U.S. Presidents Who Won Their Elections but Finished Second in the Popular Vote

01/20/2017

Updated on 10/08/2018

As most of us all know, in American politics, it is the Electoral College and not the popular vote that determines the winner in a presidential election. This odd fact of government has long been a burr in the butt of those unfortunate candidates who’ve found themselves with a majority popular vote but on the losing end of an electoral vote. For those on the other side who win the Electoral College but come in second in the popular vote — such as the new President of the United States Donald J. Trump — it can feel like a wonderful stroke of luck. So in honor of, and I can’t believe I’m actually writing this, “The Donald’s” swearing in as the 45th President of the United States on this day, it seems a good time to highlight some previous elections where, like the most recent, the winner finished second place in the popular vote. 

Hillary Rodham Clinton. Whether you liked her or not, you have to admit that metaphorically, she took a hard punch to the gut when she finished second in the Electoral College.

2016 Donald J. Trump (R) 61,201,031 votes (306 electoral votes), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) 62,523,126 votes (232 electoral votes).

Well, not much more to say about this one, but in case you’re one of the 12 people on the planet who aren’t tired of looking at the 2016 election results, you can take a look at this interactive map to see where and how Trump won. The most interesting thing about this election is how almost all media predictions were wrong, which will likely make the 2016 presidential election the most studied and analyzed election in history. As for Clinton, despite the fact that she didn’t win the election, she showed that women indeed can win a majority of the popular vote in the U.S., which is a good thing. On the other hand, she learned that the Electoral College is indeed a profound stand-in for the glass ceiling.

George “Dubya” Bush. Some would say that he’s the only president in history to have been chosen by the U.S. Supreme Court. (Photo by Eric Draper, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library)

2000 George W. Bush 50,456,002 votes (271 electoral votes), Al Gore (D) 50,999,897 votes (266 electoral votes).

The election that gave us the “hanging chad”, the bigger issue here was the Supreme Court’s ruling on the matter, which even to the most ardent Bush supporter seemed a touch problematic. Even former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor after retiring from the Court said in 2013, “Maybe the Court should have said, ‘We’re not going to take it, goodbye.’ ” It was a pretty profound statement from O’Connor who had previously been defensive about the decision.

1876 Ruthford B. Hayes (R) 4,034,311 votes (185 electoral votes), Samuel J. Tilden (D) 4,288,546 votes (184 electoral votes)

This one was a real doozie that almost pushed the U.S. into a second Civil War. It had everything: a very divided country; allegations of voter fraud; state- and federal-level wheeling and dealing; special commissions; a big ol’ filibuster; and eventually a bar-room compromise. A major part of that compromise was the end of Reconstruction, which pretty much put the lid on any progress for the recently freed slaves, and led to the passing of the so-called “Jim Crow” laws. Definitely a low-point for the country.

1824 John Quincy Adams (Democratic-Republican) 113,122 votes (84 electoral votes), Andrew Jackson (Democratic-Republican) 151,271 votes (91 electoral votes)

John Quincy Adams managed to still become president despite losing the popular and electoral college vote. Sheesh, you’d think he’d have gotten the hint.

Quite possibly the biggest WTF in U.S. presidential elections, Jackson had the most popular votes and electoral votes — he won both!!! — but because he didn’t have a majority of electoral votes, only a plurality (he needed 127 for the majority), the choice went to the House of Representatives. Funny thing there was that the then-speaker of the House was the all-powerful Henry Clay, who had finished third in the electoral votes and was therefore out of the race. What occurred next didn’t exactly sit well with Jackson or his many supporters. Wanting to get the best deal he could for himself, Clay threw his support to Adams in the House, who allegedly in return, made Clay his Secretary of State.

Jackson was livid. Calling the deal a “corrupt bargain”, Jackson and his supporters accused Clay and Adams of making an illegal and unconstitutional deal to give the presidency to Adams. Whether or not there was any wheeling and dealing done (there was in fact quite a bit that went on) one thing for sure is that Clay couldn’t stand Jackson one bit, and was all too happy to prevent him from winning the presidency. Clay once said of Jackson:

“[Jackson] is ignorant, passionate, hypocritical, corrupt and easily swayed by the basest men who surround him”

For his part, Jackson never liked Clay either and was eventually able to wrest the presidency from Adams four years later. When Jackson was later asked about any regrets he had after his 8 years in office, he allegedly replied, “[That] I didn’t shoot Henry Clay and I didn’t hang John Calhoun.”

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