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Here's how California has voted in the past 15 presidential elections
Election pundits and pollsters biting their nails over battleground states aren't thinking much about California right now. The liberal stronghold &mdash and state with the biggest chunk of electoral votes on offer &mdash is near the dark blue end of Nate Silver's winding worm, and has been for a while.
California is likely going to vote Joe Biden for president in 2020, as it did for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But a Democratic sure thing in the state wasn&rsquot always the case in fact, in the past 70 years, California has chosen a Republican nominee for president more than it has a Democrat. It wasn&rsquot until a saxophone-playing young governor from Arkansas ran for president in the '90s that the Golden State turned reliably blue.
Here&rsquos a look back at who won, sometimes surprisingly, California's many Electoral College votes over the years, starting with the first election in which all 50 states participated, in 1960.
The first-ever televised debate didn&rsquot do a sweaty Richard Nixon any favors. Despite his experience as vice president to Dwight D. Eisenhower, being up against the fresh-faced junior U.S. senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, proved too much for pre-tricky Dick.
Nixon was still suffering from the flu and had spent a grueling day on the campaign trail, while Kennedy had been holed up in a hotel practicing his lines. While most radio listeners called the first debate a draw or even pronounced Nixon the victor, polls showed Kennedy won over the 70 million television viewers by a broad margin.
1960: Presidential candidates Richard Nixon, left, later the 37th president of the United States, and John F. Kennedy, the 35th president, during the televised debate.
Kennedy won one of the closest elections in U.S. history that year, but he didn&rsquot get any help from California.
The state voted for the SoCal-born Republican, giving him a marginal win of less than 1% in California.
Interestingly, in an issue that has come back into the spotlight in 2020, Kennedy appeared to have carried California by 37,000 votes when all of the voting precincts reported, but after absentee ballots were counted a week later, Nixon came from behind to win California by 36,000 votes.
California voted for Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, along with most of the country. The former vice president rode the wave of Kennedy&rsquos popularity after his assassination in Dallas in 1963. Johnson carried a whopping 44 states to Republican Barry Goldwater's six, and earned 61.1% of the popular vote, the highest count since 1820. This Democrat win in California would be an anomaly however, and it would be a while before California would vote blue again.
Eight years after his loss to Kennedy, Nixon's comeback in 1968 was a winning one. After a chaotic year of race riots and Vietnam War protests, Nixon ran on the promise of law and order, and he won handily. California voted for Nixon over Democrat Hubert Humphrey, joining 32 states in helping the Yorba Linda native win with 301 electoral votes to Humphrey&rsquos 191.
Most remember Richard Nixon in the '70s for scandal, resignation and his weird, hunched two-armed finger V&rsquos. But before the chaos of the Watergate scandal, Nixon won one of the most lopsided presidential elections in history.
California joined every state in the union, with the exception of Massachusetts, in giving incumbent Nixon a second term. Anti-war Democratic candidate George McGovern walked away with only 17 electoral votes.
1972 presidential election results by county. Red is Richard Nixon, blue George McGovern.
Quick note on electoral votes &mdash Since California quickly grew its population in the Gold Rush of 1848 and joined the union two years later, the state has gained electoral votes from almost every census since its founding. In 1972, California reached 45 electoral votes, passing New York for most in the country. The state&rsquos current allotted 55 electoral votes give California more than 10% of all available electoral votes in the country.
Vice President Gerald Ford took over the Oval Office after Nixon resigned, but his pardon of the former president didn&rsquot sit well with Americans, and his fight with Jimmy Carter, the relatively unknown former governor of Georgia, in 1976, was a tight one.
Carter won a divided country with 297 electoral votes, to Ford&rsquos 240, marking the only Democratic victory in any presidential election held between 1968 and 1992.
California however, was still Republican, giving Ford its then-45 electoral votes by a small two-point margin.
After a turbulent term marked by a recession, an oil crisis and the Iranian hostage standoff, Carter&rsquos approval rating sank to a level that would even make Donald Trump shiver. (Carter was at 28% approval when he left office, Trump comes into this election at around 45%.)
Former California Gov. Ronald Reagan swept into office in 1980 with a landslide victory. And again, California would give a Republican their 45 electoral votes, choosing Reagan over Carter with a wide 17% margin.
This marked the first time in 100 years that a Republican candidate would defeat an incumbent Democrat, a feat that hasn't happened since. The rise of conservatism following Reagan's victory led to a political realignment to the right through the '80s.
Reagan was incredibly popular across the country, and Reagan-fever even made it to the liberal Bay Area, where his likeness is still on display in the Jelly Belly Factory in Fairfield, made entirely of the candy &mdash reportedly the former Hollywood star's favorite Oval Office snack.
&ldquoYou can tell a lot about a fella&rsquos character by whether he picks out all of one color or just grabs a handful,&rdquo he once said.
A detail of the President Ronald Reagan's jelly bean portrait at the Jelly Belly Candy Company, Fairfield, Calif.
Jelly Belly muncher Ronald Reagan absolutely crushed his re-election bid in 1984.
The incumbent president beat out Democratic candidate and former Vice President Walter Mondale with ease, carrying a historic 49 of 50 states and winning 525 of 538 electoral votes. Mondale only managed to win his home state of Minnesota and Washington, D.C.
California gave its then-47 electoral votes to Reagan, helping him complete a very red map.
Margin of victory by state, 1984 presidential election.
