Debating the Electoral College

Resolved:  The Electoral College Should be Abolished and Replaced with a Direct National Popular Vote for President

There have been about 12,000 proposed constitutional amendments since 1788, and nearly 700 of them have concerned ideas for fixing the Electoral College.  There have been 27 amendments to the US Constitution since its ratification.  One of those amendments directly concerned the Electoral College (12th), and naturally, it has been the longest in textual change so far. Perhaps even more revealing, a majority of the other 26 amendments have involved some aspect of the American election process.    This is not to say that US campaigns and elections are “rigged,” but it’s clear they’ve never been perfect.  The question is, can we make them somehow “more perfect” by eliminating the Electoral College?

Here are two completely contradictory views by some informed historians:

On the side of elimination:

On the side of preservation:

 

What do you think?

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Election of 1948

 

Truman in front of multiple radio microphones (Courtesy of Time Magazine)

Truman in front of multiple radio microphones (Courtesy of Time Magazine)

The 1948 election presented a new opportunity for the United States. After Franklin Roosevelt had won four consecutive elections, there was now a clean slate, so to speak, and not just with two major party candidates. While Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Thomas Dewey (and to a lesser extent Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond and Progressive Henry Wallace) vied for the country’s future, a well-known American political custom was falling apart.

 

In the November 3rd New York Times Meyer Berger wrote, “Times Square saw the death of a tradition yesterday. For the first time on a national election night, the Square was comparatively thinly populated. Such crowds as did assemble were voiceless, and without spirit.”[1] While the forecast had cooperated, described as “just enough nip in the night wind with the mercury in the forties”[2] the crowds “never did more than mutter or utter the weakest of cheers.”[3] The new election could have presented the public an opportunity to usher in a new American era but instead it was nothing more than a footnote in the story of the election. Berger wrote “Veteran election night observers seemed inclined to attribute the decline in open-air election night celebrations to the fact that more and more persons take their returns over the radio and over television. They figured the holiday tradition on election night is about dead.”[4] With the growing influence that media played on the American public, something FDR had helped usher in with his fireside chats, Truman’s victory celebrations were confined to private residences. However the crowd in the center of New York had chosen a candidate. The attitudes were described as “What noise there was—and it was never more than a murmur—seemed to be for President Truman. A few horn blasts heard around midnight, the one brief flurry of confetti at the same time came at announcement of the President’s lead.”[5]

The above description shows the beginning of a shift in American politics. As the culture changed from mass events and gatherings to smaller, more private gatherings in households the country was shifting in general. Moving on, past FDR itself brought new challenges, as Truman’s victory and continuance of his predecessor’s policies was uncertain. Instead Thomas Dewey or Strom Thurmond or Henry Wallace could bring about change that the U.S. hadn’t seen in 16 years. However the ideas of change also created negative kinds of uncertainty. On the actual Election Day only 53% of the population came out to vote, the lowest since 1924 (and would be the lowest until 1980)[6]. The combination of low voter turnout and shifts in American attitudes about how to view the election created the scene described in Times Square, a scene that Berger painted as a disappointment about a dying tradition. The election itself and the reaction created a pivotal election in American history, even if the victor and victory was the least pivotal aspect.

Harry Truman

Truman exults in his shock victory (Courtesy of Silvio Canto, Jr.)

Of course, the election of 1948 is best known for the botched Chicago Daily Tribune headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” that was released well before the actual returns. The photo went on to become the sole image that most people remember from the election. In his book Battleground 1948: Truman, Stevenson, Douglas, and the Most Surprising Election in Illinois History Robert Hartley wrote “Truman’s upset victory stunned the nation, as it still does today. He received a little less than 50 percent of the popular vote to 45 percent for Dewey, 2 percent for Strom Thurmond, and 2 percent for Henry Wallace.”[7]   When describing what Truman did during the election, Philip White wrote, “Now on November 2, after giving his all, there was nothing more he could do. He had spoken his mind, in his own way, at every stop, whether addressing eighty thousand people at the National Plowing Match or a handful at one of the many stations well off the main line. If his efforts had been sufficient to pull off the unlikeliest of comebacks he would be delighted”.[8] The idea of Truman simply being forced to wait around is not unlike what many of his supporters did in Times Square the night of his election. The uncertainty in the election itself contributed to the idea that Truman had done all that he could. Gone were the opportunities to reach out to voters and instead Truman had to wait for “a few horn blasts” and a “brief flurry of confetti.”[9] However while waiting, instead of standing outside Truman rested “taking a Turkish bath and then consuming a supper that was as straightforward as the man himself: a ham and cheese sandwich and glass of buttermilk. He then retired for the evening at 9:00 p.m., the earliest bedtime he had allowed himself in months.”[10] In an interesting urn of events, Truman himself represented the shift in American culture. The president himself brought forward the new idea of staying inside on election night. Instead of even what current day candidates do, throwing elaborate Election Day parties, Truman chose to remain solitary and removed. There is no coincidence that most of the American people also chose to stay out of any possible limelight.

