Ronald Reagan was elected by what was referred to at the time as an "avalanche." However, given the declining percentage of the population that bothers to vote nowadays, I suspect Mr. Reagan's victory really isn't all that impressive. What was the percentage of eligible voters who supported him? Was it really such a landslide? How does the percentage compare with that of other presidents? Did Reagan even make it into the top ten?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
If Reagan’s 1980 victory was an avalanche, I’m Wilt Chamberlain. Ron got 50.7 percent of the popular vote, which is nothing compared to the landslide champs: LBJ in 1964 (61.0 percent), FDR in 1936 (60.8 percent), and Nixon in 1972 (60.7 percent).
Since only 53.9 percent of the voting-age population actually voted in 1980 (the lowest percentage since 1948), Ron got a scant 27.3 percent of the eligible vote, which is pretty terrible. Of the 40 elections held since 1824 (popular vote totals prior to that time are unavailable), Ron comes in 34th in percentage of eligible vote received, beating out only Carter, Nixon (in 1968), Truman, Coolidge, Wilson, and John Quincy Adams (who had an unbelievably crappy 8.2 percent in 1824–but more on this anon).
The leader in the eligible-vote rankings isn’t exactly who you’d expect–it’s William Henry Harrison in 1840, with 42.5 percent. (Harrison lasted only 31 days in office; some guys just can’t cope with success.) The next two are Grant in 1868 (41.1 percent) and Lincoln in 1864 (40.6 percent). The reason these guys did so well was that voter turnout in the period 1840-1900 was amazingly high– it fell below 70 percent only once, and it topped 80 percent three times. (Of course, you have to remember that "eligible voters" prior to 1920 meant only males, and prior to 1868 meant only white males.)
After the turn of the century, voter turnout declined sharply for various reasons. Among other things, the South systematically disenfranchised blacks–and since the Democratic party had virtually no competition in the South, there wasn’t much incentive to vote anyway. In addition, many states implemented tough voter-registration laws to curb ballot-box stuffing by corrupt big city machines. The low point in this century came in 1924, when only 48.9 percent of those eligible voted.
But back to Ron. If you look at margin of victory in the popular vote, he does a little better, but not much. He beat Carter by 9.7 percent, which ranks him around 12th or so on the landslide list, way behind the leaders: Harding in 1920 (26.4 percent), Coolidge in 1924 (25.2 percent), and FDR in 1936 (24.3 percent).
When we get to electoral college vote, though, things start picking up. Reagan got 90.9 percent of the electoral votes cast, good enough for 7th behind George Washington’s two elections (100 percent each time), Monroe in 1820 (99.6 percent), FDR in 1936 (98.5 percent), Nixon in 1972 (96.6 percent), and Jefferson in 1804 (92.0 percent).
OK, so who had the all-time worst eligible-vote performance? Good question, and it gives Cecil an opportunity to tell a little story of the sort he dearly loves. The worst turnout since 1824 occurred, interestingly enough, in 1824, when only 26.9 percent of eligible voters cast ballots (which is why John Quincy Adams looked so bad). Property-owning requirements for voters were common in those days, and besides, in some states the electors who chose the president were elected by the legislature with no popular vote at all.
Still, 1824 may not be the all-time low. Vote totals from earlier elections aren’t known with certainty, but some historians believe the absolute pits vote-wise was achieved in 1820, when James Monroe ran virtually unopposed for a second term. The election was such a yawn that probably fewer than 1 percent of the voters turned out. Nonetheless, Monroe got all but one of the electoral votes cast. (A legend grew up that the lone dissenting vote, by William Plumer of New Hampshire, was cast so that Washington would be the only top guy ever elected by unanimous vote of the electoral college. BS, as it turns out; Plumer just thought Monroe was a jerk.) Said one observer, it was "the unanimity of indifference, and not of approbation." And you thought things now were bad.
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