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  Chapter Ten:

  Presidential Vote
  Senate and House
  Women in Congress
  Black Elected Officials 
  Social Attitudes



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Presidential Vote

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Democrats and Republicans shared presidential election victories almost equally. Voter participation declined from 1900 to 1912 and then fluctuated during the rest of the century with no clear trend.
The twenty-five presidential elections of the twentieth century produced twelve Democratic and thirteen Republican presidents (see upper chart). In seven of these elections, the winning margin in the popular vote was 5 percent or less. In the 1960 and 1968 elections, with Richard M. Nixon as the Republican candidate in both, the winning margin was less than 1 percent. In two elections, the tally was so close that the ultimate losers, Charles Evans Hughes in 1916 and Thomas E. Dewey in 1948, were announced as the winners on the morning after the election.

American voters seemed to prefer a two-party system and were often reluctant to cast their votes for third parties. Nevertheless, third-party candidates had considerable influence in four of the century’s twenty-five presidential elections. Theodore Roosevelt won nearly 30 percent of the popular vote in 1912. Robert La Follette captured 17 percent of the vote in 1924. George Wallace garnered 14 percent of the vote in 1968. Ross Perot won 19 percent of the vote in 1992. In three of these elections—1912, 1968, and 1992—the winning candidates garnered a plurality, rather than a majority, of the votes cast. 

The American system is unique among industrial democracies. It is characterized not only by the long-term balance between the two major parties and resistance to third-party candidates, but also by an electoral college system that maintains the “winner-take-all” principle in every state. 

Voter participation—the ratio of actual voters to the total number of eligible voters— is difficult to calculate. Ballot-box stuffing and miscounts cause errors in the count of actual voters, but these problems are trivial compared with the difficulty of estimating the number of eligible voters. Early in the century, each state decided independently who was qualified to vote in national elections. A number of states gave the vote to resident aliens and a few to women. Residence, age, and literacy requirements varied from state to state, as did the administrative practices that in some states excluded blacks, American Indians, and Asian Americans from the voting population. 

Amendments to the Constitution, federal legislation, and a series of federal court decisions that struck down literacy and residency requirements eliminated much of the discretion the states had enjoyed. But substantial differences among states remained. In 2000, for example, fourteen states denied the vote to convicted felons. 

For every presidential election since 1916, several official estimates of voter participation are available. The lower chart shows the maximum and minimum estimates of participation in each election. Both series indicate that voter participation was exceptionally low in 1920, 1924, 1948, and 1996, and exceptionally high in 1952 and 1960.

Chapter 10 chart 1

Source Notes
Source Abbreviations

Estimates of the percentage of eligible voters who vote are available from two sources: a biennial report of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Census Bureau’s Current Population Reports. HS series Y 27 and Y 79–83; SA 1960, table 468; SA 1987, table 418; SA 1988, table 418; and SA 1997, tables 462 and 464. For states banning felons, see “Five States Consider Easing Ban on Felons Voting” at (accessed September 21, 2000).


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