wasn’t won in the electoral college, it was won in the House of Representatives. Because no one won a majority in the Electoral College, the election was passed down to the house where they decided. This was the only election where that ever happened, it was incredibly messed up, and it is definitely going to be an episode at some point in the future.
1876 – Rutherford B. Hayes, who as you remember is a really big deal in Paraguay, defeated Samuel Tilden. This is the only time the losing candidate actually received a majority of the popular vote, not just a plurality.
1888 – Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland. If you ever wondered why Grover Cleveland had the distinction of serving two non-consecutive terms as president, this election was why.
2000 – George Bush defeated Al Gore. I’m sure this is recent enough that I don’t need to remind anyone about it.
2016 – Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, and I’m really sure no one needs a refresher on this election.
So, if you accept this history, then 5 of the 58 presidential elections which have taken place had the person who got the most popular votes lose in the electoral college
So, why should the 1960 election be added to this list?
The narrative you will find in most history books was that Kennedy received 34,220,984 votes for 49.72% of the popular vote and that Richard Nixon received 34,108,157 votes for 49.55% of the popular vote.
Kenned edged out Nixon by 112,827 votes, or by 0.12%, winning one of the closest elections in history.
The problem with this was the election in Alabama. To get the numbers I just listed, you have to do funny math to the vote totals in Alabama.
In most states, people voted for a candidate, and then a slate of electors from that party would then attend the Electoral College and vote for that candidate. For almost every state, the link between votes and electors is pretty straight forward.
In Alabama in 1960, however, they didn’t do it that way.
Why was Alabama different?
As you can probably guess, it has to do with segregation and civil rights.
At the 1948 Democratic Convention, the party added a plank to their platform about civil rights, and that caused a walkout at the convention of southern states, and a brief attempt at a third party in 1948.
As a third party, they really had no chance of winning anything, and the party never ran for any local or state offices. They returned to the Democratic party and remained a faction there for the next decade.
Their strategy through the ’50s and into the 1960 election was to serve up a slate of unpledged delegates, who would, in reality, be Democrats but would be able to swing the election if it were close, to get concessions from whoever they put their support behind.
In 1960, three states put up a slate of unpledged electors for people to vote on. While unpledged on paper, everyone knew that they were pro-segregation southern democrats who would vote for Senator Harry F. Byrd from Virginia if the electoral college wasn’t close.
In Louisiana and Mississippi, the unpledged delegates were a totally different slate from the Democrat and Republican delegates, so assigning votes to delegates was pretty easy. People voted for the slate of delegates as a single package, so attributing votes was simple.
In Mississippi, the unpledged delegates actually got the most votes, and their 8 electoral votes went for Senator Byrd. In Louisiana, the unpledged delegates came in third and Kennedy won.
Alabama is where the problem lies.
In Alabama, you didn’t vote for a slate of electors, you had to vote for electors individually. Alabama had 11 electoral votes in 1960.
The Republicans offered up 11 electors, and the Democrats offer up 11 of their own. Every voter had 11 votes which they could split between the 22 electors on the ballot. They could split their vote between Republicans and Democrats, or they could not vote for all 11 if they wanted.
All of the Republican electors were pledged to Nixon. The Democrats, however, were a mess, and this is where the problem lies.
In the 1960 Alabama Democratic primary, 24 electors ran as unpledged electors, and 11 ran as loyalists who would vote for Kennedy. All things being equal, the segregationist were the larger group in Alabama at the time, but because they had 24 electors running, and loyalists had 11, the unpledged pro-segregationist electors split their vote.
After an extremely close runoff and recount, the Democrats ended up with a slate of 11 electors which included 6 unpledged electors and 5 loyalists electors who would vote for Kennedy.
In the general election, the electors with the most votes were all Democrats, however, the 6 unpledged electors all received more votes, than the 5 electors pledged to Kennedy.
Most sources site Kennedy has having received 318,00 votes in Alabama, which is the highest vote tally which any of the loyal Kennedy electors received, and with him getting 56.4% of the popular vote in Alabama, and getting credited with all of the Democrat votes.
The problem is, the top unpledged delegate received 324,000 votes, which is more than what Kennedy is credited with. If someone were to be credited with all the votes on the Democrat side, it would be Harry Byrd, not John Kennedy.
This creates one of two paradoxical results which is how it is listed by most sources:
First, the person who’s electors got the most popular votes, Harry Byrd is credited with zero popular votes.
or alternatively, as is currently listed in Wikipedia, you have 3 candidates getting a combined 156% of the popular vote.
Neither results make any sense. The top vote-getter shouldn’t be credited with zero votes, and the combined vote shouldn’t add up to over 150%.
If Alabama had a separate slate of electors like Mississippi did, Kennedy probably wouldn’t have gotten any electoral votes, as the vote for individual elector Alabama indicates. Either the segregationist delegates would have won, like in Mississippi, or the Democrats would have split the vote and Nixon would have won.
How to resolve this?
The simplest solution would be to credit the popular vote proportionally to the two Democrats. Average the vote totals of the 11 Democrat electors and then award 6/11 of them to Harry Byrd, and 5/11 of them to Kennedy.
5/11 is approximately 45% which is very similar to the combined Democrat vote total Kennedy received in Mississippi, which was 48%, so this is a pretty reasonable assumption.
Using this method, Kennedy’s adjusted vote total in Alabama would be 146,000, which is a difference of 173,000 less than what he is usually given credit for.
If you remember from the introduction of the episode, the margin of victory in the national election that Kennedy is usually given is 112,000.
That means that if you adjust the Alabama popular vote totals to reflect the way the electors voted, and popular preference, Nixon won the national popular vote by about 60,000.
This was actually the result which many national news sources, such as the New York Times, reported immediately after the 1960 election.
As I mentioned before, all of this changes nothing. Alabama’s electoral votes would remain the same, and Kennedy still clobbered Nixon 303 to 219 in the Electoral College.
It does, however, mean that the closest election in history was even closer than we thought and that there should be a sixth election on the list of times when the popular vote winner didn’t win the Electoral College.