In 1988, California voted for a Republican president for the fifth time in a row, giving George H.W. Bush a massive win over Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, and the GOP a third consecutive term in the White House. California gave Bush Sr. its 47 votes by a close 2.5% margin, but the state would soon forever turn blue.
An interesting aside &mdash&ldquoblue&rdquo states and &ldquored&rdquo states didn&rsquot exist as we know them until 2000. After the rise in color television, TV networks couldn't land on a universal color code for decades. Throughout the Reagan Era, the president's two electoral wins were often depicted with a blue Republican map on NBC. This awesome Vox explainer reveals more.
The Democratic, liberal stronghold that we know California as today started in the 1990s.
List of presidents of the United States
The president of the United States is the head of state and head of government of the United States, indirectly elected to a four-year term by the American people through the Electoral College. The officeholder leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces.
Since the office was established in 1789, 45 people have served in 46 presidencies. The first president, George Washington, won a unanimous vote of the Electoral College one, Grover Cleveland, served two non-consecutive terms and is therefore counted as the 22nd and 24th president of the United States (giving rise to the discrepancy between the number of presidents and the number of persons who have served as president).
The presidency of William Henry Harrison, who died 31 days after taking office in 1841, was the shortest in American history. Franklin D. Roosevelt served the longest, over twelve years, before dying early in his fourth term in 1945. He is the only U.S. president to have served more than two terms. Since the ratification of the Twenty-second Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1951, no person may be elected president more than twice, and no one who has served more than two years of a term to which someone else was elected may be elected more than once. 
Four presidents died in office of natural causes (William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren G. Harding, and Franklin D. Roosevelt), four were assassinated (Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy), and one resigned (Richard Nixon, facing impeachment). John Tyler was the first vice president to assume the presidency during a presidential term, and set the precedent that a vice president who does so becomes the fully functioning president with his presidency, as opposed to a caretaker president. The Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution put Tyler's precedent into law in 1967. It also established a mechanism by which an intra-term vacancy in the vice presidency could be filled. Richard Nixon was the first president to fill a vacancy under this provision when he selected Gerald Ford for the office following Spiro Agnew's resignation in 1973. The following year, Ford became the second to do so when he chose Nelson Rockefeller to succeed him after he acceded to the presidency. As no mechanism existed for filling an intra-term vacancy in the vice presidency before 1967, the office was left vacant until filled through the next ensuing presidential election and subsequent inauguration.
A Different 1960's Election: Nixon Wins
Up until the United States Presidential Election of 1960, no previous election had ever been this close. The closest election in U.S. history at that time of course had global implications. A series of bad luck and simple joke on national TV by previous U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower being twisted around to sound as if Nixon h
Richard Nixon doing his signature victory signs.
had no clue on how to run a country. Many other factors could have influenced the 1960 Election in a slant toward Nixon. Richard Nixon could have been more public about equal rights instead of letting John F. Kennedy receive the support from the African American vote and the majority of Americans from the Northern states. During this time, Martin Luther King, Jr. was sentenced to four months of jail time until John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy intervened, freeing King. Nixon, while a Duke law student, argued on behalf of equal rights for African Americans but chose to do nothing because he wanted to avoid the "white backlash" against him. After the intervention by the two Kennedy brothers, Jackie Robinson switched to Kennedy. Robinson, like Nixon, was a fellow Californian and was a Connecticut Republican, speaking out against Communism. Jackie Robinson's decision to switch to Kennedy can be viewed as the first major shift in racial politics and politics of that time when the African American vote slightly favored the Democrats with 55 percent at the time, grew to become a 90 percent voting bloc. Imagine if Nixon had been the one that intervened when King was in jail? And what would happen if Eisenhower never said that joke on TV? Another factor that highly favored Kennedy was that he was loaded with money, enough money to travel to all of the 50 states. What would have happened if Kennedy made a simple decision that most politicians use, and focused more on the swing states of that time? Well, the result of the 1960's election could have told a much different story, a story where Nixon won.
Throughout his first term in office, Richard Nixon was convinced that the war in Vietnam was winnable if only the US put forth enough effort and resources. This led to several escalations in bombing and troop deployments between 1969 and January 1972. That said, he also believed that the war should be placed back into Vietnamese hands and that the US should take on a supporting role in the war.
This, as you might expect, drew a lot of outcry from people who opposed the war. Protests became more and more frequent, and Americans became insistent the US begin to extract themselves militarily from Vietnam. To go along with all of this, the media that followed the anti-war movement grew and grew along side it, creating a media frenzy that snowballed, making it seem like almost all Americans opposed the war effort.
But how many truly did oppose the United States&rsquo efforts in Vietnam in the early 1970s? We&rsquove seen some poll numbers from the late 60s, where just over 50 percent of Americans disapproved of US participation in the war, but what about after that? In January of 1970, the number held true at around 52 percent. In January 1971, that number had risen to 59 percent, and in January 1973 it was 60 percent.
So, while those numbers do indicate that a majority of Americans had a negative opinion of the war, there was still a significant number of Americans who held a different opinion.
Richard Nixon suggested that there was yet another group of Americans out there. With the majority of the media covering the anti-war protests, it was very difficult for people to understand how the Nixon administration could support any type of escalation in the war. The polls showed two groups of people, those who opposed the war, and those who supported it, with the latter almost continually shrinking.
Nixon suggested that there was a third group of people out there that he dubbed &ldquoThe Silent Majority,&rdquo that supported the war but did not express their opinions in such a public fashion, as protesters were wont to do. The term had been used before, as we&rsquoll discuss down below.
Vietnam War Protests. History
In November of 1969, Richard Nixon took his seat in the Oval Office and gave one of the most frank speeches ever given by an American President. Say what you will about Nixon (especially how his time in office ended), but you can&rsquot really say in this case that he held back in any way.
The speech consisted of around 4500 words and lasted about a half hour (if the recordings on YouTube are accurate). In the speech, he laid out how after taking office he had pressed for peace in several different ways. He even went so far as to read aloud a letter he had sent in secret to Ho Chi Minh.
After laying out the state of the war at the time of the speech, Nixon went on to re-outline the Nixon Doctrine, which was his plan to end the war no matter the result of negotiations (which had been taking place in Paris off and on for several years).
&ldquoThe defense of freedom is everybody&rsquos business-not just America&rsquos business. And it is particularly the responsibility of the people whose freedom is threatened. In the previous administration, we Americanized the war in Vietnam. In this administration, we are Vietnamizing the search for peace.&rdquo
The run-up to the 1968 election was transformed in 1967 when Minnesota’s Democratic senator, Eugene J. McCarthy, challenged Democratic Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson on his Vietnam War policies. Johnson had succeeded to the presidency in 1963, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and had been overwhelmingly reelected in 1964. Early in his term he was immensely popular, but U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which had escalated invisibly during the presidential administrations of both Dwight D. Eisenhower and Kennedy, became highly visible with rapidly increasing U.S. death tolls, and, as the war’s unpopularity mounted, so did Johnson’s.
The 1966 elections reinstated the Republicans as a large minority in Congress, and social legislation slowed, competing with the Vietnam War for the available money. Despite the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965), many African Americans became disenchanted with progress on civil rights. Thus, a “ Black Power” movement arose, hitting into Johnson’s popularity even among African Americans. A general crime increase and sporadic violence in the cities raised apprehension in white communities. A call for “law and order” was the response, and it became not only an issue but, many believed, a code word for African American repression.
Early in 1968, Michigan Republican Gov. George Romney announced his candidacy for the presidency. Many believed New York’s governor, Nelson Rockefeller, might also be a challenger, and George Wallace, former Democratic governor of Alabama and a segregationist during his tenure, began hinting of his interest in the office. Peace factions and black militants talked of nominating their own candidates, and a rerun of the four-way race of 1948 seemed possible.
1969-1976: US Anti-Ballistic Missile Program Scaled Back, Eventually Terminated
After Richard Nixon wins the presidency (see November 5, 1968), he orders a review of the Sentinel anti-ballistic missile program (see September 18, 1967). It is suspended and later reintroduced in a more modest form under the moniker “Safeguard.” Nixon says the program will protect “our land-based retaliatory forces against a direct attack by the Soviet Union.” Safeguard has serious conception and design flaws, and is never completely deployed when the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is signed with the Soviet Union (see May 26, 1972), the program is scaled back and eventually terminated by Congress. Author Stephen Schwartz will later write that the Sentinel/Safeguard program is “the only time that Congress has successfully voted down a major strategic nuclear weapons program supported by the executive branch.” [Schwartz, 1998, pp. 286-288 Federation of American Scientists, 1/15/2008]
A Short History of Voter Fraud in American Presidential Elections
From Washington to Trump, U.S. elections have been marred by irregularities and, at times, outright fraud.
S ince many people believe widespread voter fraud occurred in the 2020 U.S. presidential election while experts deny that possibility, here is a short primer on instances of more apparent irregularities in past elections. If we investigate alleged vote fraud in 2020, should we not investigate these instances?
1789: George Washington is elected the first U.S. president by a vote involving only fellow white, wealthy, male property owners — about 6 percent of the population. Adjusted for inflation, the first president’s fortune would be $525 million today, making him the richest individual to win that office until Republican Donald Trump — although some dispute the latter’s actual wealth.
Blacks were not allowed to vote, even in the North, for almost the first 100 years of the U.S., except in some states sporadically. Women were not allowed to vote in most states until the 1920s New Jersey allowed them for a few years starting in 1790 before squashing that experiment. Many lower income people of all races were kept from voting by property-rights laws, poll taxes, and various tests that wealthier people could ignore, until the 1960s. Had those groups been allowed to vote in 1789, Washington, a popular leader after the Revolutionary War, likely would have still won. But the pool of voters was not exactly diverse, leading some to charge fraud and suppression in this election and subsequent ones.
1824: Five candidates ran as Democratic-Republicans — John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, John Calhoun, Henry Clay, and William Crawford. Calhoun dropped out early to successfully run for vice president. Jackson won the popular vote by almost 40,000 over Adams and secured the most electoral votes. But he fell short of the required 131 electoral votes so the matter was thrown into the U.S. House of Representatives.
As House Speaker, Clay didn’t like Jackson and helped secure enough votes from state delegates for Adams to win that vote. Clay reportedly negotiated a corrupt, backroom deal with Adams to name him secretary of state in return for his support. Jackson, who had ethical issues of his own like slave trading and mistreatment of his own militia members and Native Americans, ran on that “corrupt bargain” to help him defeat Adams in 1828.
