Was Obama Victory a Landslide?

Just as a rose is a rose is a rose, in presidential politics a win is a win is a win. Senator Barack Obama won. Senator John McCain lost. Ultimately, that’s all that matters. But in America, politics is as much sport as civic duty so there’s been a lot of talk about whether Senator Obama’s win was a landslide or not.

Previously I’ve written about electoral wins of the modern era by non-incumbents. Based on the nine elections since 1932, I expressed my belief that “a non-incumbent candidate receiving 54% or more of the popular vote and/or winning at least 350 electoral votes arrives in landslide country.” So, using that definition, how did Senator Obama do on November 4th?

The results haven’t been certified in all states yet. But as it stands today (updated on November 19, 2008) Senator Obama won the presidency with 365 electoral votes versus Senator McCain’s 173. Having crossed the 350 electoral vote threshold, the Obama camp can claim a landslide.

The accomplishment gets a little murky when the popular vote for president is taken into account:

  • Obama: 66,700,243 votes – 52.7%
  • McCain: 58,227,836 – 46.0%
  • Others: 1, 450,000 (give or take) – about 1.3%

Under the popular vote criteria, Senator Obama missed a landslide by just 1.3%. However, I had an “and/or” in my definition, so I’m giving the landslide medal to President-elect Obama based on his electoral vote total. If you want to add an asterisk to it, that’s fine. Your definitions, and results, may vary, but that’s my take on it.

Even if you don’t consider Senator Obama’s win a landslide, it was certainly impressive. With there now being 10 elections since 1932 without an incumbent on the presidential ballot, here’s how senator Obama’s victory stacks up:

Popular vote: 4th out of 10 regardless of winning party; 2nd out of 5 among Democratic wins (Franklin Roosevelt beat Herbert Hoover 57.6% to 39.6%)

Electoral vote: 6th out of 10 (if Senator Obama eventually wins Missouri (note: which he did not)  he’d move up to 5th place); 3rd out of 5 among Democratic non-incumbents (again, a Missouri win would move him past Bill Clinton’s 370 electoral college votes).

During the campaign Senator Obama was subjected to viscous attacks on his character, integrity and patriotism. Senator McCain offered starkly different approaches to addressing the nation’s myriad challenges. Yet Senator Obama prevailed by consistently hammering away at the need for change, fleshing out this battle cry with a call for middle cut tax cuts, a quicker end to the war in Iraq, moving quickly on a new energy policy and substantially reforming the nation’s health care system. Whether the pundits consider a victory a landslide or not, they certainly cannot deny it is a mandate for change.

Note: This post was modified slightly on November 19, 2008 to reflect updates to the popular vote, Senator McCain’s victory in Missouri and Senator Obama’s victory in a Nebraska Congressional District (and, consequently, winning of  that state’s electoral votes.

McCain vs Obama: Perspectives on a Historical Election Part II

Whether election night 2008 is a cliff hanger or a blow out is unknown as I write this. Given the amount of spin the candidates are capable of generating and the hyperbolic nature of much of the media, it will be hard to tell — at least without some historical perspective. So as a public service, I offer you perspective, with a focus on (relatively) modern elections.

The percentage of the popular vote non-incumbent candidates received in presidential elections since 1932 were:

  • 1932: Franklin Roosevelt beat Herbert Hoover 57.6% to 39.6%.
  • 1952: Dwight Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson 54.9% to 44.4%.
  • 1960: John Kennedy beat Richard Nixon 49.7% to 49.5%
  • 1968: Richard Nixon won over Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace 43.4% to 42.7% and 13.5%.
  • 1976: Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford 50% to 48%.
  • 1980: Ronald Reagan won over Jimmy Carter (and Independent candidate John Anderson) 50.4% to 41.0% to 6.6%.
  • 1988: George Bush defeated Michael Dukakis 53.4% to 45.7%.
  • 1992: Bill Clinton beat George Bush and Ross Perot 43.0% to 37.4% to 18.9%.
  • 2000: George W. Bush lost to Al Gore in the popular vote 47.9% to 48.4%, but won in the electoral college and the Supreme Court.

Third party candidates receiving less than 5% of the vote weren’t included here. Nor were Lyndon Johnson or Harry Truman, both of whom were unelected incumbents when they ran for president. For those interested in meaningless statistics concerning these nine elections:

  • The average winner’s percentage was 50.0%
  • The average second place finisher’s was 48.1%
  • The average margin of victory was 6.0%
  • The average margin of victory for the four Democrats is the same as that achieved by the five Republicans on the list
  • The margin of victory was less than one percent three times (33%)
  • The margin of victory was more than 10% twice (22%)

The Electoral College votes received by non-incumbent presidential candidates in modern times:

  • 1932: FDR defeated Hoover 472 to 59.
  • 1952: Eisenhower beat Stevenson 442 to 89.
  • 1960: JFK received 303 electoral votes to Nixon’s 219 and Harry Byrd’s 15.
  • 1968: Nixon beat Humphrey and Wallace with 301 electoral votes to 191 and 46.
  • 1976: Carter won over Ford 297 to 240 (Ronald Reagan received 1 electoral vote that year).
  • 1980: Reagan received 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49.
  • 1988: Bush (the first) won 426 electoral votes to Dukakis’ 111 (with Lloyd Bentsen receiving 1 vote)
  • 1992: Clinton defeated Bush in the electoral college 370 to 168.
  • 2000: Bush (the second) won over Gore 271 to 266 (with one Gore elector abstaining).

Again, for those interested in the wonderful world of statistics without meaning:

  • The average winner won 375 electoral votes
  • The average second place finisher won 155 electoral votes
  • The average margin in the electoral college was 220 votes
  • The average number of electoral votes earned by the four victorious Democrats was 370
  • The average number of electoral votes earned by the five victorious Republicans was 386
  • The margin of victory was less than 100 electoral votes three times (33%)
  • The margin of victory was more than 300 four times

So when the results come in we’re now prepared. Do the pundits call it a squaker? If so, how does it compare to John Kennedy defeating Richard Nixon by two-tenths a percent of the popular vote in 1960 or Al Gore winning the popular vote by 1.5% in 2000, but losing to George W. Bush by just five electoral votes.

Do they call it a landslide? Then how does it compare to FDR’s popular vote win over Herbert Hoover by 18% or Ronald Reagan’s electoral college blowout over Jimmy Carter in 1980, a difference of 440 electoral college votes?

Based on all this, it seems to me a non-incumbent candidate receiving 54% or more of the popular vote and/or winning at least 350 electoral votes arrives in landslide country. Your definition may vary, but I’m going with these.

Using this perspective, there have been only two popular vote landslides by non-incumbents in modern elections. The first in 1932 and the second 1950 — which aren’t very modern times. George H. W. Bush did have a solid win in 1988, but with 53.4% of the vote fell just short of landslide.  Of the rest, only Jimmy Carter in 1976 reached the 50% mark. 

The electoral college tends to magnify election results, producing a clear winner even when the populace is fairly evenly divided. So it’s not surprising there have been more landslides for non-incumbents when results are viewed through this 350 vote prism. These occurred in 1932, 1952, 1980, 1988, and 1992. Only the Bush/Gore election in 2000 was extremely close. While the elections in 1960, 1968, and 1976 weren’t very close, they were were not electoral college landslides, either.

While all of this might be slightly interesting, when it comes to presidential politics, it’s not whether you win big or small that matters, it’s whether you win at all. Just ask Al Gore about that. Or for that matter, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama.

Note: All data on election results came from the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica.