Even when the winner of the Electoral College’s vote has received it in questionable ways, the American voters have been willing to accept the outcome. The Elections of 1888 and 2004 are two excellent examples of this. A look at how both were won by winning the electoral votes of states like Ohio can be enlightening. Even though more than a century apart, for the Republicans, these two elections also share a peculiar ideological connection.
The Election of 1888 is a good example of how the electoral vote may not reflect the will of the American voters. Only twelve years after the Election of 1876 was stolen from Democrat Samuel Tilden, another Democrat, Grover Cleveland, was again denied the presidency after receiving the most popular votes.
Having been the party in power during the Civil War, the Republicans spent the next 35 years trying to convince the voters that the Democratic Party was unpatriotic and could not be trusted with the presidency. That was just as absurd then as it is now, but it usually worked. They were stunned, though, when Grover Cleveland got elected in 1884, and they were determined to prevent his reelection.
In preparing for the Election of 1888, the party boss in Pennsylvania, Matthew Quay, was made chairman of the Republican National Committee. He knew how the Republican candidate, Benjamin Harrison, could win. The idea was to win small majorities in the states that had the largest populations. Those states had the most electoral votes. How did he plan to do it? With money and intimidation! He ordered his fund-raisers to “Put the manufacturers of Pennsylvania under the fire and fry all the fat out of them.” Wealthy Republicans in other states were willing to contribute as well. Quay amassed a huge campaign war chest, and he knew how and where to spend the cash.
How was Quay able to use his treasure and the electoral vote to prevent the voters from reelecting Cleveland? In Indiana, the race was so tight that Quay’s election crews paid voters as much as $15 in gold coins or $20 in paper money to vote Republican! Harrison won there by only 2,400 votes but received 15 electoral votes. In some states Republican manufacturers had warnings printed on pay envelopes warning employees that their factories would close if Cleveland got reelected. In New York, Harrison won by 14,400 votes and got 36 electoral votes. In contrast, Cleveland won Mississippi by 55,000 votes but only received 9 electoral votes! Cleveland also won Georgia by a majority of 60,000 votes but was rewarded with only 12 electoral votes. In those four states, Cleveland won the popular vote by 98,200 votes, but Harrison won the electoral vote 51 to 21! That is how important it is for a candidate to win in certain states.
When the final count came in with Cleveland winning the popular vote but with Harrison winning the electoral vote 233 to 168, the naïve Harrison gave credit to the Deity: “Providence has given us the victory!” Disgusted, Quay was later heard to say, “Think of the man! He ought to know that Providence hadn’t a damned thing to do with it!” When we say or hear that so and so bought the election, we usually mean that he was able to outspend his opponent on things like campaign ads, rallies, and trips. The Election of 1888 holds the distinction of being the only known electiion that was determined by votes that were literally bought.
Don’t forget that the 1880’s of the “Gilded Age” is the time period that the present-day Republicans are hoping to return us to. George W. Bush refers to his political base as “the Haves and Have-Mores.” He knows that these people long for the “good old days” before income taxes, social security co-payments, Medicare, Medicaid, workmen’s compensation, minimum wages, union-negotiated pension plans and health plans, fair employment practices, consumer protection regulations, civil rights, environmental regulations, and national wildlife refuges and wilderness areas that they can’t exploit.
Today’s Karl Rove is the equivalent of the 1880’s Matthew Quay (Rove has been called “Bush’s Brain” and was the mastermind behind George W. Bush’s two presidential victories). Rove had no trouble getting money from “the Haves and Have-Mores.” They knew the Bush-Cheney-Rove agenda was the same as theirs, and they were assured they would be well repaid. In addition to rewarding them with preferential tax cuts, Mr. Bush has appointed them or their people to the agencies that are “supposed” to be regulating them! Through executive orders and also with Republican majorities in the House and Senate, the programs that began during the Progressive Era in 1901 under Theodore Roosevelt are systematically being dismantled. (TR was one of the two Republican presidents that were disliked by their own party – Lincoln being the other one.)
The trick for Rove was to find a way to get enough voters to support weakening or doing away with all these programs either without their realizing what they were actually doing or by their just not caring. After all, he had to get them to vote against their own best interests!
In the Election of 2004, Karl Rove knew how to do it. In battleground states such as Ohio, Oregon, Michigan, and even Arkansas with its measly six electoral votes, he tapped in to the agenda of the religious political extremists. He knew that the gay hatred vote and the anti-abortion vote could be the trump cards for the Republicans. Every effort was made to get anti-gay marriage amendments on election ballots in key states. It may be a sad commentary on our society that there may be just enough voters who hate gays more than they love their jobs, our environment, or our constitutional system; but we have to hand it to Karl Rove. He knows how to appeal to the dark side to get the vote out for his guy. That is, of course, if you trust the highly suspicious final vote counts.
The recent election gave the Republican Party greater control of the executive and legislative branches of our government. The Neo-cons who run the party see this as an opportunity to speed up their effort turn the clock back to the 1880’s. They have specifically targeted for destruction the Social Security System, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and even the independent judicial branch of our government. They are hoping to set a precedent with each of these initiatives. If they can get away with them, they will claim that their plans for the destruction of other environmental and progressive programs and various individual liberties should logically continue. The Neo-cons will also insist that the 51% who gave us four more years of President Bush expect them to succeed.
by David Offutt (slightly revised December 19, 2009)
A version of this essay was published May 7, 2005,
in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.