1876: Republican Rutherford B. Hayes nips Democrat Samuel Tilden in a close vote by an appointed commission, after Tilden led in the popular vote by about 260,000. In the South, white men violently kept many black men— who had won the right to vote following the Civil War and mostly supported the more progressive Republican Party — from the polls. Democratic officials reportedly stuffed ballot boxes with fake votes and denied ballot boxes for black voters.
Tilden and other Democratic candidates also benefited from political bosses in New York and other large cities who encouraged residents to vote multiple times and registered voters under fake names. Republicans in rural areas and smaller town employed their own version of cheating.
For his part, Hayes claimed the disputed states of Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, as well as an electoral vote in Oregon, to throw the matter into Congress. After the commission voted for Hayes, 8–7, along party lines, a deal was reached in which Democrats agreed to accept the biased vote in exchange for Republicans ending Reconstruction in the South.
1880: Republican James Garfield narrowly wins the popular vote over Democrat Winfield Hancock, while the Electoral College comes down to one state, New York. Hancock charged Republicans with engaging in fraudulent tactics like multiple voting there. Republicans countered that Hancock benefited from fraud, such as implementing polls taxes and literacy tests for voter registration, removing polling sites in black areas, and stuffing ballot boxes, to win Southern states.
1960: Democrat John F. Kennedy defeats Republican Richard Nixon. The latter charged that Kennedy’s campaign stole the election through falsifying vote totals and other methods, particularly in Texas and Illinois. Had Nixon won those two states, he would have gained the White House.
A precinct in Angelina County in East Texas recorded that only 86 people voted, but the final tally was 147–24 in favor of Kennedy. Republican leaders demanded a recount, but the all-Democrat Texas Election Board denied the request. Nixon would have had to make up more than 46,000 votes to win Texas, an unlikely prospect.
Illinois, which Kennedy only won by fewer than 9,000 votes, provided a stronger basis for Nixon’s charges. Special prosecutor Morris Wexler found “substantial” miscounts in Chicago — where Mayor Richard Daley’s political machine reigned — due to voting machine errors and unqualified voters. In one Chicago precinct, Kennedy beat Nixon 74-3, but only 22 people were registered to vote. Kennedy’s father, Joseph, was alleged to have brokered a deal with Sam Giancana and other Chicago mobsters to deliver thousands of votes.
Earl Mazo, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, found a Chicago cemetery where the names on the tombstones were registered and votes marked. Mazo also investigated Republican areas in southern Illinois and found fraud in Nixon’s favor. Democrats charged that the Mafia-affiliated International Brotherhood of Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa reportedly performed illegal acts in Ohio to help deliver that state to Nixon. In Louisiana, officials purged many black voters from registration rolls, claiming they were illegally registered. Most of those voters would have likely sided with Kennedy.
2000: Republican George W. Bush wins the Electoral College, despite losing the popular vote by about 540,000. Democrat Al Gore challenged the results in the deciding state of Florida. The deck was stacked against Gore Bush’s brother, Jeb, was Florida governor, and Secretary of State Katherine Harris was Bush’s state campaign co-chairman.
Harris oversaw the work of private data verification company Database Technologies, which later merged into ChoicePoint. That business supplied the state with a list of thousands of voters who allegedly committed felonies and could be purged from the Florida election rolls under a state law. But that list was riddled with errors. Harris even purged those who had served their sentences in other states and had their voting rights restored, an outright violation of a statute that allowed such voters to participate in Florida.
In Martin County, where Bush won absentee balloting by 2,815 votes, former CIA agent Charles Kane reportedly altered Republican absentee ballot applications by filling in voter identification numbers. The infamous “butterfly ballot” in Palm Beach County resulted in 19,120 votes being disqualified due to having two or more presidential candidates chosen, with many marking votes for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan by mistake. Jacksonville’s Duval County employed a “caterpillar” ballot that also confused thousands of voters. In all, some 185,000 ballots in Florida — mostly in strong Democratic counties — were tossed.
There were also problems with the electronic voting system, which was operated by Diebold, a business that was later bought by Election Systems & Software. In Volusia County, some 16,000 votes for Gore mysteriously vanished through Diebold electronic sleight-of-hand, attorney and electronic voting systems expert Jennifer Cohn wrote. Republicans also campaigned to persuade canvassing boards in strong Bush counties to ignore Florida’s election laws when counting overseas absentee ballots, while discarding questionable ballots in heavily Democratic counties, according to a New York Times investigation. At least 680 of the questionable ballots for Bush did not comply with election laws, the Times reported. That would have been more than enough for Gore to overcome Bush’s 537-vote lead in the state and ascend to the White House.
2004: Bush again wins, this time also taking the popular vote against Democrat John Kerry. But the Electoral College came down to Ohio, where Republican election officials executed sleight-of-hand that included alleged electronic vote changes, purging some 133,000 mostly Democrats from the rolls and not counting ballots by hand that were rejected electronically. Officials also reduced the number of voting machines in urban precincts while increasing those in white suburban precincts that tended to support Republicans.
2016: Trump wins the Electoral College, despite losing the popular count by about 3 million votes. The Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck program, which involved a list of more than 7 million voters in 29 states created by Trump supporter and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach in 2013, threw out thousands of votes for Democrat Hillary Clinton, according to investigative journalist Greg Palast. Many were in swing states won by Trump, including Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Florida.
