Friday, November 9, 2012

Karl Rove's "Smaller Percentage" Argument Not True

Dylan Byers of Politico reports that Karl Rove appeared Fox News two days after the election and asserted:
This will be the first president re-elected to a second term with a smaller percentage of the vote than he got in the first term.
After his national television debacle disputing the clear result in Ohio on election night, one would think that Mr. Rove would strive for a little accuracy - particularly with respect to a discrete and easily checked fact that is at the core of his area of expertise, presidential election results. But he did not.

Of our 43 different presidents (I don't count Grover Cleveland twice), 16 of them were re-elected to the presidency. Contrary to what Mr. Rove has asserted, several of them earned re-election with a smaller share of the popular vote than they won the first time around.

Let's start with the clear cases where Rove misstates the facts. According to Dave Liep's Atlas of Presidential Elections, in 1828 Andrew Jackson won the presidency with 55.93% of the popular vote, but he was re-elected in 1832 with 54.74% of the vote. In 1884 Grover Cleveland was elected with 48.85% of the vote, and after suffering a defeat in 1888, he regained the presidency in 1892 with 46.02% of the popular vote.

Rove's statistic also overlooks the case of James Madison. In that era not all states chose electors by popular vote. Wikipedia tells us that in 1808 in the 10 states that did have a popular vote for president Madison won 64.7% of the popular vote. In winning reelection in 1812 in the nine states that chose electors with the popular vote Madison won only 50.4% of the popular vote.

In other cases the fact that the president won re-election with a higher percentage of the popular vote was due in part to the presence of a strong third party candidate the first time he ran. In 1912 when Woodrow Wilson first won the presidency he was aided by the fact that the Republican Party was divided - Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft split the Republican vote, and Wilson won with 41.84% of the vote. In 1916 Wilson won a higher percentage of the popular vote (49.24%) when his only serious opponent was Charles Evans Hughes, but that's apples to oranges. The same thing occurred between 1992 and 1996, when Ross Perot's share of the vote declined from 18.91% to 8.40%, giving Bill Clinton a higher percentage of the popular vote the second time around.

Abraham Lincoln's case is even more problematic. In 1860 the Democratic Party was not only divided between Stephen Douglas and John Breckinridge, but John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party also drained votes from Lincoln, who earned 39.65 % of the popular vote. In 1864 Lincoln won re-election with 55.03% of the popular vote to 44.95% for George McClellan - but the 11 states of the Confederacy did not participate in the election.

And how shall we treat Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Between 1932 and 1944 his popular vote totals were 57.41%, 60.80%, 54.74%, and 53.39%. Was he not twice re-elected with declining shares of the popular vote?

Rove's assertion is demonstrably false. Will he acknowledge it?

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