The Seven Closest Presidential Elections in U.S. History

4. 2000: 271–266

Bill Clinton’s Vice-president, Al Gore, ran for President in 2000. One of his main claims was his and Clinton's creating a large budget surplus at the end of Clinton's second term. His opponent was Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the son of former President George Bush.

Most polls throughout the campaign projected a victory for Gore. But Clinton's impeachment proved a distraction for many voters. Bush campaigned on, among other things, the need for co-operation in Washington. The election campaign came down to a handful of states.

Vote counting went deep into the night; by the next day, every state but Florida had a declared winner. At that time, Gore had won 20 states and D.C., giving him 266 electoral votes, and Bush had won 30 states, giving him 246 electoral votes. Florida's votes were yet to be finally counted, and the 25 electoral votes for that state would determine the winner. Gore had won the overall popular vote, with just fewer than three million votes going to Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. (Significantly, Nader got 97,000 votes in Florida.)

When the final tally was initially announced, Bush was ahead by about 2,000 votes. Florida state law required that a difference that small be followed up with a recount, by machine. Gore requested a recount by hand in four counties.


3. 1796: 71–68

George Washington had retired, this time for good. As was the practice in the early days, 12 men declared themselves candidates for President. John Adams, the two-time Vice-president, fancied himself for the top job.

Officially representing the Federalist Party, Adams squeaked out a win in the Electoral College, receiving 71 votes, to 68 for Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. Adams won all of the New England states, as well as New York, New Jersey and Delaware; Jefferson won all of the southern states. Two states had split votes, with Adams winning most of Maryland and Jefferson winning most of Pennsylvania. As per the terms of the Constitution, Jefferson became Vice-president. The Adams-Jefferson administration was the only one in the history of the country that featured an elected President and Vice-president from two different political parties.

2. 1876: 185–184

President Ulysses S. Grant’s second term in office was dominated by corruption allegations (and one bona fide scandal, the Teapot Dome Scandal) and worsening sectional conflict over Reconstruction. Unpopular anyway, Grant followed Washington's example and refrained from running for a third term. Taking up the standard for the Republican Party was Rutherford B. Hayes, the governor of Ohio. New York Gov. Samuel J. Tilden was the Democratic nominee.

Tilden was very popular in the Northeast and across the country. One of his main claims to fame was the successful prosecution of "Boss" William Tweed. Tilden and the Democrats campaigned on a promise of governmental reform, which would have sounded like relief to many who had grown weary of Grant and his government's scandal-ridden reputation.

The Republicans, meanwhile, campaign on, among other things, the overall issue of the Civil War, a strategy that Democrats decried as "waving the bloody shirt." Coming into the Union just before the election was Colorado, the latest addition from the Mexican Cession.

The results of the election of 1876 made it, up to that time, the most controversial in history. When the votes were counted, Tilden had won the popular vote, 4.2 million to 4 million. This should have meant that Tilden was President. Even in previous elections in which the popular vote was close, the winner of the popular vote total was the winner in the Electoral College. Of the votes counted, Tilden had won 184 electoral votes, to 165 for Hayes. That wasn't enough because the total was 369 and the winner needed 185. A total of 20 electoral votes had not been cast because of election disputes in Florida, Louisiana, Oregon, and South Carolina.

After some serious back-door wrangling, representatives in those states cast all of their electoral votes for Hayes, giving him the needed 185. This came to be known as the Compromise of 1877 because it resulted in the end of Reconstruction and the withdrawal of federal troops from the South. The Democratic Party had given up a short-term gain, the presidency, in exchange for a long-term gain. Tilden supporters were especially stung by Hayes' winning in Colorado, statehood for which they had pushed through in hopes of winning.

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David White