Election Results 2012: The Myth of the Close Popular Vote


One of the first rearguard responses to the 2012 election that we are already hearing from the conservative right is that the Obama-Romney election was a close one in terms of the popular vote. In response, Democrats have pointed to the president's unambiguously decisive victory in the electoral college, especially now that Florida's 29 electoral votes have brought President Obama's total up to 332.

But this Democratic counterargument does not directly address the underlying Republican narrative that somehow Obama's victory was too close to be meaningful in the eyes of the national electorate. That argument's thesis is that a 3 million vote difference on a 120 million total isn't really that much. It represents a mere 51% to 48% edge, or so the argument goes.

The problem is that viewed in its modern historical context, the narrative simply doesn't hold up to scrutiny. 

Most pundits agree that the era of modern presidential elections began in 1960. The Kennedy-Nixon race was the first 50 state election, the first one in which television played an integrally critical role, and the first one that was dissected contemporaneously (Theodore White's The Making of the President). Since 1960, we have had two "mini eras": 1960 to 1988, and 1992 to (at least) 2012. The first mini era was defined almost exclusively by elections that were either popular vote landslides (1964, 1972, 1980, 1984, and to a slightly lesser extent, 1988) or razor thin popular vote outcomes (1960 and 1968). Only the 1976 Carter-Ford election was neither close nor a landslide.

Nevertheless, it is most noteworthy that neither former President Kennedy nor former President Nixon were viewed as somehow less legitimate, much less void of a mandate, just because their election victories were razor thin. This is not to argue that both men were beyond constant criticism and even rebuke — only that their legitimacy was never seriously questioned by the party out of power.

Out of the last six presidential elections in the second mini era, an era of heightened partisanship, only then-President Clinton's 1996 re-election approached popular vote landslide status, though even that election was close by the standards of 1964, 1972, 1980, and 1984. Yet, although almost all the recent elections were relatively close, until the advent of President Obama only George Bush's presidency after 2000 was ever seriously questioned in terms of having achieved a popular vote mandat. Of course, that was only because he lost the popular vote to Al Gore and because the nation had to wait agonizingly for weeks on the Supreme Court's decision regarding the Florida popular vote.

But let's not confuse President Obama's situation with that of George Bush, as they are not comparable by any standard. More aptly, President Obama has no less legitimacy or popular vote mandate than President Kennedy had, President Nixon originally had, or President Carter had. As such, it is important to nip this emerging conservative narrative in the bud. It is simply inaccurate in any reasonable historical context.