Those who were actually in Times Square in early November 1948 still had a lot to say about the election, even if en masse they were silent. One old man said “These political experts, they’re like the weatherman. The weatherman predicted rain tonight and the political experts picked Dewey. There’s no rain and it looks like it might not even be dewy.”[11]   As Times Square was deflated, a few streets over in Rockefeller Plaza the old Election Night festivities were getting a facelift. Much of the crowd to seems to have migrated to the Rock as “almost 5,000 persons assembled to watch the results as shown on a screen 15×20 feet. Images of the candidates in action, and of nation-wide returns were shown. It was an improvement on Election Night in the old tradition.”[12] The shift away from mass movements to watch the election was not yet complete as changing technology also improved the large-scale watch parties. Even with the crowd in Rockefeller Center, the lack of enthusiasm in Times Square was a larger indication of American’s attitude change. Slowly more and more of the public began to replicate President Truman’s Election Day plan of staying inside, an attitude that still defines how the country views the voting results.

Times Square on Election Day 1948 (Courtesy of Getty Images)

Times Square on Election Day 1948 (Courtesy of Getty Images)

[1] Meyer Berger, “Election Night Crowd in Times Sq. Is Thin, Silent and Without Spirit.” New York Times (New York, NY), Nov. 3, 1948

[2] Berger

[3] Berger

[4] Berger

[5] Berger

[6] The American Presidency Project

[7] Robert Hartley, Battleground 1948: Truman, Stevenson, Douglas, and the Most Surprising Election in Illinois History (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013) 194.

[8] Philip White, The Election of 1948 (ForeEdge, 2014) 236.

[9] Berger

[10] White 237.

[11] Berger

[12] Berger

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1992 Campaign

Scenes from the 1992 campaign…

“The War Room” (1992)

The “War Room” was an important documentary film project with unprecedented access, but it wasn’t the pioneering effort in this genre of “fly-on-the-wall” depictions of modern American campaigns.  That mantle belongs to Robert Drew’s 1960 film, “Primary,” featuring footage of John F. Kennedy’s primary campaigns.

But arguably the most memorable and unprecedented media spectacle of the 1992 campaign came from Ross Perot and his on again / off again presidential bid.  See this clip of his first appearance on Larry King Live (CNN) in February 1992:

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Buchanan in 1856

By Sarah Aillon

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The American Democrat, November 6th, 1856.

On November 6th, 1856, the Carlisle Democrat reported that the presidential election two days prior had “passed off quietly in Cumberland County.” [1]  With two exceptions, Pennsylvania had voted Democrat in every presidential election since the establishment of the United States. [2] The 1856 election was no exception. A Dickinson College graduate, James Buchanan, was the Democratic nominee in the presidential election of 1856. In the months prior to election day, Carlisle newspapers had been rallying behind his political campaign. The American Volunteer boastfully reported that “For the first time in the history of the state we have before us a Pennsylvanian as a candidate for the presidency: and not only a native Pennsylvanian, but a man who’s giant intellect and sagacious statesmanship is acknowledged  throughout the Union.” [3] The political unity within the Carlisle Township, however, did not resemble the rest of the United States.  Throughout the 1850’s, the debate over the expansion of slavery began polarizing political parties and the Union drastically. The Cumberland County press’ strong affiliation with the democratic party demonstrates the way in which the area itself rallied behind James Buchanan and the democratic party.

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1856 political cartoon. In May 1856, South Carolina senator beat Massachusetts senator with his cane on the U.S Senate floor.

