November 5, 2008

Some are calling Obama’s electoral vote victory a landslide. The electoral count margin is similar to those in both Clinton victories, 370-168 in 1992 and 379-159 in 1996. However, the presidential winner took over 400 electoral votes in 13 of the last 22 elections including this year, and an extreme term like “landslide” ought to be reserved for an event that happens less than half of the time.

I prefer the popular vote measure for defining landslides, since electoral count disparities are often far wider than their associated popular vote totals. The difference between Obama’s 53.1% of the popular vote and McCain’s 46.9% was 6.2 percentage points (ppts), again pretty comparable to Clinton’s 5.6 ppt margin over Bush in 1992. A similar 7.8 ppt spread in 1988 gave vent to an electoral vote margin of 426 to 111. There have been eight elections in the past eighty years with a popular vote margin of at least ten ppts. The largest of these was Roosevelt’s 1936 win over Landon, 24.8 ppts, followed by 23.2 ppts in Nixon’s victory in 1972 over McGovern, Johnson’s 22.6 ppt advantage over Goldwater in 1964, and Reagan’s 18.4 ppt spread over Mondale in 1984. Hoover lost in 1932 by a 17.8 ppt spread in 1932 but won in 1928 with an almost equal 17.3 ppt spread. The mandate from that landslide, which translated into a 444-87 lead in the electoral vote, clearly did not serve him well when economic trouble arrived.

There are other instances, too, when sustained mandates did not correlate well with victory margins. After scooping up 520 electoral votes and 60.9% of the popular vote in 1972, Nixon ended up resigning in a scandal that first surfaced more than four months before his election. At the other extreme, George W. Bush governed like someone with an enormous mandate despite initially getting 0.5 percentage points less of the popular vote than Gore and a contested electoral count. Like America’s Super Bowl sporting classic, it’s not the margin of victory that matters but whether one wins that is remembered.


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