Officials would find people with similar names in a different state and claim they had voted twice, not even checking birth dates or Social Security numbers. For example, Donald Alexander Webster Jr. of Dayton, Ohio, was accused of voting as Donald Eugene Webster of Charlottesville, Va., despite never visiting Charlottesville.
Almost 450,000 Michigan voters were on the Crosscheck suspect list, and at least 50,000 saw their votes discarded, Palast said. Trump won Michigan by about 10,000 votes. More votes were also discarded in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin than Trump’s margin. Winning those three states would have made Clinton president. The crosscheck system was finally disbanded in 2019, thanks to a lawsuit by the ACLU.
For his part, Trump claimed that millions of illegal immigrants voted in 2016, an accusation proven false.
2020: Democrat Joe Biden wins the popular vote over Trump by more than 7 million and the Electoral College by 74 votes. Despite the overwhelming loss, Trump claimed he won, charged that Democrats committed voter fraud, and refused to concede. Some supporters, such as lawyer Lin Wood and convicted liar Mike Flynn, called on Trump to suspend the Constitution and take over in a fascist-like, martial law manner. Trump had enacted numerous measures to make voting harder, such as hiring a lackey to lead the Postal Service and delay mail-in ballots. His team failed to prove voter fraud in numerous legal actions, with only more than 60 lawsuits being dismissed by judges due to lack of evidence.
Kevin James Shay is author of the ebook, Operation Chaos: The Trump Coup Attempt and the Campaign to Erode Democracy. It is available on Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and other retailers.
Nixon Didn’t Fight on in 1960 Because Texas Law Didn’t Allow Him to
Edward B. Foley, a professor of law at The Ohio State University, is author of Ballot Battles: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States (Oxford University Press 2016).
There has been much discussion in recent days of Richard Nixon’s concession of defeat to John Kennedy in the presidential election of 1960. The reason for bringing this up is Donald Trump’s hedging on whether he would concede defeat to Hillary Clinton if the preliminary returns on Election Night this year show him to be losing to her.
One point being made is that Nixon conceded even though he thought, and had reason to think, that the election was being stolen from him by fraud in Illinois and Texas. According to this particular account, Nixon conceded for the good of the country despite believing he had been robbed, and the argument is that Trump should do the same even if he believes (without evidence) that this year’s election is being stolen from him.
There are competing narratives, ones less willing to credit Nixon with magnanimity. There is also the claim that Nixon tried his best to uncover evidence that would have overturned Kennedy’s win, but the evidence just wasn’t there, and so Kennedy’s win was unimpeachable.
The truth, in my judgment, is more complicated, leaving us more in doubt about the integrity of the 1960 election. The reason for this doubt, moreover, is important: we will never know for sure whether Kennedy won “fair-and-square” because Nixon lacked a mechanism for challenging the accuracy of the returns that showed Kennedy the winner.
That lack of a legal recourse reflects poorly on America (however it reflects on Nixon himself), and affects our understanding of the relevance of Nixon’s concession to the situation today.
To appreciate this point, let’s review the basic facts as they confronted Nixon on Election Night in 1960. Kennedy outpaced Nixon in both Texas and Illinois based on the initial count of ballots, and Nixon would have needed to overturn Kennedy’s edge in both states, not just one, in order for Nixon to win a majority of Electoral College votes and thus the presidency.
Of the two, Illinois was much closer, with Kennedy ahead of Nixon by only 8,858 votes. Historians concur that some amount of fraud occurred in Cook County on behalf of Kennedy, but how much? There never was a full recount of the 1960 presidential vote in Illinois, but a partial recount of a down-ballot race in the same election showed that the Republican candidate had been undercounted in preliminary returns by 8,875—a number that at least suggests that Nixon might be been uncounted by similar amount.
The margin in Texas was much larger, with Nixon trailing Kennedy there by over 45,000 votes. In most recount situations, a margin that large would be insurmountable. But William Rorabaugh, for example, in his half-century retrospective The Real Making of the President (2009), combs through the evidence to make the case that Nixon may have been cheated out of 100,000—possibly as much as 200,000 votes—in the state. One method of this cheating was to disqualify Nixon votes based on a technical error while overlooking the exact same technical error when made on Kennedy ballots.
There is no guarantee, of course, that Nixon would have won a fair recount in either Illinois or Texas. Impartial judicial investigations in both places might well have concluded that the alleged improprieties just did not add up to enough proven problems to undo Kennedy’s win. But Nixon, unlike Al Gore forty years later, never demanded a recount of the presidential vote in either state. Why not?
Given his need to win both states, Nixonknew there was no point seeking a recount in Illinois unless he also had a chance of prevailing in a Texas recount. But, as Nixon himself explained in his 1962 memoir Six Crises, “there was no procedure whatever for a losing candidate to get a recount in Texas.” Historians concur. , Rorabaugh, again, explains: “Texas law made no provision for challenging a presidential election.” Robert Caro echoes the same point: “Texas law gave the [Canvassing] Board no authority to investigate the returns.” And, of course, federal courts had no jurisdiction over such cases at the time, as Lyndon Johnson had demonstrated a dozen years earlier, by getting Justice Hugo Black to order a local federal court in Texas to divest itself of jurisdiction over the claim that Johnson’s 87-vote victory in his key 1948 Senate race was predicated on 200 fake votes added to infamous Ballot Box 13.
