9.7 Myths about Proliferation of Candidates, Absolute Majorities, and Breakdown of the Two-Party System

9.7.1 MYTH: The National Popular Vote plan is defective because it does not require an absolute majority of the popular vote to win.

QUICK ANSWER:

  • Under the current system of electing the President, there is no requirement that the winner receive an absolute majority of the national popular vote to win the White House. Fourteen Presidents have been elected with less than a majority of the popular vote.
  • An absolute majority of the statewide popular vote is not necessary to win any state’s electoral votes under the current system.
  • The National Popular Vote plan reflects the nation’s consensus that the winner of an election should be the candidate who receives the most popular votes (that is, a plurality of the votes).

Tara Ross, an opponent of the National Popular Vote compact, objects to the compact by saying:

“The compact contemplated by [the National Popular Vote bill] would give the presidency to the candidate winning the ‘largest national popular vote total.’ Note that it says the ‘largest’ total.’ It is not looking for a majority winner.”[233]

John Samples of the Cato Institute, an opponent of the National Popular Vote compact, has said:

“NPV does not necessarily impose election by a majority. If a plurality suffices for election, a majority of voters may have chosen someone other than the winner.”[234] [Emphasis added]

Both of these observations apply equally to the current system.

Nothing in the U.S. Constitution requires that a candidate receive an absolute majority of the national popular vote in order to become President. The following 14 Presidents have been elected with less than a majority of the popular vote:

  • James Polk,
  • Zachary Taylor,
  • James Buchanan,
  • Abraham Lincoln (1860),
  • Rutherford Hayes,
  • James Garfield,
  • Grover Cleveland (twice),
  • Benjamin Harrison,
  • Woodrow Wilson (twice),
  • Harry Truman,
  • John Kennedy,
  • Richard Nixon (1968),
  • Bill Clinton (twice), and
  • George W. Bush (2000).

Nothing in the law of any state requires that a candidate receive an absolute majority of the state’s popular vote in order to win all of that state’s electoral votes. In fact, it is common, under existing state laws, for a presidential candidate to win all of a state’s electoral votes without receiving an absolute majority of the state’s popular vote. In 2008, no candidate received an absolute majority of the popular vote in four states. In 1992, no candidate received an absolute majority of the popular vote in 49 states.[235]

The public seems content with elections that are conducted on the basis that the candidate who receives the most popular votes wins the office. That is how the vast majority of elections are conducted in the United States.

The National Popular Vote plan reflects the nation’s consensus that the winner of an election should be the candidate who receives the most popular votes. There was certainly no outcry from the public, the media, Congress, or state legislators when Truman (1948), Kennedy (1960), Nixon (1968), or Clinton (1992 and 1996) were elected with less than an absolute majority of the national popular vote.

If, at some time in the future, the public demands that an absolute majority be required for election to office, that desire can be accommodated at that time.

9.7.2 MYTH: The National Popular Vote plan is defective because it does not provide for a run-off.

QUICK ANSWER:

  • Under the current system, there is no procedure for a run-off. No run-off was conducted when Presidents Lincoln, Wilson, Truman, Kennedy, Nixon, or Clinton failed to receive an absolute majority of the national popular vote.
  • Under the current system, there is no requirement for a run-off in a state where no candidate receives an absolute majority of the statewide popular vote.
  • The National Popular Vote plan reflects the nation’s consensus that the winner of an election should be the candidate who receives the most popular votes. There is no national consensus in favor of run-offs.

Tara Ross complains that the National Popular Vote plan does not require an absolute majority of the national popular vote to win.[236]

Ross’ criticism applies equally to the current system. There is no provision in current law for a run-off when no presidential candidate receives an absolute majority of the national popular vote.

Moreover, there is no provision in any state today for a run-off when no presidential candidate receives an absolute majority of the state’s popular vote. In fact, it is common, under existing state laws, for a presidential candidate to win all of a state’s electoral votes without receiving an absolute majority of the state’s popular vote. For example, in 2008, no candidate received an absolute majority of the popular vote in four states.

Tara Ross says:

“States that have agreed to participate in NPV can’t force the other states to take any particular action—including a runoff or other secondary election procedure.”[237]

After the 1992 election in which no candidate received an absolute majority of the popular vote in 49 states,[238] we cannot recall any demand from legislators, the public, the media, or anyone else for a run-off presidential election.

The National Popular Vote compact operates in a manner consistent with the widely held view in the United States that the winner of an election should be the candidate who receives the most popular votes (that is, a plurality).

