by Michael Liss
Let’s talk about voter suppression. Not about whether it’s good or bad or legal or moral (you can get more than enough of that virtually 24/7), but about what practical implications it might have.
I have looked at the 35 Presidential Elections from 1880 to 2020 to see how tight they were, and where modern forms of voter suppression might have impacted past results.
I made a few assumptions. The first was to limit it to just suppression, and not include potential crossover votes. To make that a bit clearer, if you have an election that ends up 50-50, I propose to simply eliminate votes from one side, not add to the other. I set the bar at two suppressed votes per hundred (I’m going to call that a “Suppression Penalty”), which I think is conservative, given the extent of some of the new laws being passed. Applying that 2% Suppression Penalty, would it have changed the results of some of the closest and most controversial elections of the past?
Obviously, this is a crude method. Some states engage in suppression, others do not, and different forms of suppression will have disparate impacts. But I thought the exercise was worth it, as ever-increasing sophistication in targeting, along with a sense of anything goes, will encourage more use of the tactic.
140 years brings a lot of variations in races. Looking closer at the 35, at least 13 could be characterized as blowouts, including both Reagan wins, FDR’s, LBJ-Goldwater, Bush I-Dukakis, and Hoover-Smith. Another 11 were decisive, even if not routs. In this category, three William Jennings Bryan losses, both Clinton wins, both Obama wins (even though he carried Florida by only .88%, there was no real viable pathway for Romney, given his performance in other key states). In this Obama/Romney mold, I would also put Nixon-Humphrey. There is some historical evidence that Democrats were coming home to Humphrey late in 1968, but he ran out of time and the final numbers aren’t that close.
That leaves us with 10 elections of some interest: Trump-Biden and Trump-Clinton, Bush-Gore, JFK-Nixon, Truman-Dewey, Wilson-Hughes (1916), Benjamin Harrison-Cleveland (1888), Cleveland then regaining the White House against James Blaine (1884), James Garfield over Winfield Scott Hancock (1880), Bush II-Kerry (2024), and Ford-Carter (1976).
2016 and 2020: Given the recency of the Trump-Clinton and Trump-Biden elections, there is no reason to spend a lot of time on them, besides pointing out the obvious—we would be in Trump’s second term if the Republican State Legislators had managed to pass the bills they now enacted or have proposed in Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia. Those three states represent 37 EVs, and, without them, the election would have been thrown into the House, giving Trump the win. As to 2016, Clinton’s relative underperformance elsewhere, as against expectations, put her in a position of having to win all three of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania (her fourth option, Florida, had a Trump margin of over 100,000 votes). It’s a bit ironic to note that, if the Democrats were good at Voter Suppression, and the same 2% Suppression Penalty had been applied to Trump’s vote, the Big Dog might still be hanging around the White House
2000: Of the other more modern elections, Bush-Gore is, of course, the most notorious. What is not often noted is that Gore won four states, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Iowa and Oregon (a total of 30 EVs) by very small margins (New Mexico’s was 343 votes). If they had switched places, with Gore getting Florida, but Bush getting the four, Bush would still have won. Wisconsin, Iowa, and Oregon total 25 EVs, so a swap of Florida’s 25 EVs for those three wouldn’t have changed anything. If Gore had won Florida, but Bush had won New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Iowa, or, alternatively, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Oregon, there would have been an EV tie, and into the House we would have gone. Imagine the fun we all would have had.
1976: Ford-Carter belongs in somewhat the same category as Humphrey-Nixon, but this election was closer. Ford was making big strides through the early Fall. Ohio was excruciatingly close—about an 11K margin for Carter out of more than 4 million votes cast, and the Suppression Penalty would have flipped the state, but that would have still left Carter with the win, and it was Ford who won the other closer states. The next closest win for Carter was in Wisconsin, but, applying our 2% Suppression Penalty would still have left Ford about 14,000 votes short.