The problem, moreover, was not merely lack of a formal procedure for challenging the result in Texas. With Johnson as Kennedy’s running-mate, Nixon had no realistic prospect that Texas tribunals, administrative or judicial, would give him a fair hearing. Texas was a one-party state at the time, controlled by Johnson-affiliated Democrats. The historian Edmund Kallina, who has investigated the details of the 1960 presidential election as closely as any other, puts the point bluntly in his own culminating retrospective, Kennedy v. Nixon: The Presidential Election of 1960: “Lyndon Johnson was not about to tolerate a loss in his state.” Kallina adds: “With a powerful political machine at their disposal and virtually no organized Republican opposition, Democrats could do whatever they pleased with the election returns.” Thus, Nixon did not press a challenge in Texas because there was no way for him to obtain a fair review the accuracy of the results in the state.
Why is this important? If Nixon’s concession had occurred in the context of an electoral system that provided the opportunity for a fair recount, then his decision to forego that opportunity would have conferred full legitimacy on Kennedy’s win. After all, a losing candidate is not obligated to put the nation through the ordeal of a recount even if one is available. “I accept my opponent’s victory, and let’s put the election behind us” is an entirely appropriate response in this situation.
By contrast, when an electoral system lacks a process for a fair recount, a concession is incapable of conferring the same full legitimacy to the tallied votes. “I quit because there is no means for me to prove I actually won” does not convey the same acceptance of one’s opponent as the electorate’s true choice. A well-functioning democracy recognizes the distinction between these two types of concessions.
It will always be a blemish in America’s performance as a democracy that it lacked a procedure for verifying that Kennedy won more valid votes in Texas than Nixon. Not only did it prevent Nixon’s concession from providing the kind of reconciliation that such statements ideally serve, but it also caused a cloud over Kennedy’s presidency that history cannot entirely dispel.
Fast-forward to today. What’s the relevance of 1960 to the situation that Trump, or perhaps Clinton, may confront on Election Night this year? If Trump thinks he’s been cheated out of victory—even if he has no basis for this belief—then he may have procedures available to him that Nixon lacked. Telling Trump to forego those procedures just because Nixon was forced to concede in the absence of comparable procedures may not be an argument Trump finds persuasive. Why should Trump give up his chance to fight on, just because Nixon had no chance to fight? Isn’t it an apples-to-oranges comparison?
Thus, as the nation contemplates the possibility that Trump might attempt to invoke whatever legal procedures are currently available today for second-guessing Election Night returns, we need to rethink our reliance on the historical precedent of Nixon’s concession. Instead, the argument must be that even if fair recount procedures do exist, it is not worth invoking them—perhaps because, based on the preliminary returns, there is no remotely realistic chance of overturning the outcome (if indeed that’s what the facts objectively show on Election Night).
In that circumstance, John Kerry’s concession in 2004 is the much better historical precedent than Nixon’s. Kerry could have challenged the outcome in Ohio—the procedures for doing so were available—but he looked at the numbers as saw that he had no realistic shot at reversing George Bush’s victory in the state. Yes, there were 150,000 provisional ballots, and Kerry was behind by “only” 120,000 votes. But Kerry knew that not all those provisional ballots would be eligible and, of the ones that were, not all would have been voted for him.
Thus, Kerry did the right thing for America and bowed out of the race, rather taking the matter to court as he could have. It is Kerry’s concession, not Nixon’s, that is the one that Trump may need to think about. If, facing a similar situation, Trump fails to find Kerry’s example persuasive, then the nation may have to be patient while Trump makes us all wait for the completion of official vote-verifying procedures.
(The brief overview below is largely drawn from two books, “The Great Wells of Democracy,” by Manning Marable, and “Nixon’s Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton,” by Kenneth O’Reilly. This is a modified version of a presentation I made at a January 31st meeting in Atlanta, Ga. which developed plans for a 2004 Racism Watch.)
Racism within U.S. institutions, law and culture is deeply imbedded in the history and reality of the United States going back to the 17th century, but in the 20th century, the deliberate and overt use of racially-coded language and positions in Presidential campaigns was begun in 1968 by the Richard Nixon campaign. Even Barry Goldwater, conservative Republican that he was, made an agreement in 1964 with Lyndon Johnson to keep race out of the Presidential contest between them.
