Closest US Presidential Elections In History

In 1824, Andrew Jackson (left) received far more popular votes than John Q. Adams (right), yet lost in a 4-man race by way of what Jackson called a corrupt bargain.
In 1824, Andrew Jackson (left) received far more popular votes than John Q. Adams (right), yet lost in a 4-man race by way of what Jackson called a corrupt bargain.

10. Jimmy Carter defeats Gerlad Ford, 1976 (2.06% margin)

The 1976 US elections featured two unique candidates. Gerald Ford, the incumbent President, had never been elected, but had assumed the position after Richard Nixon resigned during the 1974 Watergate Scandal. Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew, had resigned a year earlier after also being indicted in the scandal himself. That left Ford to be Nixon’s Vice President, and then President after Nixon resigned as well. Ford ran against a relatively unknown, one-term, Georgia Governor by the name of Jimmy Carter. Carter portrayed himself as an honest man and a Washington outsider at a time when the nation was still reeling after the Watergate Scandal, and America’s defeat in the Vietnam War. Ford’s popularity had plummeted after pardoning Nixon. However, in the run up to the election, Carter slipped in the polls after admitting to lusting after women in a Playboy magazine interview. Any hope Ford had of catching up with Carter in the polls ended after he falsely declared there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. During the election, only 54 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots for anyone at all, according to the Miller Center. That was the lowest turnout since the end of World War II. Carter became the 39th President by the narrow margin of 57 Electoral College votes, having 297 votes to Ford’s 240. He also had a narrow margin in popular vote having received 1.68 million votes more than Ford, equivalent to a 2.06 percent margin.

9. James Polk defeats Henry Clay, 1844 (1.45% margin)

For James Knox Polk to be elected as the 11th President of United States, he first overcame various obstacles, chief among them being an unknown candidate. Former President Martin Van Buren, and the Democratic Party heavyweight Lewis Cass of Michigan, were running against him in the interest of their own nomination bids. But after Van Buren realized Cass was beating him, during the Fifth Ballot in the Democratic Convention, he got livid with Cass, and himself supported Polk, who eventually won the nomination on May 30th, 1844, according to the Miller Center. For the Presidency, Polk ran against Henry Clay of the Whig Party. The party resorted to making personal attacks against Polk, and spreading false stories against him. When Presidential votes were cast, Polk won by a tiny margin. He received 1,338,464 popular votes to Clay’s 1,300,097, a popular margin of 1.45 percent. Polk also received 170 electoral votes to Clay’s 105, and thusly became US President.

8. Richard Nixon defeats Hubert Humphrey, 1968 (0.7% margin)

The 1968 Elections were the second time Richard Nixon, a Republican, ran for the office of US President, having been beaten by John F. Kennedy in 1960. His opponent Hubert Humphrey, a Democrat, was Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President. Nixon's national profile as a Presidential candidate rose after President Johnson ridiculed him as a chronic campaigner in 1968. He won the Republican Party nomination on the first ballot, and tapped Spiro Agnew as his running mate. By then, the Democratic Party was in disarray, which was only compounded by the Robert F. Kennedy assassination. Nonetheless, Hubert Humphrey won the nomination. In the run to the Presidential Election, Nixon had a double digit lead over Humphrey, according to the Miller Center. However, by Election Day, Nixon's lead over Humphrey had seemingly vanished. George Wallace’s entry as a third party candidate hurt the Democrats more than the Republicans, and as a result Nixon won the Electoral College vote by a 3 to 2 margin. In terms of popular vote, Nixon, at 43.42 percent, had a narrow lead over Humphrey, who received 42.72 percent. Nixon defeated Humphrey by a 0.7 percent popular margin, and became the 37th President of United States.

7. Grover Cleveland defeats James Blaine, 1884 (0.57% margin)

Democrat Grover Cleveland became the United States' 22nd President in 1884 due to support from middle class voters over his battles with Tammany Hall, his reformist mantra of hard work, merit, and efficiency, and the support of the New York state voters. Besides, his rival James Blaine had enemies in the Republican Party, who also had supporters who viewed Cleveland favorably, largely due to his efforts to challenge corrupt political organizations and businesses. To win, Democrats portrayed Blaine as politically immoral, and as a blackmailer who used his position as House Speaker to get favors from the railroad industry. The smear campaign paid off, though Cleveland won by only a narrow margin. He did so after receiving 48.5 percent of the popular votes to Blaine’s 48.2 percent, according to the Miller Center. He also won 219 electoral votes, topping Blaine’s 182.

6. John F. Kennedy defeats Richard Nixon, 1960 (0.17% margin)

The 1960 US Presidential elections pitted John F. Kennedy against Richard Nixon. Both men were in their 40's. To get the Democratic nomination, Kennedy first beat Hubert Humphrey, from Minnesota, over the course of 13 primaries. Kennedy then defeated Lyndon Johnson, the Senate Majority Leader, at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles on the first ballot to clinch the nomination. Nixon, then Vice President to Eisenhower, was nominated by Republicans to run against Kennedy. The race for the White House was tight, and Gallup Polls had both candidates tied at 47 percent, with 6 percent of voters undecided. A series of 4 televised debates propelled Kennedy’s profile at Nixon’s expense. On Election Day, Kennedy won the popular vote by a tiny margin of 120,000 votes, out of 68.8 million ballots cast, according to the Miller Center. In the Electoral College votes, he received 303 votes to Nixon’s 219 to become the nation’s 35th President.

