TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Closest Presidential Elections

November 6, 2012 - Today, we may see one of the closest presidential elections in U.S. history, but it won’t be the only one.

Below, a list of close and contested presidential elections.  


Candidates: Al Gore (Democrat), George W. Bush (Republican), Ralph Nader (Green Party), Patrick Buchanan (conservative populist), Harry Browne (Libertarian)

The Winner: George W. Bush

Popular Vote: 50,996,582 (Gore) to 50, 465,062 (Bush)

Electoral College: 271 (Bush) to 266 (Gore)


The 2000 election was one of four elections in U.S. history in which the winner of the electoral votes did not carry the popular vote. Gore conceded on election night, but retracted his concession when he learned that the vote in Florida was too close to call. A recount of the Florida votes ensued, but was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. 



Candidates: John F. Kennedy (Democrat), Richard M. Nixon (Republican)

The Winner: John F. Kennedy

Popular Vote: 34,226,731 (Kennedy) to 34,108,157 (Nixon)

Electoral College: 303 (Kennedy) to 219 (Nixon)


With his victory by a scant 120,000 votes, the 43-year-old Kennedy became the youngest-ever U.S. president. Nixon was 47–only four years older. 



Candidates: Harry S Truman (Democrat), Thomas E. Dewey (Republican), J. Strom Thurmond (States’ Rights Democrat or “Dixiecrat”), Henry Wallace (Progressive), Norman Thomas (Socialist)

The Winner: Harry S Truman

Popular Vote: 24,179,345 (Truman) to 21,991,291 (Dewey)

Electoral College: 303 (Truman) to 189 (Dewey)


Thomas Dewey, the governor of New York, had run for president once before, against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, and lost in a close race. Truman, FDR’s vice president, became president on April 12, 1945, after Roosevelt’s death. Truman was seen as an underdog going into the 1948 election–so much so that the Chicago Tribune printed newspapers with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Thurmond won 39 electoral votes.


Candidates: Benjamin Harrison (Republican), Grover Cleveland (Democrat), Clinton Fisk (Prohibition), Alson Streeter (Union Labor)

The Winner: Benjamin Harrison

Popular Vote: 5,534,488 (Cleveland) to 5,443,892 (Harrison)

Electoral College: 233 (Harrison) to 168 (Cleveland) 


Harrison lost the popular vote by about 90,000, but was able to win the Electoral College, thanks largely to victories in two swing states: New York and Indiana. Although Grover Cleveland, the 22nd president, lost his re-election campaign in 1888 against Harrison, he returned to the White House in 1893 as the 24th president. 



Candidates: Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican), Samuel Tilden (Democrat), Peter Cooper (Greenback)

The Winner: Rutherford B. Hayes

Popular Vote: 4,286,808 (Tilden) to 4,034,142 (Hayes)

Electoral College: 184 (Tilden) to 165 (Hayes) - with 20 votes disputed 185 (Hayes) to 184 (Tilden) - final tally


Because of disputed returns from several states and accusations that one Oregon elector was ineligible, neither candidate was able to capture the 185 electoral votes needed for victory. The Senate and House of Representatives deadlocked on how to count the votes and finally agreed to establish an electoral commission, which after an independent member had to drop out, was made up of eight Republicans and seven Democrats. The commission gave the election to Hayes (8-7). Congressional Democrats then used a series of stalling tactics to delay confirmation of the vote. Eventually, in what many believe to be a compromise in which the Republicans agreed to a conciliatory attitude toward the South (in the midst of Reconstruction) in return for a Hayes presidency, some Democrats began to support Hayes. Congress confirmed his election on March 2, 1877. Angered by the results of the election, some Northern Democrats referred to Hayes as "his Fraudulency." After becoming president, Hayes announced he would serve just one term, and was true to his word.