“’If we attacked each other,’ Goldwater explained, ‘the country would be divided into different camps and we could witness bloodshed.’ Sensitive to the charge hurled ‘again and again. . . that I was a racist,’ he stuck to his word even in the campaign’s last desperate days when fringe advisor F. Clifton White produced a documentary film intended to exacerbate white fears of black urban violence. Goldwater condemned the film and ordered it suppressed.” (O’Reilly, p. 251)
But by 1968, with the dramatic spread of the black freedom movement all over the country and uprisings in the cities, and with the emergence of George Wallace running a racist third party American Independent Party campaign, the Nixon crowd made a very conscious decision to completely abandon the Republican Party’s anti-slavery roots. (Abraham Lincoln won the Presidency in 1860 in a three way race as the candidate of the newly-formed, somewhat-anti-slavery Republican Party.) In the words of Manning Marable, “(Dwight D.) Eisenhower had received the support of 39 percent of the African-American electorate in his 1956 successful reelection campaign, and at the time the Republican Party had a strong liberal wing that was pressuring the White House to take bolder steps on racial policy.” (p. 118) Twelve years later, that historical legacy was deliberately jettisoned and, instead, “law and order,” getting “welfare bums” off welfare and opposition to busing became the major issues for Nixon, Vice-Presidential candidate Spiro Agnew and their ilk. “’You can forget about the Vietnam war as an issue,’ an NBC pollster told a White House aide [to Lyndon Johnson]. ‘Race is the dominant issue without any question.’” (O’Reilly, p. 274)
Nixon barely squeaked through with 43.4% of the popular vote in 1968, but by 1972 the “remarkable racial realignment within the national Democratic Party [via the influx of African American voters] unfortunately created the context for the ideological and organizational transformation of the Republican Party as well. The stage for the triumph of racial conservatism in the Republican Party was set by Nixon, who successfully put together a center-right coalition, the so-called ‘Silent Majority,’ winning a little more than 60% of the popular vote against liberal Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972. The Watergate scandal slowed, but did not stop, the acceleration of the Republicans to the Far Right, especially on issues of race. The former Dixiecrats [of the Democratic Party] and supporters of George Wallace gravitated to the Republican Party and within a decade began to assume leadership positions in Congress.” (Marable, p. 72)
The 1972 landslide victory of Nixon affected the Democrats. In 1976, Jimmy Carter, southern evangelical Christian, won the Presidential race over Gerald Ford. While more liberal than Ford, “Carter also sent mixed messages during the 1976 push for the White House. The most controversial were his remarks about busing and use of the phrase ‘ethnic purity’ to describe white-ethnic enclaves and neighborhood schools. . . Follow-up questions . . . led to additional warnings from the candidate about ‘alien groups’ and ‘black intrusion.’ ‘Interjecting into [a community] a member of another race’ or ‘a diametrically opposite kind of family’ or a ‘different kind of person’ threatened what Carter called the admirable value of ‘ethnic purity.” (O’Reilly, p. 339)
Carter’s statements, however, were easily overtaken by the Nixon-like approach used by Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan officially kicked off his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in Neshoba County, at a fairgrounds used as a meeting place by the KKK and other racist groups. This was also the part of the state where, in 1964, civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were killed, about which Reagan said nothing.
As Marable explains, “Reagan never used blatantly racist language, because he didn’t have to. As sociologist Howard Winant astutely observed, the New Right’s approach to the public discourse of race was characterized by an ‘authoritarian version of color-blindness,’ an opposition to any government policies designed to redress blacks’ grievances or to compensate them for either the historical or contemporary effects of discrimination, and the subtle manipulation of white’s racial fears. The New Right discourse strove to protect white privilege and power by pretending that racial inequality no longer existed.” (p. 73)
All through the 80’s, with the dominance of the Reaganites and the emergence of the center-right Democratic Leadership Council within the Democratic Party, the powers-that-be within both parties followed similar scripts during Presidential campaigns. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic standard-bearer in 1988, followed Reagan’s example and went to Neshoba County, Ms. in early August, soon after the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. Like Reagan, he did not mention Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. He did this despite the strength of Jesse Jackson’s Presidential primary campaign and the existence of the National Rainbow Coalition.
But it was George Bush’s campaign manager in 1988, Lee Atwater, who came up with probably the most infamous, modern use of racism during a Presidential campaign, the outrageous linkage of Dukakis to Willie Horton.
The Willie Horton Outrage
Ironically, it was DLC Democrat Al Gore, in April during Democratic Party primary debate, who first mentioned the Horton case. William J. Horton, Jr. was an African American man in prison for murder who, while on his ninth furlough from prison in Massachusetts, jumped furlough. He was eventually arrested in Maryland and charged with assault, kidnap and rape of two Maryland citizens.
“Atwater called him ‘Willie’ (a name Horton never went by), hoping to get more racial mileage. . . Atwater made sure that Dukakis, as governor of Massachusetts, got the blame for Horton’s latest crimes. . . ‘Every woman in this country,’ a Bush strategist boasted to Elizabeth Drew, ‘will know what Willie Horton looks like before this election is over.’ Atwater repeated that boast over and over. . . ‘Willie Horton,’ he told a Republican Unity meeting, ‘will [soon] be a household name.’ A month later, on July 9, he alerted Republican leaders in Atlanta to a Jesse Jackson sighting ‘in the driveway of his [Dukakis’s] home’ and then offered this speculation: ‘Maybe he will put this Willie Horton on the ticket after all is said and done.’ That same day Atwater told the press about ‘a fellow named Willie Horton who for all I know may end up being Dukakis’ running mate.’ At the time, Bush was down eighteen points to the Massachusetts governor in the polls. . .
“By the time the regular Bush campaign ran [a] television spot featuring black and white cons heading to prison through a turnstile gate and then heading back toward middle-America’s living room, Willie Horton was already firmly established in the public mind. The official ad did not mention Horton. It merely emphasized ‘revolving door’ justice and implied (falsely) that Dukakis had sent 268 first-degree murderers out on ‘weekend passes’ to rape, kidnap and kill.
“Dukakis remained oddly silent through most of this. He responded occasionally by citing dry statistics more often not at all. . . Dukakis remained silent for the three months it took Lee Atwater to make Willie Horton his running mate for a variety of reasons. . . ‘Whites might be put off. . . if we ‘whine’ about racism’ [some advisers counseled]. In all probability, however, Dukakis remained silent because he wanted to disassociate his candidacy from his party’s [liberal] reputation. He remained silent for the same reason that he failed to mention Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman on August 4 when speaking at the Neshoba County Fair—a silence that Marian Wright Edelman called the campaign’s most disgraceful moment.” (O’Reilly, p. 381-388)
When DLC’er Bill Clinton became the Democratic Party nominee against Bush in 1992 he soon demonstrated that he was a very different type of candidate than Michael Dukakis.
