Abraham Lincoln only won 39.8 percent of the popular vote in his first presidential victory, and used a questionable tactic to help win his second. In fact, since 1820, the last year an essentially uncontested election was held, most presidential elections have been extremely close. Only four presidents received more than 60 percent of the vote, nine elections saw a candidate win between 55 and 60 percent of the vote, and candidates who received less than 50 percent of the vote have won 18 presidential elections:
Excerpt from American History Revisited
“He was the luckiest man to run for president: He won with only 39.8 percent of the popular votes cast — the smallest percentage ever recorded. He had no help from his running mate: he only met his vice president Hannibal Hamlin on Election Day. How did Abraham Lincoln manage to win?
“The remaining 60.2 percent was split among three other candidates: Stephen A. Douglas (29 percent), John C. Breckenridge (18 percent), and John Bell (13 percent) . Had it not been for the presence of two ‘third-party’ candidates — Breckenridge and Bell — Lincoln might not have been elected. (In that year there were four candidates because each of the two parties had nominated an upstart Southern candidate as well as an official Northern one.) Says the historian Jay Winik: Lincoln’s victory ‘was in many ways a fluke and nothing more.’
“Naturally, lacking a strong ‘popular mandate,’ Lincoln had a difficult time leading the country. In 1864, with the Civil War going badly, Lincoln made preparations to go home, fully expecting General George McClellan to be his successor. … Observes the historian James McPherson, ‘If the election had been held in August 1864 instead of November, Lincoln would have lost.’ …
“In the middle of an unexpectedly long war that had — in Walt Whitman’s memorable words — turned the nation into ‘one vast central hospital,’ the president needed all the help he could get in his faltering reelection bid. His primary support came from soldiers and those who continued to believe in the war.
“Of the twenty-five states of the Union, only fourteen permitted soldiers to vote in the state they happened to be in while fighting. Soldiers from the remaining eleven states would be out of luck because they were not home. One of the critical states was Indiana. The state’s Republican governor went to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and told him that without the support of Indiana’s fifteen thousand soldiers, Lincoln would lose. How about giving the soldiers ‘sick leave’ so they could come home to vote?
“A letter immediately went out, signed by the president, to General William Tecumseh Sherman: ‘Indiana is the only important State victory in October, whose soldiers cannot vote in the field. Anything you can do to let her soldiers, or any part of them, go home to vote at the State election will be greatly in point.’ Never in the history of warfare had soldiers been permitted to go home to vote, thought Sherman when he read the letter, but then, this was different. ‘Our armies vanish before our eyes and it is useless to complain,’ he wrote his wife, ‘because the election is more important than the war.’ (He also knew if Lincoln lost, he would be out of a job.] …
“The Democrats were furious when they heard what Lincoln had done, but there was nothing they could do, lest it impugn the patriotism of their fighting men. They became even more frustrated when they saw what happened on Election Day. From every direction, thousands of soldiers got off the train to vote and sweep Lincoln to victory. Exactly who these thousands of troops were, nobody could be sure. It was, in the words of one historian, ‘the day that Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio voted in Indiana.’
Author: Seymour Morris Jr.
Title: American History Revisited
Date: Copyright 2010 by Seymour Morris Jr.
Pages: 217, 219-220