2004: Bush II-Kerry is controversial, because of the suspicions (unproven) regarding Karl Rove’s fixing of the state’s votes. But the margin in Ohio was 118K for Bush, and the only other path for Kerry would have been to take from Bush New Mexico, Iowa and Nevada (although the spread in Nevada was outside the Suppression Penalty), keep the faithless Elector who voted for John Edwards, and then tie Bush 269 to 269. But that would have just pushed it to the House, where Bush would have won. Kerry needed Ohio, and, based on reported numbers, he wasn’t close enough.
1960: Another race similar to Bush-Kerry, in that it floated on something unprovable, was JFK-Nixon in 1960. We all sort of wink and nod about shady activities in Illinois, but what is forgotten is that Republicans’ affection for claiming vote fraud isn’t new…nor, in 1960, did they limit themselves to Illinois. There was also LBJ’s home state of Texas, where JFK won by about 46K. In all, Republicans claimed fraud in no fewer than 11 states. The election was brutally close (assuming the numbers were true). Six states had differences of less than 1%, and only one of those went Republican, Nixon’s home state of California. Hawaii was astonishing—JFK won there by a total of 115 votes. If you look closely at the results, and imagine a Suppression Penalty, there are multiple ways Nixon could have won…but, of all the elections we have had in the last 100 years, I doubt there was a tougher team in the trenches than JFK and LBJ.
1880: James Garfield-William Scott Hancock had several features that are worth mentioning, even though the result probably could not have been flipped. It was the first Presidential Election in which the voters of every state were permitted to vote directly for Electors; previously, there had been a few states (South Carolina, naturally) that had their State Legislatures pick them. There was also a third-party candidate, James Weaver, of the Greenbackers. Weaver got no Electoral votes, but may have siphoned off some Hancock votes in Indiana. The popular vote difference was the smallest in history, just 1898 votes. Scott, in losing, did something that had not been accomplished before—he united the Southern States, with the Solid South becoming critical to election planning for the next century. The race in California was extraordinary—the two men were separated by just 95 votes out of 160K cast. New Jersey was also close—2010 votes out of about 142K, but Hancock won both states. If you examine the state-by-state totals, it’s hard to see how Hancock could have flipped the end result.
1884: Four years later, Grover Cleveland managed a narrow victory over James Blaine when Cleveland took his home state of New York by 1,149 votes. Applying the Suppression Penalty, he clearly would have lost the state, and the Presidency. Adding more than a little spice to this election were the accusations that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child (which he did not deny) and the stunningly stupid remark of a New York minister, Doctor Samuel Burchard, who said Democrats were the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” (a comment that did Blaine no good among the Irish and Italian workmen in New York).
1888: Turnabout is fair play. Without the motivating insult, Cleveland lost his bid for reelection in 1888 when he lost New York to Benjamin Harrison. His loss, by 14,373 votes out of almost 1.3 million cast, is just outside our Suppression Penalty. It was also reflective of a close race nationally, although not close enough for a different outcome.
1916: Woodrow Wilson-Charles Evan Hughes. One of my favorites. Hughes was a unique figure in American life. He was first Governor of New York, then resigned to take a seat on the Supreme Court, resigned from SCOTUS to accept the 1916 Republican Presidential nomination, lost to Woodrow Wilson, then became Secretary of State under Harding and Coolidge, and then, in 1930, returned to the Supreme Court to become Chief Justice (where he bedeviled FDR). One wonders what he did in his spare time. It is the 1916 election that interests me here. Hughes actually didn’t “run” for the GOP nomination. He was selected by the party bosses in whatever smoke-filled room they smoked in because Republicans were desperate to avoid a repeat of the crack-up of 1912, with the party splintering along conservative and Progressive lines. Hughes was perceived as both a relative moderate and not particularly ideological. He also let it be known he’d accept if offered.
The race was close. Wilson was not a particularly accessible figure, and World War I was raging in Europe. Given that the Republicans were considered the majority party at that time, it was presumed that Wilson’s election in 1912 was an accident, and Hughes would regain the White House for them. Hughes had some flaws—he was quite anti-labor, and fairly militaristic at a time when the country seemed more attuned to Wilson’s attempts at neutrality. But the election may have turned on a gaffe—when Hughes went to campaign in California, he did not meet with Hiram Johnson, then Governor, formerly TR’s running mate.