Note that traditional run-off elections present a number of difficulties. A run-off election would be expensive to administer. It is already difficult to recruit the mass of citizen volunteers needed to operate elections. Given that the President has to be inaugurated on January 20 and that the Electoral College meets in mid-December, it is already difficult to finish the initial counting of votes (and also conduct recounts, litigate disputes, and conduct required audits) in the limited amount of time available after Election Day in November. Turnout in a run-off election could be low. Perhaps most importantly, a run-off election would significantly alter the dynamics of financing of presidential campaigns because it would tilt the playing field in favor of the candidate who is in a position to raise vast amounts of additional money on very short notice.[239]

If, at some time in the future, the public demands run-offs, that change can be implemented at that time.

9.7.3 MYTH: A national popular vote will result in a proliferation of candidates, Presidents being elected with as little as 15% of the vote, and a breakdown of the two-party system.

QUICK ANSWER:

  • If an Electoral-College type of arrangement were essential for avoiding a proliferation of candidates and preventing candidates from winning office with as little as 15% of the vote, we should see evidence of these conjectured problems in elections that do not employ such an arrangement (such as elections for Governor).
  • Historical experience in over 5,000 elections for state chief executive shows no evidence of the conjectured proliferation of candidates or the conjectured 15% winners in elections in which the winner is the candidate who receives the most popular votes.
  • Duverger’s law (which is based on worldwide studies of elections) asserts that plurality-vote elections do not result in a proliferation of candidates or candidates being elected with tiny percentages of the vote.
  • The two-party system is, in fact, sustained by the plurality-vote rule—not the state-by-state winner-take-all rule.

Tara Ross, an opponent of the National Popular Vote plan, predicts that a national popular vote would lead to a proliferation of candidates and a fracturing of the electorate, and that Presidents would be elected with only 15% of the vote:

“[The National Popular Vote plan] is not even looking for a minimum plurality. Thus, a candidate could win with only 15 percent of votes nationwide.”[240]

We do not have to speculate as to whether Ross’ prediction is likely to materialize, because we can refer to the nation’s actual experience in the numerous elections that have been conducted in which the winner was the candidate who received the most popular votes.

If an Electoral College type of arrangement were essential for avoiding Ross’ conjectured outcome, we should see evidence of this outcome in elections that did not employ an Electoral College.

When elections are conducted in which the winner is the candidate who receives the most popular votes, candidates do not, in actual practice, win the office with low percentages of the vote (and certainly not percentages such as 15%).

In the 975 general elections for Governor in the United States between 1948 and 2011:[241]

  • 90% of the winning candidates received more than 50% of the vote,
  • 98% of the winning candidates received more than 45% of the vote,
  • 99% of the winning candidates received more than 40% of the vote, and
  • 100% of the winning candidates received more than 35% of the vote.

There were only 25 general elections (out of 975) for Governor between 1948 and 2011 in which the winning candidate received less than 45% of the popular vote, as shown in table 9.11.

Table 9.11 The 25 general elections for Governor between 1948 and 2011 (out of 975) in which the winning candidate received less than 45% of the vote

Winning percentage
Winner
State
Year
35.4%
Angus King
Maine
1994
36.1%
Lincoln Chafee
Rhode Island
2010
36.2%
John G. Rowland
Connecticut
1994
36.6%
Benjamin J. Cayetano
Hawaii
1994
37.0%
Jesse Ventura
Minnesota
1998
38.1%
John Baldacci
Maine
2006
38.2%
Paul LePage
Maine
2010
38.2%
George D. Clyde
Utah
1956
38.9%
Walter J. Hickel
Alaska
1990
39.0%
Rick Perry
Texas
2006
39.1%
Jay S. Hammond
Alaska
1978
39.1%
James B. Longley
Maine
1974
39.7%
Evan Mecham
Arizona
1986
39.9%
John R. McKernan Jr.
Maine
1986
40.1%
Norman H. Bangerter
Utah
1988
40.4%
Lowell P. Weicker Jr.
Connecticut
1990
41.1%
Tony Knowles
Alaska
1994
41.4%
Meldrim Thomson Jr.
New Hampshire
1972
41.4%
Don Samuelson
Idaho
1966
42.2%
Michael O. Leavitt
Utah
1992
43.3%
Brad Henry
Oklahoma
2002
43.7%
Mark Dayton
Minnesota
2010
44.4%
Tim Pawlenty
Minnesota
2002
44.6%
Nelson A. Rockefeller
New York
1966
44.9%
Jim Douglas
Vermont
2002
 

Over half of the elections in table 9.11 (13 of 25) were in small states (Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont).

Elections for U.S. Senate, other statewide offices, Congress, state legislature, and other offices confirm this pattern. In the real world, there are never any 15% winners in general elections in which the winner is the candidate with the most votes. There is no proliferation of candidates. There is no fracturing of the electorate.

Moreover, elections in other countries around the world show a similar pattern.

