George Bush and Republicans are claiming a decisive victory in Tuesday's election. They point to the fact that he won a majority of the popular votes as well as the electoral votes. They breathe sighs of relief at not having to repeat the counting fiasco of the 2000 election and see this "decisive victory" as evidence that our democracy is functioning well and smoothly again. They say the people have spoken clearly and unmistakably chosen four more years of Bush.
I find these bold declarations shocking.
First, the mechanisms of democracy were not functioning well at all. There's a database of reported problems at voteprotect.org — just look at the huge lists of problems in Cleveland or New Orleans. There were widespread reports of malfunctioning machines, problems with provisional ballots, and absentee ballots not arriving on time. There were incidents of voter suppression and intimidation, polling stations opening very late in the day, and insufficient machines being delivered to polling stations, all in predominantly minority neighbourhoods. And we all know that there were major discrepancies between the exit polls and the results — discrepancies larger than the margins of victory in key swing states.
Unless there was a systematic, coordinated effort by voters to lie at the exit polls, something was wrong in Ohio. As Greg Palast wrote, "At 1:05 am Wednesday morning, CNN's exit poll showed Kerry beating Bush among Ohio women by 53 percent to 47 percent. ... Kerry also defeated Bush among Ohio's male voters 51 percent to 49 percent. Unless a third gender voted in Ohio, Kerry took the state."
Louisiana was an unqualified disaster: according to Joe Hall who spent the day taking reports of election problems, "Most (if not all) of the AVC Advantage machines in New Orleans (Orleans Parish) were failing. ... We had attorneys in the field file a request ... to force the county to ... print paper ballots to accommodate all voters. It was denied, despite the fact that people had been waiting in lines for seven hours in some places." ELECTronic 1242 machines were failing "left and right" in Columbus, Ohio and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Second, even if the results were perfectly accurate, 51% does not constitute an overwhelming majority. It is a razor-thin victory. In fact, this was the smallest margin of victory by which a president has ever been re-elected in the history of the United States. I spent the afternoon collecting data from various sources on past elections to verify this fact. (It is surprisingly difficult to find all these numbers.)
Votes are counted in thousands (given the margin of error and the discrepancies among the different sources i used, it didn't seem justified to report significance down to single votes). VAP stands for "Voting Age Population". The bold green rows are years that the president was re-elected; the italic red rows are years that the president was defeated by a challenger.
|Year||Winner||Votes||% Votes||% VAP||EVs||Margin||Opponent||Votes||% Votes||% VAP||EVs||Voters||% VAP|
|1900||McKinley (R)||7218||51.7%||292||6.9%||Bryan (D-P)||6256||44.8%||155||13970|
|1904||Roosevelt (R)||7627||56.4%||336||18.8%||Parker (D)||5083||37.6%||140||13519|
|1908||Taft (R)||7676||51.6%||321||8.5%||Bryan (D)||6407||43.0%||162||14883|
|1912||Wilson (D)||6293||41.8%||435||14.4%||Roosevelt (P)||4120||27.4%||88||15041|
|1916||Wilson (D)||9126||49.2%||277||3.1%||Hughes (R)||8547||46.1%||254||18533|
|1920||Harding (R)||16171||60.3%||404||26.2%||Cox (D)||9140||34.1%||127||26798|
|1924||Coolidge (R)||15718||54.1%||382||25.2%||Davis (D)||8386||28.8%||136||29076|
|1928||Hoover (R)||21373||58.1%||444||17.3%||Smith (D)||15000||40.8%||87||36790|
|1932||Roosevelt (D)||22825||57.4%||472||17.8%||Hoover (R)||15758||39.6%||59||39747|
|1936||Roosevelt (D)||27748||60.8%||523||24.2%||Landon (R)||16680||36.5%||8||45642|
|1940||Roosevelt (D)||27263||54.7%||449||9.9%||Willkie (R)||22306||44.8%||82||49840|
|1944||Roosevelt (D)||25594||53.4%||432||7.5%||Dewey (R)||22005||45.9%||99||47967|
|1948||Truman (D)||24106||49.5%||303||4.4%||Dewey (R)||21970||45.1%||189||48692|
|1952||Eisenhower (R)||33936||55.1%||442||10.8%||Stevenson (D)||27315||44.4%||89||61551|
|1956||Eisenhower (R)||35585||57.4%||457||15.4%||Stevenson (D)||26030||42.0%||73||62025|
|1960||Kennedy (D)||34200||49.7%||31.3%||303||0.2%||Nixon (R)||34088||49.6%||31.2%||219||68783||63.0%|
|1964||Johnson (D)||42957||61.0%||37.7%||486||22.4%||Goldwater (R)||27149||38.5%||23.8%||52||70443||61.7%|
|1968||Nixon (R)||31759||43.6%||26.4%||301||0.9%||Humphrey (D)||31136||42.7%||25.9%||191||72906||60.6%|
|1972||Nixon (R)||47169||59.9%||33.5%||520||22.9%||McGovern (D)||29171||37.1%||20.7%||17||78727||55.9%|
|1976||Carter (D)||40826||50.1%||26.8%||297||2.1%||Ford (R)||39148||48.0%||25.7%||240||81556||53.5%|
|1980||Reagan (R)||43902||50.7%||26.7%||489||9.7%||Carter (D)||35484||41.0%||21.6%||49||86515||52.6%|
|1984||Reagan (R)||54455||58.8%||31.2%||525||18.2%||Mondale (D)||37577||40.6%||21.5%||13||92653||53.1%|
|1988||Bush (R)||47946||52.3%||26.2%||426||7.6%||Dukakis (D)||41016||44.8%||22.4%||111||91595||50.1%|
|1992||Clinton (D)||44908||43.0%||23.7%||370||5.6%||Bush (R)||39102||37.5%||20.6%||168||104405||55.1%|
|1996||Clinton (D)||45591||47.3%||23.2%||379||8.1%||Dole (R)||37816||39.2%||19.2%||159||96456||49.1%|
|2000||Bush (R)||50456||47.9%||24.1%||271||-0.5%||Gore (D)||50997||48.4%||24.4%||266||105405||50.4%|
|2004||Bush (R)||58979||51.1%||27.1%||279||3.1%||Kerry (D)||55384||48.0%||25.4%||252||115428||53.0%|
Sources: Federal Register data for 1789 to 2000, ICPSR election results for 1824 to 1972, FEC VAP and turnout figures for 1960 to 1996, FEC election results for 2000, Census 2000, Washington Post results for 2004, FEC VAP figures for 2004.
The central orange column shows the margins of victory measured as a percentage of the popular vote. This year, Bush won by 3.1%, which is the smallest bold number in that column. You can also see that the percentage of the voting-age population that voted for Kerry is the highest for any defeated challenger in the years with data (since 1960); based on the rest of the popular vote percentages, it's likely that a larger fraction of eligible voters voted for Kerry than any defeated challenger in history.
There is something seriously wrong when a country is so polarized that an election alienates 49% of the population. This is not how a democracy is supposed to work. But that is just what has happened recently, twice.
I am amazed and puzzled by this coincidence. How is it that the country is divided into two segments with such wildly opposing views that each sees the other as essentially insane? It doesn't make sense to me that this should be possible. Yet it's true, and even more incredibly, the country is divided almost exactly in half. Why is it 50-50 and not 80-20? Election theorists will say that any plurality system tends toward a two-party duopoly and that in a two-party system both parties head for the center, splitting the vote exactly in half. But George Bush is not a centrist! He is not moderate by any stretch of the imagination, not even to Republicans. So how did this happen?