John Sides criticizes Alan Brinkley for writing, “for the past 40 years, close and unpredictable elections have increasingly become the norm.” I agree with John that it’s possible to quibble about the boundaries here (the past 40 years just barely exclude the Johnson-Goldwater landslide and the Kennedy-Nixon squeaker). But the general point–that close elections are common now and didn’t used to be–is correct.
Here’s a list of all the U.S. presidential elections that were decided by less than 1% of the vote:
Funny, huh? Other close ones were 1844 (decided by 1.5% of the vote), 1876 (3%), 1916 (3%), 1976 (2%), 2004 (2.5%).
Four straight close elections in the 1870s-80s, five close elections since 1960, and almost none at any other time.
Why is this? One theory is that national elections are more important now than they were in earlier periods. In the post-1896 era, for example, the Democrats had the solid South and big-city machines. It wasn’t such a loss for them to (usually) not have a decent shot at the Presidency.
P.S. I have no criticism of the substance of John’s entry linked to above. It’s just that by looking at all elections rather than focusing on the frequency of close ones, I think he’s missing something. Even in an evenly-divided electorate such as America’s in the past 50 years, you will have some uneven contests (depending on economic conditions). But we do seem to be in an unusual period in which extremely close elections are the norm or departure point.
P.P.S. John adds this pretty graph of popular vote victory margins since 1950: