Presidents, Parties, and Popular Majorities

Dennis Teti

October 1, 1994

A deep and powerful partisan current underlies the politics of U.S. Presidential elections. More enduring than a short term “trend,” it amounts almost to a law of American politics and may be stated as follows: Since the Republican Party was created in the 1850s, the majority of American voters manifest strong aversion to the election of Democrats to the White House. The majority attempts to avoid voting for Democratic Presidential candidates.

This “law” includes a corollary: since Democratic candidates normally win with a popular plurality, the presence of third party candidates has divided the majority. Third parties are therefore the most powerful force assisting Democratic Presidential hopefuls.

During this period of 35 elections in 136 years, a total of 15 Republicans and 9 Democrats have been elected to the Presidency. Democratic candidates have won clear popular majorities 5 times, but only 2 individuals–Franklin Roosevelt 4 times and Lyndon Johnson once–achieved these victories. On the other hand there have been 16 popular majority elections by 12 different Republicans.

Moreover, on closer analysis the Democrats’ majority wins are weak. Only one Democrat in 136 years–FDR–has ever persuaded a majority of citizens to vote for him a second time. Lyndon Johnson, the only other majority Democrat, governed less than a year (following his elevation from Vice President after Kennedy’s assassination) before being elected in his own right in the largest landslide ever. Yet he soon became so unpopular that he was forced to withdraw from his re-election campaign. (Carter, possibly a majority winning Democrat in 1976, also lost the citizens’ confidence by the end of his term.)

By contrast, 6 Republicans–Lincoln, Grant, McKinley, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan–have won majority victories for a second term. And this understates GOP strength. Republicans have repeatedly won strings of majority victories regardless of incumbency–3 between 1864 and 1872, 4 between 1896 and 1908, 3 between 1920 and 1928, and 3 again between 1980 and 1988. These repeat wins demonstrate strong and persisting majority confidence in Republican Presidential government.

Democrats, on the other hand, have no repeat, multi-candidate majority victories. In fact, no Democrat has ever been elected to succeed a Democratic predecessor, even with a plurality win. Truman and Johnson succeeded Democrats but both ran as incumbents, raised from the Vice Presidency by the death of their predecessors before being elected to a full term.

To state the original point differently: of the 9 Democratic Presidents in this period, 7 won with only a popular plurality. That is, all but 2 Democratic Presidents required an Electoral College majority to put them in the White House. These are: Buchanan, Cleveland (twice), Wilson (twice), Truman, Kennedy, Carter (possibly), and Clinton. Not one of these Democrats was able to win a popular majority for a second term. Of the 15 Republicans, 5 won with less than a majority, requiring the Electoral College for their victory: Lincoln (first term), Hayes, Garfield, B. Harrison, and Nixon (first term). Moreover, 3 of the 5 were followed by Republican majority victories four years later.

Periodically proposals are made–usually by Democrats–to abolish and replace the Electoral College with popular majoritarian elections. If that had been the method of choosing Presidents since 1856, we would certainly have elected 9 Republicans but only 2 Democrats. Moreover, suppose that without the College, citizens had been forced to choose between the top two choices when there was no majority winner in the first round. Here let us recur to the “law” proposed above. With only one (Republican) alternative to the Democratic candidate in a runoff, it would not be unreasonable to believe that a majority would probably have chosen the Republican opponents of Buchanan, Cleveland, Wilson, Truman, Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton. (In the Wilson election of 1912, the Republican Taft ran third but Teddy Roosevelt, a former Republican, ran second on the Progressive, or “Bull Moose,” ticket. Almost certainly he would have defeated Wilson in a one-on-one contest.) O
n the same principle, ho wever, there is no obvious reason why the “plurality” Republicans–Lincoln in 1860, Garfield, B. Harrison, and Nixon in 1968–could not have taken the majority in a runoff. In other words, because of this anti-Democrat “law,” under a majoritarian system the history of the last 136 years might well have resulted in as many as 21 Republican Presidents and as few as 2 Democrats.

Why are the Democrats, who have dominated Congress for over 60 years, incapable of creating a sustainable popular Presidential majority? The United States has two quite different voting “majorities”: a national majority, or something close to it, in Presidential and Vice Presidential elections; and separate state or district majorities in Congressional elections. The 468 separate elections to Congress occurring on the same day usually bear little resemblance to each other in issues or in candidates. None have any necessary connection with the nationwide Presidential election, though taking place simultaneously. There is no inherent reason why a citizen should not split his party vote between the Presidential and Congressional candidates.

The enduring anti-Democratic current in Presidential voting, when looked at in the light of the pro-Democratic Congressional advantage, reflects the different natures of these two majorities and in the two national institutions. Congress is a group of representatives chosen by local majorities with local interests. In its very nature Congress is the repository of special interests. Its dominance by the Democratic Party reflects the fact that the dominant party is itself an aggregate of separate interests, or “factions,” in the Madisonian understanding, a group of minorities large enough to command the whole institution.

A collection of factions, however, does not add up to the common good. The President, chosen (indirectly) by a majority of citizens, is expected to articulate and defend the national interest rather than a group of local interests. Foreign policy, for example, a fundamentally executive matter, cannot be determined (though it can hardly help being affected) by local interests. Domestic law and policy largely result from the clashes and compromises of local and special interests in Congress, yet even there, Americans have been constituted not to disregard entirely the common good of the whole nation.

The Republican Party was founded by Lincoln and others as the party of the common good. Lincoln contrasted the Republicans’ national concern for the principles of equality and liberty with the sectional interests of the Democrats. These contrasting characteristics of the major parties have endured since the Civil War. They are perpetuated by the respective constituencies whose partisan loyalties shape the vision and programs of each party for

Most Americans vote to keep Democrats out of the White House in order to express their settled conviction that the national purpose rather than special interests should be the central concern of our nation’s Chief Executive. When Republican Presidential candidates reflect that purpose, they win. When they do not, Americans divide, looking elsewhere to find a President before they finally settle for the Democratic Party.

Dennis Teti is a Research Fellow at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Hillsdale College, and a Special Assistant at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He served as Special Assistant at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under Secretary Jack Kemp.