 

Throughout the mid-19th century, the expansion of slavery began polarizing American politics. In 1854 the territories of Kansas and Nebraska were admitted into the Union under the Kansas-Nebraska Act. [4] The Kansas-Nebraska Act granted the territories the ability to expand slavery through popular sovereignty. The act, however, violated rules regarding the expansion of slavery previously set forth in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. [5] This created much political discourse around the legality of slavery’s expansion west. Political tensions began to escalate with the mass migration of both proslavery and antislavery movements into Kansas. [6] Both of these groups sought to gain political control of Kansas. [7] The convergence of both movements within these territories created violence between the two forces. [8] The issues surrounding the violence in Kansas became one of the forefront pillars of the 1856 presidential campaign. [9]

Screen Shot 2016-11-06 at 10.45.33 PM

Presidental Nominees. Left, John Freemont (R), center, James Buchanan (D) and right, Millard Fillmore (A)

The democratic, republican and American party participated in the 1856 presidential election. The democratic party elected Pennsylvanian, James Buchanan as their nominee. Catering predominantly to a southern demography, democrats campaigned under the principle that the expansion of slavery should be dictated by popular sovereignty. [10]  The republican party formed in 1854 to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the expansion of slavery [11]. With a majority of its supporters in the north, the party had a strong antislavery antiexpansion stance [12]. In the 1856 election, the party nominated John Fremont. The republican and democratic party were the two main political parties in the 1856 election. 

 

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Buchan Club Advertisement, American Volunteer, October 9, 1856.

The democrats former rival, the Whig party, had disintegrated over the expansion of slavery. [13] What emerged from the political dissolution was the American Party. [14] The party chose Millard Filmore as their presidential candidate. The party did not stand on a platform relating to the expansion of slavery. Rather, they stood on a strong anti-immigration and nativist platform. [15]


Democrat James Buchanan was the Pennsylvanian favorite in the 1856 election. In the months leading to election day, “Buchanan Clubs” emerged throughout Pennsylvania. Buchanan Clubs were locally run organizations which hoped to raise support for James Buchanan.  In Carlisle, these organizations began to emerge shortly after Buchanan became the democratic nominee in June of 1856. In July of 1856, the first Buchanan Club advertisement appeared in Carlisle newspaper, the American Volunteer [16]. These Buchanan Clubs had a presence in Carlisle up until the November 4th election date.

 

Advertisement for democratic “Mass Meeting”. American Volunteer, October 9, 1856.

Much rallying occurred for Buchanan the month before the presidential election in November. On October 9, 1856, an article in the American Volunteer was published  calling for a “Mass Meeting” of democrats in the area. [17] The article rallied for full party support stating that “to gain victory in November, we must be thoroughly organized: ever borough, township, and ward in the county should be canvassed, and every Democrat vote brought to the polls.” [18] The article continues, “Come them from your workshops and your farms: come from your anvils and your looms, from your stores and from your professional engagement, and give-Saturday next to your country. A strong turnout is desirable as it will strike terror in the hearts of Disunionists and Abolitionists … show the enemy the spirit of Democracy is fully aroused.” [19] The consistent attempt to gain mass support from Carlisle democrats demonstrates how politically aligned the area was. Underneath the article calling for a mass meeting of democrats, an article titled The Great Freemont Fizzle shows the limited support for the republican presidential candidate in Cumberland County.  The article reported that the “Freemonters” of the county had failed to rally a mass meeting. The passage reads ” The day arrived, and a beautiful day it was , but the people did not come- them meeting was the most complete failure.” [20]

American Volunteer, October 30, 1856. Just three days before Election Day, 1856

In the weeks leading up to the 1856 election day, local Carlisle newspapers published a myriad of reminders to vote democrat in both local and state elections. After the successful election of democrat, James Buchanan,  Carlisle press announced that the “Union was safe.” [21] In Cumberland County, James Buchanan received “about a 425” democratic majority. [22] Unlike other areas in the United States, Cumberland County was not tremendously polarized in 1856. Rather, Cumberland County had strong partisan ties. James Buchanan’s affiliation as a Dickinson College alumni further solidified the county’s affiliation with the democratic party. The partisan support in the county contrasts much of the political turmoil throughout the United States. The “peaceful” transition of power within Cumberland County in 1856 contrasts the national uproar that would later with the 1860 presidential election of Abraham Lincoln. [23]

Footnotes:

[1] N/a, (November 6, 1856). James Buchanan Elected President of the United States. American Democrat, n/a. n/a, Microfilm Collection, Cumberland Country Historical Collections [MICROFILM]

[2] “Presidential Elections.” Presidential Elections. Accessed November 06, 2016. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/elections.php. [WEB]

[3] N/a, (October 30, 1856). Freeman Rally to the Support of James Buchanan. American Volunteer, n/a. n/a, Microfilm Collection, Cumberland County Historical Collections [MICROFILM]

[4] “Slavery and the Making of America.” PBS. 2004. Accessed November 06, 2016. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/slavery/timeline/1850.html. [WEB]