Duverger’s law asserts that a plurality-rule election system tends to favor a two-party system. Maurice Duverger, the French sociologist who observed this tendency in election systems around the world, suggests that plurality voting favors a two-party system because political groups with broadly similar platforms tend to form alliances because it increases their chances of winning office. Voters generally desert weak parties or candidates on the grounds that they have no chance of winning. In practice, ordinary plurality voting discourages the formation of niche parties and candidacies by rewarding the formation of broad coalitions in which various groups and interests join together in order to win the most votes (and thereby win office).

The reason that ordinary plurality voting has this effect is that a vote cast for a splinter candidate frequently produces the politically counter-productive effect of helping the major-party candidate whose views are diametrically opposite of those of the voter. For example, votes cast for Bob Barr (the Libertarian Party candidate for President in 2008) enabled Barack Obama to win the electoral votes of North Carolina,[242] and votes cast for Ralph Nader (the Green Party candidate) in 2000 enabled George W. Bush to win the electoral votes of Florida and New Hampshire.[243]

Ross’ criticism of the National Popular Vote plan concerning third-party candidates is an example of a criticism that actually applies more to the current state-by-state winner-take-all system than the National Popular Vote plan.

Under the current system of electing the President, minor-party candidates have significantly affected the outcome in 38% (six out of 17) of the presidential elections between the end of World War II and 2012. Specifically, minor-party candidates affected the outcome by either shifting states from one candidate to another or winning electoral votes outright in the 1948, 1968, 1980, 1992, 1996, and 2000 presidential elections.

Segregationists such as Strom Thurmond and George Wallace each won electoral votes in various Southern states. Thurmond won 39 electoral votes in 1948, and George Wallace won 46 electoral votes in 1968. Candidates such as John Anderson (1980), Ross Perot (1992 and 1996), and Ralph Nader (2000) each managed to affect the national outcome by switching electoral votes in numerous states.

None of these third-party candidates had any reasonable expectation of winning the most popular votes nationwide. The reason that the current system has encouraged so many minor-party candidacies is that a third-party candidate has 51 separate opportunities to find particular states that he might win outright or where he might be able to shift electoral votes from one major party to another.

Tara Ross writes:

“The most likely consequence of a change to a direct popular vote is the breakdown of the two-party system.”[244]

Ross’ prediction can be tested against actual historical facts.

In 1787, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island conducted popular elections for the office of Governor.[245]

Today, 100% of the states conduct a direct popular vote for Governor. Yet, after over 5,000 direct popular elections for Governor since 1789, the two-party system has yet to collapse.

The two-party system in the United States (which dominates the electoral landscape for the vast majority of elective offices in the country) is not sustained by the existence of the state-by-state winner-take-all rule for filling the single office of the Presidency.

About three-quarters of the elections for Governor occur in non-presidential years—that is, they stand apart entirely from the presidential election cycle.

Returning to the history of presidential elections, only three states had winner-take-all statutes in the nation’s first presidential election in 1789. Only three states used the winner-take-all rule in 1792 and 1796. Given that political parties first emerged in the 1796 presidential election, it can hardly be argued that the existence of the state-by-state winner-take-all rule in just three states was the force that created the two-party system in the United States.

Instead, the two-party system is the consequence of the plurality voting system in which the candidate who receives the most popular votes wins the office.

There is no reason to expect the emergence of some unique, new political dynamic that would promote multiple candidacies if the President were elected in the same manner as virtually every other elected official in the United States.

What can be said about third-party candidacies in presidential elections is that the current system often perversely discriminates against third-party candidates who have a broad national base of support, while encouraging regional third-party candidates. In 1948, Henry Wallace (a leftist candidate for President) and Strom Thurmond (a pro-segregation candidate for President) each received 1.2 million popular votes. However, Strom Thurmond (whose support was concentrated in the South) won 39 electoral votes in 1948, whereas Henry Wallace (whose support was distributed more evenly throughout the county) received no electoral votes.

Ross Perot’s percentage of the national popular vote in 1992 was twice the percentage received in 1968 by George Wallace (a pro-segregation candidate). However, Perot won no electoral votes in 1992, whereas George Wallace won 46 electoral votes in 1968.

Although Ross Perot received eight times Strom Thurmond’s percentage of the popular vote in 1948, Perot won no electoral votes in 1992, while Thurmond won 39 electoral votes.[246]

The current state-by-state winner-take-all system certainly does not prevent the proliferation of candidates; however, it does perversely reward regional third-party candidacies while punishing broad-based third-party candidacies.

Some argue that third parties are inherently undesirable and that the election system should be skewed so as to strengthen and favor the two-party system. Even if one subscribes to this viewpoint, it is difficult to see what public purpose is served by the current system’s perverse discrimination in favor of regionally divisive third parties and against broad-based third parties with nationwide support.

