President Donald J. Trump(R-Florida) has made a habit, especially in the first few years of his presidency, of pretending that the 2016 election — in which he lost the popular vote but won 306 electoral votes — was a “massive landslide victory.”
In fact, his Electoral College margin was pretty pedestrian, as presidential elections go, and he trailed Hillary Clinton by more votes than anyone who has won the Electoral College. With the coronavirus out of control and his approval rating plummeting, Trump may have the opportunity to participate in a real landslide election this year — one where he gets trounced by Joe Biden.
Recent polls have Biden leading Trump by 8–10%, sometimes more, with solid leads in most battleground states. If current trends continue — a big if, to be sure — Donald Trump will join an ignominious list that contains names like Herbert Hoover, Alf Landon, and George McGovern. He’ll become one of the biggest presidential election losers of all time.
The biggest winner
The original landslide election, and the biggest landslide, was the very first one.
George Washington was really the only candidate for president with a chance to win in 1788, and the office of the presidency had been designed with him in mind. Back then, there wasn’t a popular vote in the same sense that we have one now (not every state held a popular vote, and those that did often didn’t allow many people to vote).
He won 100% of the available first-ballot electoral votes for both of his terms; second-ballot votes went to the electors’ choices for vice president. Washington’s presidency was unique in other ways, too — there really weren’t political parties yet, there was no campaigning, and voting wasn’t anywhere near like it is today.
Some other early presidents also enjoyed overwhelming victories — like Thomas Jefferson, who won the Electoral College 162–14 in 1804. But landslides as we know them are really twentieth-century phenomena; the modern two-party system didn’t emerge until after the Civil War, and the late nineteenth century was a time when the two parties’ popularity was closely balanced.
Good times and weak opponents
Some of the biggest landslides in American history have happened in times quite unlike ours — when Americans have been generally happy with the course of events and have looked to keep things chugging along. When a president from the incumbent party faces weak opposition during good times, the results are often pretty lopsided.
In the 1920s, the United States enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. The stock market seemed like it would increase in value forever and new technologies were making life more convenient and fun.
Americans didn’t want to rock the boat. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge (R-Massachusetts) was the incumbent president, having taken over after Warren Harding’s death the previous year. “Silent Cal” was an unremarkable politician, best known for his hands-off approach to governing.
His opponent, John Davis, an ex-congressman, had only become the Democratic nominee because the two more popular candidates, Al Smith(D-New York)and William McAdoo, were unacceptable to large parts of the party. Smith was a controversial candidate because he was Catholic; McAdoo had been caught up in scandal and was a not-so-secret supporter of the Ku Klux Klan.
Davis, who hadn’t even wanted the nomination, ended up being the Democratic Party’s choice after 103 ballots at the convention — not exactly a ringing vote of confidence. Davis’ platform was not terribly different from Coolidge’s and his more left-wing support was stolen by Robert LaFollette (P-Wisconsin), the Progressive Party candidate.
Silent Cal cruised to re-election, winning 54% of the popular vote to Davis’ 29% and LaFollette’s 17%. The Electoral College was just as lopsided, with Coolidge winning 382 electoral votes. Davis won 136; LaFollette won only his home state of Wisconsin’s 13.
Four years later, in 1928, Herbert Hoover (R-California)won an even more impressive victory by basically promising to be a more interesting version of Coolidge. The economy was still booming during the election year — the signs of the Great Depression would not be obvious for a few more months.
The Democrats nominated Al Smith, the Governor of New York, who was unpopular outside of big cities both because he was associated with New York machine politics and because of anti-Catholic prejudice. Anti-Catholicism ensured that Smith would lose even some southern states, which had been the Democratic Party’s stronghold. Hoover won the popular vote by 18%; the Electoral College was even more lopsided at 444–87.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (R-Kansas) was re-elected in 1956 under similar circumstances. By the middle of the 1950s, the tough times of World War II and the Korean War were in the rearview mirror.
Postwar prosperity was booming along with the population. Many American families were able to realize the American dream of a car and a home for the first time. Eisenhower was widely respected as both a war hero and a steady hand.
He didn’t have to campaign on much of a platform; “I like Ike” was enough. Eisenhower was helped by the fact that his opponent in 1956 was the same person he had defeated handily in 1952 — former Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson.