5. James Garfield defeats Winfield Hancock, 1880 (0.09% margin)

Early in 1880, the Republican Presidential candidate nomination runoff pitted former President Ulysses S Grant against James G. Blaine, a Maine "half breed" Senator. But James Garfield, the head of the Ohio delegation, backed John Sherman, thereby turning it into a "3 horse race". Grant was the front runner, followed by Blaine and Sherman. However, during the conventional balloting, Garfield would receive one or two courtesy votes. But on the 34th ballot, Wisconsin gave 16 votes to Garfield, and on the next ballot he got 50. On the 36th ballot, Blaine and Sherman joined forces to support Garfield, at Grant’s expense. It worked, and Garfield won the nomination by 399 votes to Grant’s 306. The race for president pitted Garfield against Winfield S. Hancock, a Democrat and Civil War Army hero. Both candidates had few policy differences, except on tariffs where Hancock stumbled. Democrats attacked Garfield for the Credit Mobilier scandal, but he kept a low profile. When Garfield started to be perceived as being tied to the Half Breeds, he engaged on a mission to New York to mend fences in a conference dubbed "the Treaty of Fifth Avenue". During the elections, Garfield beat Hancock by 7,368 votes, which amounted to less than a tenth of the total votes cast (a 0.09 percent popular win margin), according to the Miller Center. In the Electoral College, Garfield amassed 214 votes to Hancock’s 155 to become the 20th US President.

4. George W. Bush defeats Al Gore, 2000 (-.51% margin)

The 2000 US Presidential election pitted Texas Republican Governor George W. Bush against incumbent Vice President Albert Gore. To win the Republican nomination, Bush beat his strongest challenger, John McCain. Gore himself beat New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley to clinch the Democratic nomination. Bush squared off with Gore in a series of 3 debates, which pollsters suggested cast him in a good light thereafter. In the run up to the election, a past "driving under the influence" (D.U.I.) charge against Bush came up. Five days after admitting to it, he lost the 4 point lead he had beforehand in the polls. In the days leading up to the election, the race was too close to call. The election results were marred with inconsistencies, especially in Florida, where Gore ordered a recount after they seemed to favor Bush. Legal battles ensued, and ended up in the Supreme Court, where calls for recount were rejected, meaning Bush had won. Though Bush won the Electoral College ballot by 271 votes to Gore’s 266, he lost the popular votes to Gore, by 500,000, a margin of -0.51 percent, according to the Miller Center.

3. Benjamin Harrison defeats Grover Cleveland, 1888 (-.83% margin)

Benjamin Harrison, a Republican, was the 23rd President of United States. He received the Republican Party nomination after front runner James G. Blaine backed him after Blaine lost it. But Harrison trailed John Sherman, who faltered in the balloting, and Harrison overtook him to win the nomination on the 8th ballot. Winning the nomination pitted Harrison against Democratic Party incumbent president Grover Cleveland. Campaigns for President for the two candidates were low key, with little hostility exhibited. President Cleveland made only one campaign appearance, while Harrison made speeches at organized events to the press known as delegations. Much of the campaigning was done by party members, and the main issues discussed were tariffs and pensions. President Cleveland received 90,000 more popular votes than Harrison, according to the Miller Center. However, Harrison received 238 Electoral College votes to Cleveland’s 168 to become President.

2. Rutherford Hayes defeats Samuel Tilden, 1876 (-3% margin)

To become the 19th President of the United States, Republican nominee Rutherford B Hayes first contended with his predecessor's legacy, as Ulysses S. Grant and his administration scandals had tarnished the party’s reputation. There was also rising unemployment, corruption in high places, and drop in crop prices in President Grant’s term. For the Republican Party, Hayes was viewed positively as a war hero, for his integrity, and for having come from Ohio, a key swing state. Going to the Republican Convention in Cincinnati, Hayes trailed front-runner James G Blaine, who was himself tarnished by corruption allegations. Hayes clinched the nomination on the seventh ballot, and in the presidential election he faced off against the Democratic candidate and New York Governor, Samuel Jones Tilden. Tilden had solid reform credentials, and the election mood leading up to the 1876 election was anti-Republican Party. The electioneering and vote tallying efforts were marred with hostilities, irregularities, and suspicions from either party regarding their rivals. Up to that time, it was the longest and most controversial election, and it threatened to plunge the nation into utter chaos. Mayhem was averted when the Democratic Speaker of the House hastily ruled out filibusters, and forced the completion of the vote count on March 2nd, 1877, according to the Miller Center. Hayes won with 185 Electoral College votes to Tilden’s 184 to become President, having had lost in the popular vote to Tilden by 250,000 votes.

1. John Q. Adams defeats Andrew Jackson, 1824 (-10.44% margin)

To become US President, John Quincy Adams defeated such bigwig names standing in his way as John C. Calhoun, William H. Crawford, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson. In this election in 1824, the traditional way of each party nominating a presidential candidate along their parties' lines had collapsed in 1820. It was decided instead without reference to party affiliations. Candidates were selected based on their regional popularity by state legislatures. During the campaigns, Andrew Jackson was the front runner, due in large to the massive size of his rallies in such key swing states as Indiana, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. In the popular vote, Jackson won by 152,901 votes to Adams' 114,023, Clay’s 47,217, and Crawford’s 46,979, according to the Miller Center. Calhoun then dropped out of the race in a bid to get the Vice Presidency. For the Electoral College votes, Jackson received 99, 32 less than the total needed to win majority of the Electoral votes cast. Adams received 84 Electoral college votes, Crawford 41, and Clay, the House Speaker, got 37. Acting under the constitution’s 12th Amendment, the House of Representatives met to vote in the President from among the top 3 remaining candidates after Clay was eliminated through negotiation and discussion. Adams won by a one vote margin, after Clay’s supporters in the house backed him, according to the Miller Center. In the eyes of Jackson and his followers, this was truly a corrupt bargain that had went down in order to give Adams the right to reside in the White House.


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