Many articles use the term “minority president” in describing past presidents and past elections. This is especially true when discussing a president’s “mandate” to govern, the idea being that since he did not win a majority of the vote, he somehow has less of a mandate to enact his programs. One problem with this term is that there is no one accepted definition.
The term is commonly used in several different ways, but always refers to the popular vote. There is no such thing as a minority president in terms of electoral vote (which is the only vote that counts anyway) since a majority (more than 50%) of the electoral vote is required to win. If no candidate wins a majority of the electoral vote, then the U.S. House of Representatives chooses the President.
In referring to the popular vote, one common use of the term “minority president” is defined as a person elected President who received fewer popular votes than his opponent. This has happened three times since we started keeping records of the popular vote. (Before 1824, all electors were chosen by state legislatures. In 1824, a majority of the electors were chosen by popular vote, and since 1828 most or almost all have been chosen that way. South Carolina was the last holdout, choosing electors by vote of the state legislature until after the Civil War.)
In 1824, with four major candidates running for the White House, no candidate got a majority of the electoral vote. John Quincy Adams, who finished second in both the popular and electoral votes (30.92% of the popular vote), was selected by the U.S. House of Representatives. Andrew Jackson, who defeated Adams in a rematch four years later, finished first in both the electoral and popular votes with 41.34%, but lost in the House of Representatives.
In 1876, Governor Samuel Tilden of New York won 50.97% of the popular vote, and Governor Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio won only 47.95%. But due to irregularities in the electoral vote, a Congressional inquiry gave the disputed electoral votes to Hayes, making him the winner.
The final example of a man winning the White House even though more people voted for his opponent was in 1888. President Grover Cleveland was running for re-election against Benjamin Harrison, grandson of President William Henry Harrison. Although Cleveland won 48.62% of the popular vote to 47.82% for Harrison, Harrison won more electoral votes. Due to the distribution of the votes, Harrison carried certain key states by a narrow margin while losing other states by a wide margin.
Another common use of the term “minority president” means simply that a man was elected without a majority of the popular vote. A surprising number of Presidents have been elected this way. The electoral vote system tends to magnify the size of the electoral victory since only the winner’s votes count; since we have basically a winner-take-all system for determing each state’s electoral votes, the popular votes of those who vote for the losing candidate don’t count. An election that may be close in terms of the popular vote will not be close in the Electoral College.
In addition to those elections mentioned already, there have been a large number of other “minority presidents” due to the fact that there are always more than just the two major candidates running. Surprisingly strong showing by third party candidates have often prevented a popular vote majority, and in one or two cases have even changed the final result of the election. The best example of this is the election of 1848 when former President Martin Van Buren ran on the Free Soil Party ticket. Although he did not win a single state or electoral vote, he split the Democratic majority in his home state of New York, allowing Whig candidate Zachary Taylor to win the state with a plurality of the popular vote. The electoral vote was so close, that had Taylor lost New York, he would have lost the election.
A number of other Presidents were elected without a majority of the popular votes. That means, they were elected even though a majority of the people voted against them:
Year/ President/ Popular Vote
1824 J.Q. Adams 30.92%
1844 James K. Polk 49.54%
1848 Zachary Taylor 47.28%
1856 James Buchanan 45.28%
1860 Abraham Lincoln 39.82%
1876 Rutherford B. Hayes 47.95%
1880 James A. Garfield 48.27%
1884 Grover Cleveland 48.50%
1888 Benjamin Harrison 47.82%
1892 Grover Cleveland 46.05%
1912 Woodrow Wilson 41.84%
1916 Woodrow Wilson 49.24%
1948 Harry S. Truman 49.51%
1960 John F. Kennedy 49.72%
1968 Richard M. Nixon 43.42%
1992 William Clinton 43.01%
1996 William Clinton 49.24%
One reason that Congress is hesitant to abolish the Electoral College and change to a direct popular vote requiring a majority to win is that most elections would require a runoff. As past history shows us, this would often result in a situation in which the person elected President would have had more people vote against him than for him in the initial election, again raising the question of his “mandate” to govern. If not a majority, what percentage of the vote would be required to win? That has been another difficult question that protects the existence of the Electoral College. The Electoral College has turned all but one of these “minority Presidents” into majority winners with a mandate to govern. By requiring a plurality rather than a majority, many more minor candidates would enter the race hoping to win a large enough piece of a fractured electorate, damaging or ending our two-party system.
So what is a minority President? Depending on how you use the term, it is either someone who won the popular vote with a plurality (that is, more than anyone else but less than a majority) such as Clinton in 1992 and 1996, or lost the popular vote outright but still won the election such as Benjamin Harrison in 1888. Just remember to determine which of the two definitions is being used, and you will avoid confusion.