“By late May 1992 Bill Clinton had all but sown up his party’s presidential nomination, but in national polls he was running a poor third in the projected general election that was only months away, behind the incumbent president, George Bush, and independent candidate H. Ross Perot. What Clinton needed was an event to distinguish himself as a ‘different kind of Democrat.’ Following Reagan’s model, he decided to manipulate the politics of race. . . Clinton had been scheduled to speak before the national convention of the Rainbow Coalition and, without informing Jackson in advance, decided to distance himself from the black community. Although the speech was designed to focus on issues such as urban enterprise zones and the earned-income tax credit, Clinton unexpectedly attacked the Rainbow Coalition’s invitation to rap artist Sister Souljah to speak the previous evening. ‘You had a rap singer here last night named Sister Souljah,’ Clinton stated. ‘Her comments before and after [the] Los Angeles [civil disturbances following the not guilty Rodney King verdicts] were filled with a kind of hatred that you do not honor today and tonight’. . . Clinton’s rhetorical maneuver paralleled Ronald Reagan’s attack against ‘welfare queens’ and George Bush’s ‘Willie Horton’ advertisements. It was a strategically planned stunt, and it worked. Clinton followed it up with national interviews, explaining that ‘if you want to be president, you’ve got to stand up for what you think is right.’” (Marable, pps. 79-80)
But this wasn’t the only instance of racial pandering. In January Clinton left New Hampshire prior to the primary vote to return to Arkansas to preside over the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, a black man who had killed a police officer 11 years earlier but who had shot himself in the head afterwards, leaving him with the mental capacity of a child. In March he posed with fellow DLC-er and Georgia Senator Sam Nunn for pictures in front of forty mostly black prisoners in their prison uniforms. “Jesse Jackson called it a moderately more civilized ‘version of the Willie Horton situation.’ Two weeks later, on the day after the Illinois and Michigan primaries, Clinton again showed he was a different type of Democrat by golfing nine holes, accompanied by a television camera crew, at a segregated Little Rock country club.” (O’Reilly, p. 410)
“Bill Clinton calculated that he could not win in 1992 unless he used Sister Souljah to bait Jesse Jackson, put a black chain gang in a crime control ad, golfed at a segregated club with a TV camera crew in tow, and allowed that search for a serviceable vein in Rickey Ray Rector’s arm.” (O’Reilly, p. 420)
Clinton had a much easier opponent in 1996, Bob Dole, but he wasn’t going to take any chances, so he “decided to use the issue of welfare as the vehicle to shore up his support among white male voters. Only days before the 1996 Democratic National Convention, Clinton signed the ‘Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act,’ with the stated goal of ‘ending welfare as we know it.’ . . . Clinton repeatedly criticized the lack of ‘personal responsibility’ of those on public assistance.” (Marable, p. 82)
2000 brought us Bush and Gore, or as some called it, Gush and Bore. The most memorable thing about their three Presidential debates and their campaigns in general was how similar they were on the issues, how little Democrat Gore tried to draw out major areas of disagreement with Republican Bush. “The greatest tragedy of the 2000 presidential race, from the vantage point of the African-American electorate, was that the black vote would have been substantially larger if the criminal-justice policies put in place by the Clinton-Gore administration had been different. . . more than 4.2 million Americans were prohibited from voting in the 2000 presidential election because they were in prison or had in the past been convicted of a felony. . . In effect, it was the repressive policies of the Clinton-Gore administration that helped to give the White House to the Republicans.” (Marable, pps. 88-89)
Of course, the U.S. Supreme Court had much to do with the Bush victory, building upon the deliberate removal from the voter roles of literally tens of thousands of eligible black voters by Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris in Florida. And, over three years later, the Democratic Party has done virtually nothing to challenge that disenfranchisement or even to make it an issue during this 2004 election year.
“Neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party, as a political organization, is interested in transforming the public discourse on race, though for different reasons. The Republicans deliberately use racial fears and white opposition to civil rights-related issues like affirmative action to mobilize their conservative base. The national Democratic Party mobilizes its black voter base, in order to win elections, but in a way that limits the emergence of progressive and Left leadership and independent actions by grassroots constituencies. . .
“What we need is to revive the vision of what the Rainbow Coalition campaigns of 1984 and 1988 could have become. A multiracial, multiclass political movement with strong participation and leadership from racial minorities, labor, women’s organization and other left-of-center groups could effectively articulate important interests and concerns of the most marginalized and oppressed sectors of society. It would certainly push the boundaries of political discourse to the left. . .” (Marable, pps. 89-91)
2004 Racism Watch is being established for the explicit purpose of helping broad sectors of the progressive movement get organized and prepared to speak up and take action in opposition to the use of racism during the Presidential and other electoral campaigns this year, and to make issues of racial justice a part of this year’s political debate. We hope that 2004 can be the year that we make visible an explicitly multi-cultural network of activists who understand the obligation to confront racism whenever and wherever we find it. We can put those who use racism for divisive and destructive ends on the defensive and help to get better candidates elected, while building for the future.