Saturday, September 20, 2008

Was Millard Tilting at Windmills in 1856?

Some time ago, I wrote a series of posts about Millard Fillmore's run for the presidency on the American Party (Know Nothing) ticket in 1856. It occurred to me that I should round off that discussion by addressing one additional issue. Millard wound up receiving only 21% of the vote and a grand total of eight -- count 'em, eight -- electoral votes. All of which raises the question, What was he thinking? Was the guy delusional, living in some sort of fantasy world imagining that he could win?

The answer to these questions is "no." After the Republicans coopted the northern wing of the American Party, it became clear that Millard's task was to deny either of the other candidates a majority of the electoral college votes. As David M. Potter observed, "If Fillmore could carry a few southern states, he might throw the election into the House of Representatives, where there would be a good chance of his being chosen."

In fact, Fillmore came extremely close to achieving that goal. James Buchanan carried 174 electoral votes: 60 more than John C. Fremont's 114, but only 25 more than the absolute majority of 149 (out of 296 total) required to avoid throwing the election into the House.

Millard almost got those 25 additional votes. Professor Potter again: "[A]lthough Fillmore appeared to be overwhelmingly beaten, a percentage change of less than 3 percent of the popular vote (or of 8,016 votes) in Kentucky, Tennessee and Louisiana would have given Fillmore enough electoral votes to throw the contest into the House of Representatives."

Here are the figures for the three key states:

ST (EV) Total Buchanan Fillmore Difference

KY (12) 142,058 74,642 52.5% 67,416 47.5% 7,226

LA (6) 42,873 22,164 51.7% 20,709 48.3% 1,455

TN (12) 133,582 69,704 52.2% 63,878 47.8% 5,826

If Millard had been able to add the thirty electoral votes of these three states to his column, Buchanan would have wound up with 144 -- five fewer than the 149 he needed. (The above figures indicate that a shift of 7,256 votes would have been sufficient to change the results, rather than Professor Potter's 8,016 votes. I'm not sure where the discrepancy lies.)

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