On Election Night, the expectation was that Hughes would win, and early returns (and early editions of New York newspapers) indicated as much. Wilson took New Hampshire by 56 votes, Hughes, Minnesota by 468 out of nearly 400,000 cast. As the rest of the country sorted itself out, it came down to California, and the Hiram Johnson snub may very well have been the decider—Wilson won by 3773 votes, while the Prohibition candidate, James Hanly, took 27,713.
1948: One more, put last not because of chronology, but just because I like politicians with a little juice in them. Truman-Dewey, 1948, and the comeback that people thought impossible. Truman, of course, was an accidental President, chosen as FDR’s running mate because FDR knew his health was deteriorating and he did not want the incumbent Vice President, the very liberal Henry Wallace, to succeed him.
1948 found the nation in flux, newly empowered and newly challenged. Some wondered whether Truman was really up for the job. He had struggled in 1946, and perhaps the country was tired of Democrats. In the Midterms, the Republicans crushed Democrats virtually everywhere. They won 55 House seats, 12 Senators, flipped control of both chambers, and set about making Truman’s life a little bit harder. The most popular man in America, by a huge margin, was Dwight Eisenhower, and both parties sought him as their nominee. Everyone else, from the President on down, seemed puny. Ike, after assaying the field of battle, as Ike was inclined to do, declined to run and asked that his supporters cease their activities on his behalf. Eventually, the Republicans turned to Thomas Dewey, who had run a credible (if stolid) race against FDR four years before.
Democrats, as is and has seemingly always been, were a mess. Truman was not popular, particularly with the more liberal wing of the party. Henry Wallace was, and decided to go off on his own and helped create and lead a new Progressive Party. Southern Democrats were getting concerned that Truman was too sympathetic to civil rights, and walked out of the Democratic Convention over a platform plank supporting them. They formed the States Rights Democratic Party (Dixiecrats) and nominated Strom Thurmond for President. They all knew they had no chance of winning outright, but thought that, if they could deny Truman the victory and throw it into the House, they could extract concessions on Jim Crow from one of the sides.
No one thought Truman had a chance. Early polls showed him way behind; virtually every newspaper and pundit wrote him off. Republicans settled on a strategy not unlike Dewey himself—distant, boring and filled with platitudes. Truman, on the other hand, had a ball cutting loose. He ripped into the GOP-led 80th Congress, criticized Dewey, and generally gave Republicans Hell. Expectations amongst the pundit class didn’t change, but the voters began to. Truman’s crowds were jazzed up. Dewey’s began to thin, and those who came seemed unenthusiastic.
On election night, Truman took the early lead, which was initially dismissed, as columnists wrote (and, in some cases, filed) their “Dewey Beats Truman” stories. But Truman had closed the gap, and in more than one way. His institutional disadvantages—the Progressives and the Dixiecrats—turned out to be less problematic than expected. Wallace’s ticket got only 2.4% nationwide. The Dixiecrats took just four states, a wound for Truman, but not a fatal one.
The final Electoral Vote was 303 Truman, 189 Dewey, and 39 Dixiecrat, but, if you look more closely at the numbers, you can see Dewey came agonizingly close. Truman took Ohio’s 25 EV by just 7,107 and California’s 25 by 17,665—even a 1% Suppression Penalty would have flipped the states. Add Illinois 28EVs, and its margin of 33,612 and adjust for a Suppression Penalty of 1.5%, and we really would have had a President Dewey.
Thomas Dewey is elected President in 1948, and a butterfly flaps its wings. With Dewey running again in 1952, no Ike. No Ike, no Nixon as Vice-President, no Nixon as Veep, no Nixon in 1960 (possible Nelson Rockefeller and the GOP goes in an entirely new direction). Maybe no Nixon in 1968, no Agnew, no Ford, no Rockefeller as Veep. And, no Nixon, no Roger Stone. No Roger Stone….wait, that’s too far.