The U.S. presidential election will be held a week from today, and if the polls are correct, the outcome will be extraordinarily close. Many say that the country has never been as deeply divided. In discussing the debates last week, I noted how this year's campaign is far from the most bitter and vitriolic. It might therefore be useful also to consider that while the electorate at the moment appears evenly and deeply divided, unlike what many say, that does not reveal deep divisions in our society -- unless our society has always been deeply divided.
Since 1820, the last year an uncontested election was held, most presidential elections have been extremely close. Lyndon B. Johnson received the largest percentage of votes any president has ever had in 1964, taking 61.5 percent of the vote. Three other presidents broke the 60 percent mark: Warren G. Harding in 1920, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 and Richard Nixon in 1972.
Nine elections saw a candidate win between 55 and 60 percent of the vote: Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Only Eisenhower broke 55 percent twice. Candidates who received less than 50 percent of the vote won 18 presidential elections. These included Lincoln in his first election, Woodrow Wilson in both elections, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Nixon in his first election and Bill Clinton in both his elections.
From 1824 to 2008, 13 elections ended in someone obtaining more than 55 percent but never more than 61 percent of the vote. Eighteen elections ended with the president receiving less than 50 percent of the vote. The remaining 16 elections ended with the winner receiving between 50-55 percent of the vote, in many cases barely above 50 percent -- meaning almost half the country voted for someone else. The United States not only always has had deeply divided elections, but in many cases, minority presidents. Interestingly, of the four presidents who won more than 60 percent of the vote, three are not remembered favorably: Harding, Johnson and Nixon.