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To the Spoilers Belong the Victors

by Paul Fidalgo // Published August 30, 2007
A Brief History of Non-majority Presidencies and Wrong-Winner Elections

A FairVote Innovative Analysis


Facts in the Spotlight

Presidential elections wrongly decided due to plurality voting rules and "spoiler" candidacies since 1828: 5, possibly 7 (11%, possibly 15.5%)

Presidential elections wherein no candidate received a majority of votes since 1828: 16 (35.5%)



Plurality Leadership: The President of the United States is tasked with being the leader of the entire country, including those who did not vote for him or her. Unlike Congress, where different viewpoints are represented in one body (even if only one party happens to be in control at any given time), a president is in office because his or her side won, and the other lost.

It is because of the singular, zero-sum nature of the office that it is so crucial that the person chosen to fill the position is someone who truly is the choice of the majority of Americans; it is far more difficult to claim a popular mandate when most of the country voted for someone else. The principle of accountability is lost when a majority in fact would have rejected the "winner" in a two-person race.

Unfortunately, our current system does nothing to ensure majority support for White House occupants. Instead, states have structured their presidential elections - and indeed most of their elections - to allow candidates to win their state with a mere plurality of votes. When more than two people run for office, the system breaks down.

The result is a system that is dangerously susceptible to so-called "spoiler" candidacies, often causing candidates to prevail who are opposed by a majority of voters, and who may even hold positions that are the polar opposites of the "spoiler" candidate. Thanks to the Electoral College, this is true even with "spoilers" who only run or campaign in a handful of states. With the memory of Ralph Nader in 2000 fresh in our minds, along with the looming semi-candidacies of Michael Bloomberg and others in 2008, the spoiler issue has never been more salient or explosive. It is also nothing new.

A History of Spoiled Presidential Elections: Inspired by William Poundstone"s upcoming book Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren't Fair (and What We Can Do About It), we took a look at spoilers throughout presidential election history, and the numbers are quite telling. Since 1828 (about the time it became the established norm for all states to hold popular elections), the outcomes of at least five presidential elections were likely wrongly decided due to the presence of a spoiler candidate - and the number may in fact be as high as seven.

  • In 1844, slave-owning James K. Polk defeated Henry Clay due to Clay losing votes in key states to the more strongly-abolitionist candidate James Birney.
  • In 1848, former President Martin Van Buren split the vote with fellow Democrat Lewis Cass to elect Zachary Taylor.
  • In 1884, two minor candidates took a combined 3% of the vote in a race where Grover Cleveland defeated James Blaine by a tiny margin of 0.3%.
  • In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt entered the fray on the Bull Moose ticket, splitting 50.6% of the vote withfellow Republican William Howard Taft and electing Woodrow Wilson.
  • In 2000, consumer advocate Ralph Nader won 181 times more votes than the decisive Florida victory margin for corporate-friendly Republican George W. Bush.
In each case, voters hoping to lend their support to the cause represented by the independent or third party candidate found that they may have inadvertently aided the candidate who most strongly contradicted them.

The other two cases in question are stark, if not conclusive. In 1892, a close election between Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison was shaken up by Populist James Weaver, who took a sizable 8.5% of the vote while Cleveland defeated Harrison by 3%. A century later, George H. W. Bush was out of a job after billionaire Ross Perot took almost 19% of the vote. Pundits still scratch their heads over whether he handed Bill Clinton the presidency, but what"s certain is that Clinton only won a single state (Arkansas) with a majority of the vote.

Non-Majority Winners: Regardless of how one characterizes these outcomes, certainly the concept of majority rule is not being served. Even putting aside the spoiler issue, 16 out of 45 presidents have been elected with less than 50% of the vote since 1828. That means in over one third of those elections, most of the country voted for someone other than the winner. In fact, as of 2004, 14 governors were in office under the same circumstances.

All of this confusion and all of these "wrong-winner" elections are due to our first-past-the-post plurality system of electing office holders. Remember, in a three-way race, it takes as little as 34% to win, but it also means that 66% voted against you.

The Solution: If we want our elected leaders to have the political legitimacy of majority support, we need to have a system that allows for it. If we want to reap the benefits of independent candidacies -(such as a greater range of issues being discussed, a wider range of choices, and an increased level of discourse) we need a system that does not turn them into spoilers.

Most nations elect their presidents with two-round runoff systems based on the majority principle, but what might work best in the United States is instant runoff voting (IRV), an increasingly popular voting method that allows voters to rank their choices in order of preference and ensures a majority winner. By ranking candidates in order of preference, it becomes possible to vote one"s conscience while still lending support to a candidate with a more realistic shot at winning. With IRV, no one plays the spoiler, and one candidate always emerges with majority support.

States are empowered to adopt instant runoff voting for president, and states where this has been seriously debated range from Vermont to Alaska.

Read more about instant runoff voting at: instantrunoff.com or fairvote.org/irv. Previous editions of Innovative Analysis can be found here.