Stevenson, often criticized as too haughty and intellectual to appeal to the masses, had lost to Ike by 11% in 1952; since then, Eisenhower had become even more popular. Stevenson hadn’t held office since 1953. Eisenhower won the popular vote by a 15% margin and the Electoral College 457–73.
Ronald Reagan’s (R-California) re-election in 1984 looks a lot like Coolidge’s, Hoover’s, and Eisenhower’s. Reagan presided over a country in the midst of an economic boom. Most Americans could answer “yes” to Reagan’s famous campaign question — “are you better off than you were four years ago?”
The Democrats put up weak opposition to Reagan. Walter Mondale (D-Minnesota), who had prevailed over the younger, more dynamic U.S. Senator Gary Hart (D-Colorado) in the primaries.
Mondale combined a lack of charisma with liberal policy proposals during a pretty conservative moment in American life. His nomination of Geraldine Ferraro (D-New York) as his running mate, while historic, was a clear Hail Mary due to the fact that Reagan was trouncing him in the opinion polls.
In the end, Reagan crushed Mondale, winning the popular vote 59%-41%. Mondale managed to win electoral votes only from his home state of Minnesota — and he only won there by 0.18%!
Is 2020 the new 1920 or 1932?
Of course, we are not living in a time when things are going well and Americans just want to keep going. The pandemic, government response to protests, and the general unfitness of the Trump administration to lead in this moment has led a record number of Americans to believe that we are on the “wrong track.”
The other situation that tends to produce landslides looks like hat we are seeing today, when the incumbent party’s approaches have been exposed as inadequate or when an emerging crisis forces voters to reconsider their priors.
Some candidates have won overwhelmingly because they were seen, like Joe Biden (D-Delaware), as reassuring (even boring) candidates after times of chaos. Warren G. Harding (R-Ohio), the first of the Republican presidents of the 1920s, promised a “return to normalcy” in 1920. Woodrow Wilson’s (D-New Jersey) second term had been unremittingly intense.
The administration joined World War I, had its international ambitions scrapped at the Paris Peace Conference, overreacted to a string of anarchist terrorist attacks, and failed to manage a wave of racial violence across the country.
Warren Harding, the milquetoast senator from Ohio, seemed like the glass of warm milk that the country desired. H.L. Mencken described Harding’s oratory as “stale bean soup… What [voters] want is simply a gaudy series of platitudes, of sonorous nonsense driven home with gestures.”
Harding’s opponent was Ohio Governor James Cox, a weak candidate who only ended up with the nomination after Woodrow Wilson had torpedoed more popular candidates in a vain attempt to gain a third term. Harding barely campaigned, speaking from his front porch in Marion, Ohio — not all that different, really, from Biden in his basement — and won the election in a walk.
The popular vote went 60%-34% in his favor (Socialist Eugene Debs picked up much of the rest), and he won the Electoral College 404–127.
Franklin Roosevelt’s (D-New York) election in 1932 fits a similar pattern. The 1928 and 1932 elections are perhaps the biggest episode of electoral whiplash in American history. Soon after Hoover was elected so easily in 1928, the economy crumbled and Americans found that his administration was not up to the task of easing the pain.
Even though Hoover was in deep trouble, there was no attempt to wrest the Republican nomination from him because no other prominent Republican wanted to contest this unwinnable election. Hoover’s campaign was a disaster — he often had objects thrown at him as he spoke at campaign rallies.
Roosevelt, a purveyor of sunny optimism, was able to unite a large Democratic coalition that wanted nothing more than to see Hoover go. His promise of a “New Deal” for the American people was vastly preferable to more of the same from Hoover.
He won the popular vote by 18% and the Electoral College 472–59. This was actually a better showing for the Republicans than the 1936 election. Roosevelt, whose New Deal policies were quite popular, trounced poor Alf Landon by 24%. Landon only won electoral votes in Vermont and Maine.
It’s too early to declare the 2020 election a foregone conclusion, especially given the speed of developments over the last year (imagine trying to explain our current situation to a version of yourself from December). But it feels as though a significant majority of Americans have seen enough of Donald Trump to make up their minds.
Trump managed to squeak through in 2016 because he was an unknown quantity to many Americans; the vagueness of his positions and his loose relationship with the truth allowed people to see in him what they wanted to see. Now, having seen how Trump has handled (or, really, refused to handle) a series of serious national crises, Americans know who he is.
The country and its information environment are probably too polarized for an FDR-style blowout, but Donald Trump may finally get the chance to be a part of a real landslide this year.