Slim Victories and Narrow Defeats: Razor-close Elections In American Politics

In politics, most candidates would probably rather lose in an electoral avalanche than lose by a razor-thin margin. A candidate will always have second thoughts regarding what he/she could have done to win the election. A mishap or day off the campaign trail can haunt candidates for the rest of their lives.

Richard M. Nixon is one of the few politicians to have been on both sides of this ledger. In 1960, he blamed his narrow loss in the Presidential election to Democrat John F. Kennedy on a staph infection he suffered after bumping his knee on a car door while campaigning in Greensboro, North Carolina. The malady took Nixon off the campaign trail for two weeks. He was still recovering during the first Presidential debate against John F. Kennedy. Many television viewers thought Nixon appeared ill, which in fact he was.

Adding to his problems, Nixon made a public pledge that he would campaign in all 50 states. This proved to be an electoral faux pas due to the fact that he spent too much time campaigning in non-competitive states. To fulfill this dull-witted undertaking, Nixon traveled to electorally-meager Alaska, while his Democratic opponent, John F. Kennedy, campaigned in showdown states.

Contrariwise, in 1968, Nixon was the victor in a close race. The Democrat Party was split asunder over the Vietnam War. At the Party's national convention that year, a plank calling for a halt to U.S. bombing in Vietnam was defeated. The Democratic Presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey was accosted at almost every campaign stop by protestors indignant at his support of the policies of President Lyndon B. Johnson in continuing the war in Vietnam.

However, on September 30th of that year, Humphrey broke with Johnson by announcing that as President he would unilaterally halt the bombing of North Vietnam "as an acceptable risk for peace." Consequently, the Democratic Party began to coalesce around Humphrey, with many war opponents now supporting him.

However, Humphrey's chief rival for the nomination, U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN), did not endorse Humphrey until about a week before the election, and he did so in a very snide way, asserting to his devotees: Humphrey made the best of this tepid endorsement, declaring it made him a "happy man." McCarthy's luke warm support for Humphrey coupled with Humphrey's failure to coalesce the support of the party base around his candidacy in the General Election is blamed by some in the Humphrey camp for costing him the election to Nixon.

Another factor Humphrey blames for his close loss was his failure to appear on the popular Television program Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Nixon scored political points by showing his humorous side by declaring: "Sock it to me." This was a catchphrase on the program. Under normal circumstance, the person saying this suffered the fate of having water poured on them. Nixon, however, did not suffer that fate. Humphrey declined to appear on the program and later said it may have cost him the election.

After Humphrey's break from Johnson, the polls tightened and Humphrey lost the popular vote by less than one percent. Had the election been a week later, Humphrey might have won.

In Nixon's victory speech, he proclaimed: "Having lost a close one eight years ago, and having won a close one this year, I can say this-----winning is a lot more fun."

Many prominent politicians have been involved in whisker-close campaigns. Like Nixon, Johnson experienced both sides of close elections. In 1941, Johnson lost a special election in Texas to fill the seat of the late U.S. Senator Morris Sheppard by just 1,311 votes out of 988,295 cast.

In 1948, Johnson was on the other side of a photo finish, defeating former Governor Coke Stevenson by just 87 votes out of 988,395 cast. Decades later, Louis Salas, who served as an elections judge in Jim Wells County Texas, told author Robert Caro that he had certified 202 fraudulent ballots for Johnson, enough to give him the race. Due to the closeness of this race, Johnson earned the alliterative moniker: "Landslide Lyndon."

In 1990, just four years prior to leading the Republican take-over of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich was re-elected in his Georgia Congressional District by just 983 out of more than 155,000 cast. Gingrich would likely be just a footnote in history had the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put formidable resources in the campaign of his Democratic opponent David Worley. The committee had given Worley's campaign $50,000 when he first challenged Gingrich in 1988, but Worley lost by 18 percentage points. Worley exploited the proliferating belief that Gingrich, then House Minority Whip, was focusing on national issues and ignoring his constituents. Worley's campaign slogan was "Newt's not with us . . . He's got fancy."

In 1992, Gingrich suffered another scare, defeating Republican Primary opponent Herman Clark by a measly 980 votes. Clark approved an advertisement making fun of Gingrich for having bounced 22 checks from the House Bank. Clark, like Worley before him, excoriated Gingrich for being out of touch with his district. However, Gingrich outspent Worley 8-1.

U.S. Senator and former Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders was once a gadfly in Vermont politics. He ran four times statewide as the nominee of the Liberty Union Party during the 1970's. He never garnered more than 6.1% of the vote.

Then in 1981, Sanders sought the Mayorship of his hometown of Burlington as an Independent candidate. He assiduously hit the campaign hustings, evangelizing about income inequality, opposition to hikes in property taxes, and opposition to the cozy relationship between the entrenched political class and private developers. His message struck a resonate chord with disgruntled voters. Sanders stunned the political world by defeating Mayor Gordon Paquette, who was seeking a sixth term. Sanders won by just 10 votes out of 8,660 tabulated.

In 1974, a U.S. Senate election in New Hampshire was decided by just two votes out of 223,363 votes cast. On Election Day, Republican Louis Wyman was declared the winner by just 355 votes. His Democratic opponent, John A. Durkin, subsequently requested a recount. The recount showed Durkin had actually won the election by 10 votes. Wyman then asked for another recount.

This time it was Wyman who was the winner by a measly two votes. Undeterred, Drukin then appealed the election to the Democratically-controlled U.S. Senate. But the Senate could not resolve the dispute. Finally, after a seven-month deadlock, Wyman asked Durkin to run in a Special election. Durkin agreed.

The election garnered national attention because it was the only Congressional election during the off year. It became a referendum on the economic policies of President Gerald R. Ford. In fact, Ford participated in a 136-mile motorcade in the state five days prior to the election in a futile attempt to keep the seat in Republican hands. Durkin won the Special election by 27,000 votes.

There was actually an election where one vote literally decided the winner of a statewide election. The closest Gubernatorial election ever recorded in U.S. history occurred in Massachusetts in 1839. At the time, a candidate was required to garner a majority of the votes to win the election. Otherwise, the State Legislature would choose the winner. The legislature was controlled by the Whig Party, which would almost assuredly have voted to re-elect incumbent Governor Edward Everett, the Whig nominee.

However, his opponent, Democrat Marcus Morton, garnered 51,034 votes of 102,066 votes cast, giving Morton a majority by a single vote margin. Had just one vote switched, Morton would not have won the majority, and thus would have lost the election. Amazingly, the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, H.A.S. Dearborn, a devoted Whig and Everett supporter, did not cast a vote. Neither did some members of the Whig high command, prompting Everett to bemoan: "A better mode of showing [their support] would have been to vote."

While there has never been a tie in a statewide race, there is a prominent example of a tie occurring at the State Legislative level in Wyoming. Independent Larry Call and Republican Randall Luthi both mustered 1,941 votes. In accordance with state law, Governor Mike Sullivan drew a ping-pong ball from a hat at the State Canvassing Board with Luthi's name. Luthi declared, "It is Democracy at its best." Luthi went on to serve in the Legislature for 12 years. He rose to the highest level, serving as House Speaker.

After George W. Bush was declared the winner of the 2000 Presidential election, despite losing the popular vote, and with questions about whether he really won Florida by 597 votes, Gore averred: "You win some, you lose some, and then there is that little known third category." In elections that are whisker-close, the losing candidates can spend a lifetime agonizing over what he/she could have done to be put over the top.