U.S. elections typically are close. A candidate scoring 55 percent of the popular vote has won in a landslide, and even smaller margins are deemed decisive.

But sometimes the election is really close. And because the presidential election really is 51 separate elections (the 50 states plus the District of Columbia), there are a number of different ways that the result can be close.

It helps to understand the election rules:

  • Each state has a certain number of electoral votes in the Electoral College, based on its share of the national population.
  • All but two states award all their electoral votes to the candidate who gets the most popular votes there.
  • To win the presidency, a candidate must win a majority of electoral votes, or 270.
  • If no candidate captures an Electoral College majority, the House of Representatives chooses the new president by a vote of state delegations to the House, with each state having one vote.

The U.S. House makes the call

On two occasions, the House of Representatives has determined the presidency, but for very different reasons.

  • The 1800 election exposed a flaw in the U.S. Constitution. As it was originally adopted, each elector would cast two ballots for president, with the candidate receiving the most votes becoming president and the runner-up vice president. When Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran together, everyone knew Jefferson was the presidential candidate and Burr the vice presidential choice, but all the pro–Jefferson and Burr electors voted for both candidates. The result … a tie! The House duly selected Jefferson, after some serious politicking. Afterward, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution established separate ballots for president and vice president.
  • In 1824, no candidate won an Electoral College majority. Fourth-place finisher Henry Clay threw his support to runner-up John Quincy Adams, who thereupon won the election in the House of Representatives.

Popular vote versus electoral vote

The 1824 election exposed a quirk of the Electoral College system. Sometimes the candidate who gets the most popular votes loses in the Electoral College. That’s what happened to Andrew Jackson in 1824. (Jackson went on to win the 1828 and 1832 elections.) It also occurred in 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes won the presidency while losing the popular vote), 1888 (Benjamin Harrison won), and 2000 (George W. Bush won).

Some argue that the fairest system is a simple count of the popular votes nationwide. Indeed, the 1787 convention that drafted the Constitution considered this argument. But the founders understood the new federal government to be just that — a federation of states.

It’s important also to understand that candidates work to assemble an Electoral College majority rather than to win the popular vote. For example, if the objective were to win the most votes, candidates might try to win even bigger margins in populous “safe states” that vote reliably for the candidate of one party — states like California (population 39 million; voted Democratic since 1992) and Texas (27 million; Republican since 1980). Instead, the focus is on winning, even if narrowly, the competitive “swing states.”

Some states can ‘swing’ an election

Some elections are close because the results in those swing states are tight. In 1960, for example, John F. Kennedy’s victory turned on his 8,858-vote edge in Illinois.

In other cases, the Electoral College magnifies the size of a candidate’s victory. In 1968, Richard M. Nixon, defeated by Kennedy eight years earlier, won the popular vote by less than 1 percent, yet defeated his opponent 301–191 in the Electoral College (a third candidate won 45 electoral votes).

The closest race of all

Most recently, the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore turned on Bush’s triumph in Florida — by 537 votes out of nearly 6 million cast. This election featured nearly every hallmark of a close election: Gore won the popular vote while losing in the Electoral College. The contest ultimately turned not on states where candidates won big (Gore took California by 1.3 million votes; Bush captured Texas by an even larger margin), but on a state where the vote was so close that five weeks of recounts and a Supreme Court decision were necessary to determine the winner.

Al Gore and George W. Bush standing next to each other ( © AP Images)
President George W. Bush (right) and Al Gore in 2007 (© AP Images)

The 2000 election demonstrated the strength of the country’s democratic institutions — and the voters’ faith in them. Even in this closest and most contested of elections, Americans expected — and received — a peaceful and smooth transition of power.

“I … accept my responsibility,” Gore told the nation after that Supreme Court decision, “to honor the new president-elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together in fulfillment of the great vision that our Declaration of Independence defines and that our Constitution affirms and defends.”

David Carroll, of The Carter Center’s Democracy Program, gives credit to American office seekers, who “if they’ve lost, accept the result, and if they’ve won, [are] very magnanimous in reaching out to losers.”