What Grover learned at (the) Electoral College
American politics are more inclusive, moderate, stable, and nationally unified because of the Electoral College
Who won the election of 1876? The race was so close that South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana each provided two dueling slates of electoral votes.
A special congressional commission sorted things out in favor of Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, though New York Governor and Democratic nominee Samuel Tilden probably received more popular votes.
That election began a series of close contests that some claim were failures of the Electoral College, but others recognize as its greatest successes.
Republican James A. Garfield won the election of 1880, but it was another squeaker—probably the closest U.S. presidential election in history, with a national vote margin of just 9,070 votes and 6 states decided by two percent or less.
Slavery and Jim Crow were not only moral blights on America; they also contributed to the political regionalism than nearly rent the nation apart.
After the Civil War, it was the Electoral College that forced Democrats to reach out to the North just as Republicans reached out in the South.
The presidential election process made building a national coalition more important than pumping up regional popularity.
Grover Cleveland and the Democrats learned this lesson the hard way in 1888 when Cleveland lost his reelection campaign even as he won the most national votes.
Tremendously popular in the deep South, Cleveland won 82 percent of the vote in South Carolina and over 70 percent in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia, but lost his home state of New York.
Intense regional support would have made Cleveland the winner under a national popular vote system; instead, the Electoral College forced Cleveland and the Democrats back to the drawing board.
In 1892, Cleveland returned with greater national support and won back the presidency, becoming the only person to serve non-consecutive terms in that office.
Today, self-styled reformers who seek to undo the Electoral College must answer: would America, or even the Democratic Party, have been better off if Grover Cleveland had won the presidency in 1888?
The Electoral College prevents regional candidates from becoming president; it makes candidates and political parties reach farther and include more diverse groups of people in their coalitions.
In some countries, close elections result in political instability, civil unrest, even total collapse.
The U.S. presidency is probably the greatest electoral prize in the world, yet even under intense pressure with the narrowest of margins the Electoral College has produced clear winners capable of governing these United States.
So, what did Grover Cleveland learn?
- Because of the Electoral College, Cleveland’s intense regional popularity–even when it gave him a raw total majority–was not enough to win the presidency.
- Successful presidential campaigns must assemble broad, national coalitions.
It is the genius of the Electoral College that Cleveland did not win in 1888. The Electoral College works as a check against regionalism and radicalism.
American politics are more inclusive, moderate, stable, and nationally unified because of the Electoral College.