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This Day in History: Grover Cleveland wins the popular vote, but loses the Electoral College

On this day in 1888, Benjamin Harrison defeats Grover Cleveland for the presidency, despite losing the national popular vote. Cleveland had won 5.5 million votes nationwide. By contrast, Harrison had only 5.4 million.

Wait. But Harrison won anyway!? Yes, he did. The national popular vote tally has no legal significance under our Electoral College system. Instead, Harrison won the White House because he’d won 233 electoral votes to Cleveland’s 168.

Electoral College opponents today still blast the outcome as a travesty. But what if it were actually an example of Electoral College success?

The contest between Harrison and Cleveland came in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Obviously, the country was then still sharply divided between North and South. Cleveland was first elected in 1884, and he'd spent his four years in office struggling with several such regional issues during his time in office.

For instance, Congress had approved many pension requests by Union veterans, even when those requests were weak or fraudulent. But Cleveland kept vetoing them. Another controversy was stirred when Cleveland endorsed a proposal to return some Confederate flags to their home states in the South. Finally, tariff reform proved to be a difficult issue. Voters never seemed to quite understand what Cleveland was doing. They thought he was supporting the South over the North.

Unsurprisingly, Cleveland was falling further and further behind with some voters. Nor was Cleveland really helping himself. His re-election campaign in 1888 should have made the case that tariff reform could help the entire nation. Its benefits weren’t necessarily limited to a handful of southern states.

Unfortunately, Cleveland’s campaign was unenergetic and lackluster, and it failed to effectively argue for any of these positions.

Whatever Cleveland’s campaign lacked, Harrison’s made up for in spades. Harrison gave more than 80 speeches to nearly 300,000 people in 16 weeks—quite an unusual feat in the late 1800s. Moreover, his campaign worked to build his image as an everyday American, even going so far as to solicit a biography, Life of Ben Harrison by the Author of Ben Hur.  These tactics worked well among a populace that was still enamored of the concept of the “log cabin.” Harrison’s supporters often gloated that, even if Harrison wasn’t born in a log cabin, at least he was educated in a log schoolhouse. 

When Election Day came, Cleveland won six southern states by huge landslides. In those states, he won 72.2 percent of the votes cast for both men! Unfortunately, his support in other parts of the country was less consistent. By contrast, Harrison’s support was less intense, but it was also spread across the northern and western portions of the country. He won 20 states in these regions.

The Electoral College worked to America’s benefit that year. Imagine such results under a national popular vote system: Cleveland would have won, even though his support was focused in six southern states. Those six states would have effectively outvoted the rest of the country.

It’s exactly the kind of result that the Founders hoped to avoid.

Cleveland himself seems to have learned the lesson. Four years later, he ran for President—again. In 1892, he did a better job of tailoring and communicating a message with national appeal. He thus won a second, non-consecutive term.

Some Electoral College opponents point to the election of 1888 as an example of the system’s failure. It’s not. It is an example of Electoral College success.


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