9.7.4 MYTH: The current system requires an absolute majority of the popular vote to win.

QUICK ANSWER:

  • Under the current system of electing the President, there is no requirement that the winner receive an absolute majority of the national popular vote to win the Presidency. Presidents Lincoln, Cleveland, Wilson, Truman, Kennedy, Nixon, and Clinton were non-majority Presidents.
  • An absolute majority of the statewide popular vote is not necessary to win any state’s electoral votes under the current system.

In an article entitled “The Electoral College Is Brilliant, and We Would Be Insane to Abolish It,” Walter Hickey writes:

Without the electoral college system, a President could be elected with a plurality rather than an outright majority.
“Without it—and with a compelling third party—someone could become president with only 34 percent of the vote. When 66 percent of the country voted against the President, that doesn't scream stability. How many governments has Italy had in the past fifty years?”[247] [Emphasis added]

Hickey appears to be unaware that nothing in the U.S. Constitution requires that a candidate receive an absolute majority of the national popular vote in order to become President. The following 14 Presidents have been elected with less than a majority of the popular vote: James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln (1860), Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Grover Cleveland (twice), Benjamin Harrison, Woodrow Wilson (twice), Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon (1968), Bill Clinton (twice), and George W. Bush (2000).

Hickey also appears to be unaware that nothing in the law of any state requires that a candidate receive an absolute majority of the state’s popular vote in order to win all of that state’s electoral votes. In fact, presidential candidates frequently win a state’s electoral votes without receiving an absolute majority of the state’s popular vote. In 1992, no candidate received an absolute majority of the popular vote in 49 states.[248] In 2008, no candidate received an absolute majority of the popular vote in four states.

Lincoln was elected with 39% of the nationwide popular vote in 1860. There is nothing in the current system to prevent another occurrence of a candidate being elected President with 39% of the nationwide popular vote. A June 1992 nationwide poll showed that Ross Perot had 39% support, incumbent President George H.W. Bush had 31%, and Bill Clinton had 25%.[249]

 

Footnotes

[233] Written testimony submitted by Tara Ross to the Delaware Senate in June 2010.

[234] Samples, John. A Critique of the National Popular Vote Plan for Electing the President. Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 622. October 13, 2008. Page 2.

[235] Bill Clinton received 53% of the popular vote in Arkansas in 1992. He also won 84% of the popular vote in the District of Columbia.

[236] Written testimony submitted by Tara Ross to the Delaware Senate in June 2010.

[237] Ross, Tara. 2012. Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College. Los Angeles, CA: World Ahead Publishing Company. Second edition. Page 160.

[238] Bill Clinton received 53% of the popular vote in Arkansas in 1992. He also won 84% of the popular vote in the District of Columbia.

[239] If, at some time in the future, the public decides that it wants the benefits of a run-off election without the problems of a traditional run-off system, instant run-off voting (also called “ranked voting”) offers a method for combining a run-off into the original election. In instant run-off voting, voters have the option of indicating their second choice for the office involved (and, in some variations of the system, additional choices). If no candidate receives an absolute majority of the first-place votes, the votes of the candidate receiving the fewest votes are distributed according to the second choices of those voters. This process of redistributing the votes received by the lowest candidate continues until one candidate receives an absolute majority of the voters expressing a choice. Instant run-off voting is currently used in a number of municipalities around the country. It is also used in many elections conducted among delegates at conventions of various organizations. Information about instant run-off voting is available from www.FairVote.org.

[240] Written testimony submitted by Tara Ross to the Delaware Senate in June 2010.

[242] In North Carolina in 2008, Bob Barr (the Libertarian candidate) received considerably more votes than the margin between Barack Obama (the winner of the state) and John McCain (the second-place candidate).

[243] In Florida and New Hampshire in 2000, Ralph Nader received considerably more votes than the margin between George W. Bush (the winner of these two states) and Al Gore (the second-place candidate).

[244] Written testimony submitted by Tara Ross to the Delaware Senate in June 2010.

[245] Dubin, Michael J. 2003. United States Gubernatorial Elections 1776–1860. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company. Page xx.

[246] A simulation conducted by FairVote suggests that if Ross Perot had doubled his national popular vote from 19% to 38%, he probably would have won a majority of the electoral votes. http://www.fairvote.org/the-perot-simulator. But with 19% of the national popular vote broadly spread out over the entire country, Perot won no electoral votes.

[247] Hickey, Walter. 2012. The Electoral College is brilliant, and we would be insane to abolish it. Business Insider. October 3, 2012. http://www.businessinsider.com/the-electoral-college-is-brilliant-2012-10.

[248] In 1992, Bill Clinton received 53% of the popular vote in Arkansas and 84% of the popular vote in the District of Columbia.

[249] The 1992 poll was cited in Stanley, Timothy. Why Romney is stronger than he seems. CNN Election Center. April 10, 2012.