What Was the Closest Election in US History?

Sarah Roller

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The 2020 election took several days to announce a winner: and it looks as though the matter is not yet settled, with Trump’s campaign determined to legally challenge results in several states. Whilst the results may have kept the world on tenterhooks, there have been far more tense elections in US history.

How does it all work?

The American voting system is far from straight forward. With 52 states and 9 timezones, there is a wave of variation from the times polls open and close to rules on postal votes and in person voting:  waiting for election results is often tense.

Nor do Americans simply vote for their president: instead, they vote for electors, who make up the 538 strong Electoral College. These electors are then the ones to vote for the president.

Each state is allocated a number of electors based on its population. California remains the biggest, with 55 electoral college votes, whilst a number of sparsely populated states like Montana have only 3. Whichever candidate makes it to 270 Electors in the Electoral College first is the winner.

Some states finish counting votes extremely quickly: this can be because they have a relatively small populations, or because they are permitted to count postal votes before the polls close on Election Day. Other states accept postal votes which arrive up to a week after the election, provided they were postmarked on or before Election Day. The process is far from standardised.

Often, there is a clear majority: the race can be called relatively early in the night. But in several elections, that has not been the case: Rutherford B. Hayes’ compromise of 1877, for example. Other than 2020, one of the most famous – and often referenced – close elections in modern times was the 2000 Presidential election.

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Who was in the running?

2000 saw Republican George Bush pitted against Democrat Al Gore. The two men could not have been more different candidates.

Al Gore had been Bill Clinton’s vice president between 1993 and 2001. With a strong record on the environment and a champion of a basic universal health-care system, Gore had distanced himself from controversies surrounding Bill Clinton.

Bush, the then Governor of Texas, campaigned on more traditionally Republican issues, such as cutting taxes, increasing the sizes of the military and bringing ‘honour’ back to the White House, following Bill Clinton’s indiscretions.

Al Gore in 2020.

Neck and neck

The election was perceived to be extremely close as voting began (unlike the 2020 election, where Joe Biden was decisively ahead in the polls going into election day). This proved to be the case as the night unfolded. Eventually, it became clear that Florida – which has 25 electoral college votes – would be the deciding factor.

Florida had been called for Gore early in the night, but as the count went on Bush gained ground, and eventually the call was retracted. Gore had even called Bush to concede, but as it became clear the race was closer than appeared, Gore retracted this claim.

The final make-up of the Electoral College following the 2000 Election.

It all hinged on Florida

The count in Florida resulted in a Bush win by a margin of a mere 300 votes – resulting in an automatic recount, as per state laws. The recount, including overseas ballots dated/postmarked by Election Day, saw the margin rise to 930 votes (although the validity of some of these votes was called into question).

Gore requested hand recounts in four counties in Florida, but this still returned a Bush majority, which was certified as 537 votes by the Florida Supreme Court. Gore continued to contest this result, taking it to the US Supreme Court.

This eventually found in favour of upholding the Florida Supreme Court’s decision by a 5-4 majority – notably voting along party lines. Over a month after Election Day, George Bush was finally legally recognised  as President of the United States: Gore’s campaign had exhausted all possible legal challenges.

For the first time since 1888, Gore had won the popular vote whilst losing the electoral college vote – although he did still win 266 electoral college votes, which remains the highest tally for a losing nominee. Similarly, he lost his home state of Tennessee – a feat which happens relatively rarely in US elections.

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An anomaly?

Are there comparisons to the 2020 election? A close race, with the presidency decided by a handful of swing states is hardly unusual in American politics. The presidency resting on a small majority in battleground states also remains relatively standard.

However, the close run race of 2000 holds a place in the popular imagination as a point of counter-factual history: a Gore presidency would have been unthinkably different to Bush’s time in office, and perhaps that is what has fuelled comparisons the most.

Sarah Roller