Posted by: zhak39 | November 16, 2008

The Great Divide

My little sister made a comment last weekend about the election. She believes that the strident rhetoric bemoaning our country being so deeply divided is electioneering hype. She suspects that the pundits who insist that our country has never been so ideologically and evenly opposed is grossly exaggerated. I decided to do a little digging.

A disclaimer: if you stumbled here looking for something for your 8th grade research paper do not pull information from here. Do your own math. I am neither journalist nor statistician. In fact, I would have to stand on my tippie toes to reach the level of hack.


So, I found records of the popular vote in presidential elections going back to 1882. I looked at proportion of the vote and ranked races by percentage between the winner and also ran. There are a number of years with ‘spoilers,’ some of whom received a significant number of votes. I only worked with the top two in each race. In the past 130 years or so, elections have been won with a less than 1% difference; the most decisive was over 30%. Let’s do this broadly.

Less than 1%: 6

More than 1% and less than 10%: 13

More than 10% and less than 20%: 8

More than 20% and less than 30%: 6

More than 30%: 1

Now, digging a little deeper, I looked at the elections that had less than a 1% difference between candidates to see how we have spiraled into such a historically divisive time. So elections in ’80, ’84, and ’88 were that close. Sandwiching those were the election of ’76 with a 3% difference, ’92 at 3.5% and ’96 with 4.2%. So it does sound like a very evenly divided nation. Only these are the elections from 1876 to 1896.

More recently we have a mixed bag. From 1980 to 1996 the margins for wins were between 9% and 18%. The biggest win captured nearly 60% of the vote. The closest was 55%-45%. The popular voted didn’t become weird until 2000 when the winner of the popular vote (by less than 1%) lost the election. This is the only time that the winner of the popular vote was not elected president. The next election was under 2.5%, the lowest margin in more than a quarter of a century.

Our most recent election was won with a 6.5% difference. In a historical perspective, this is a pretty run of the mill difference of opinion.

So you were right, sister.

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