[5] “Slavery and the Making of America.” PBS. 2004. Accessed November 06, 2016. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/slavery/timeline/1850.html. [WEB]

[6] Thomas J, Balcerski. “Beards, Bachelors, and Brides: The Surprisingly Spicy Politics of the Presidential Election of 1856.” Common-Place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life 16, no. 4, 1. Accessed November 6, 2016 [LIBGUIDES]

[7] Thomas J, Balcerski. “Beards, Bachelors, and Brides: The Surprisingly Spicy Politics of the Presidential Election of 1856.” Common-Place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life 16, no. 4, 1. Accessed November 6, 2016 [LIBGUIDES]

[8] Thomas J, Balcerski. “Beards, Bachelors, and Brides: The Surprisingly Spicy Politics of the Presidential Election of 1856.” Common-Place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life 16, no. 4, 1. Accessed November 6, 2016 [LIBGUIDES]

[9] Thomas J, Balcerski. “Beards, Bachelors, and Brides: The Surprisingly Spicy Politics of the Presidential Election of 1856.” Common-Place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life 16, no. 4, 1. Accessed November 6, 2016 [LIBGUIDES]

[10] Democratic Party Platforms: “1856 Democratic Party Platform,” June 2, 1856. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29576 [WEB] 

[11] “United States Presidential Election of 1856,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, accessed November 07, 2016, https://www.britannica.com/event/United-States-presidential-election-of-1856.[WEB]

[12] “United States Presidential Election of 1856,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, accessed November 07, 2016, https://www.britannica.com/event/United-States-presidential-election-of-18 [WEB]

[13]  “United States Presidential Election of 1856,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, accessed November 07, 2016, https://www.britannica.com/event/United-States-presidential-election-of-18 [WEB]

[14]  “United States Presidential Election of 1856,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, accessed November 07, 2016, https://www.britannica.com/event/United-States-presidential-election-of-18 [WEB]

[15]  “United States Presidential Election of 1856,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, accessed November 07, 2016, https://www.britannica.com/event/United-States-presidential-election-of-18 [WEB]

[16] n/a, (July 10, 1856). Democratic Meeting. American Volunteer, n/a. n/a, Microfilm Collection, Cumberland County Historical Society [MICROFILM]

[17] n/a, (October 9, 1856). Democratic Mass Meeting. American Volunteer, n/a. n/a, Microfilm Collection, Cumberland County Historical Society [MICROFILM]

[18] n/a, (October 9, 1856). Democratic Mass Meeting. American Volunteer, n/a. n/a, Microfilm Collection, Cumberland County Historical Society [MICROFILM]

[19] n/a, (October 9, 1856). Democratic Mass Meeting. American Volunteer, n/a. n/a, Microfilm Collection, Cumberland County Historical Society [MICROFILM]

[20] n/a, (October 9, 1856). The Great Freemont Fizzle. American Volunteer, n/a. n/a, Microfilm Collection, Cumberland County Historical Society [MICROFILM]

[21] N/a, (November 6, 1856). James Buchanan Elected President of the United States. American Democrat, n/a. n/a, Microfilm Collection, Cumberland Country Historical Collections [MICROFILM]

[22] N/a, (November 6, 1856). James Buchanan Elected President of the United States. American Democrat, n/a. n/a, Microfilm Collection, Cumberland Country Historical Collections [MICROFILM]

[23] N/a, (November 6, 1856). James Buchanan Elected President of the United States. American Democrat, n/a. n/a, Microfilm Collection, Cumberland Country Historical Collections [MICROFILM]

Other resources used:

Magee, John L. “Southern Chivalry, Argument Versus Club’s.” Cartoon. 1856. [WEB]
Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. [BOOK]
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1968 Campaign

Margaret O’Mara opens her discussion of the 1968 with Lyndon Johnson’s decision to abandon his bid for reelection.  This was a dramatic TV announcement in March that followed an equally unexpected on-air commentary from noted TV new anchor Walter Cronkite about the “stalemate” in Vietnam.  Click on the image below to see the series of clips that recreate O’Mara’s opening vignette.

Cronkite

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1932 Campaign

fdr-cover-323

 

Here are scenes from Fox Movietone News’s coverage of the final days of the 1932 campaign:

And here is an audio clip of the closing remarks of Herbert Hoover’s formal acceptance speech on August 11, 1932, following the Republican National convention held in Chicago in June:

Full text of Hoover’s speech is available here.

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