“You win some, you lose some ... and then there’s that little-known third category.”
That was Al Gore’s irony-drenched comment following the 2000 presidential election, when he won but lost. Gore had a lead of more than 500,000 votes on George W. Bush, but the Electoral College tipped the scale for Bush, who won 271-266, largely because of controversial vote-counts in Florida.
President Donald Trump also took office after finishing second in the popular vote, as former First Lady Hillary Clinton rolled up a margin of nearly 3 million votes but lost the all-important Electoral College 304-227 in one of the most surprising outcomes in American political history.
It’s happened several times, as the candidate who ran second in votes still took the oath of office. In 1824, John Quincy Adams finished behind Andrew Jackson, but was able to win the presidency through political chicanery led by Speaker of the House Henry Clay, who tipped the scales for Adams. Jackson, outraged by the blatant political gamesmanship, used the public outcry after Adams named Clay his Secretary of State to win a rematch in 1828, charging the two had engaged in a “corrupt bargain.”
It was politics at its worst, but there is another election that was even more corrupt, even more troubling. It is worth a closer look at that election, especially in light of reports that some Democrats are concerned that Trump, if he loses a close election, will refuse to leave office.
Something similar happened on the centennial of America’s birth. The election of 1876 saw Democratic candidate Sam Tilden of New York defeat Republican Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio quite handily, rolling up 250,000-vote margin, and a 3-percent win.
But not so fast. There were disputed returns in three Southern states, Louisiana, South Carolina and, of course, Florida. That put 19 Electoral College votes up for grabs, and when one Oregon elector was disqualified, suddenly there were 20 votes to be had. Tilden led 184-165, so he just needed one vote.
Some Republicans were unwilling to surrender the presidency they had held for 16 years. They just needed to find a way to obtain all 20 disputed votes.
Suddenly, no one knew what to do next. President Ulysses S. Grant even wondered if he would be able to remain in office. Frankly, it was a mess.
When the three Southern states submitted two sets of returns, showing both Hayes and Tilden as the winner, Congress was unsure how to act. So it created, with virtually no constitutional authority, a commission to examine the votes. But as often happens in politics, the real discussions were held in secret.
Southern Democrats wanted Tilden to win — but they also longed to regain control of their states. The Civil War had ended in 1865, but troops remained in the former rebel states and former slaves had gained a foothold of political and social strength. The former Confederates wanted that ended, and Republicans struck a deal with them.
Give the presidency to Hayes, and troops would be sent home. The shameful agreement was reached and Hayes was elected president after the Electoral Commission, made up of five senators, five congressman and five Supreme Court justices voted 8-7, on party lines, to award the 20 votes to Hayes, giving him a 185-184 victory and the presidency.
The commission was supposed to be made up of seven Republicans, seven Democrats and one independent, Justice David Davis, but Republicans in Ohio named him to the Senate, and a Republican justice took his seat. It was a clever and ruthless way to steal the White House, and serves as a backdrop in Gore Vidal’s historical novel “1876.”
We have seen the loser win three other times, as Benjamin Harrison finished second to President Grover Cleveland in 1888 but won the Electoral College. Cleveland became the only American president to regain the White House, defeating Harrison in a rematch in 1892. Those two separate administrations are why Cleveland is considered both the 22nd and 24th president, and why Trump is the 44th man to serve but is the 45th president.
If Trump is defeated in 2020 — and agrees to depart — we will have a 46th president. If he loses but refuses to leave the White House, we will have yet another political firestorm.
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