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Thinking about close elections

What history can tell us about approaching pivotal presidential contests

Voters line up in Henrico County, Va., for early voting last month. Associated Press/Photo by Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch (file)

Thinking about close elections

As pundits write about whether this is a Flight 93 election—win or die—and an election that won’t be decided until well after Nov. 3, I’ve delved into previous WORLD coverage to see what’s new and what’s just blue. So here’s a three-parter. First, reflections on what seemed like pivotal elections. Second, what it was like right after Election Day 2000, when we had an indecisive election. Third, what it was like five weeks later when the Supreme Court finally ended the suspense—and, then, no one rioted.

Part 1: How often does what seems huge during a particular election turn out to be not so important in the long run?

Almost every ­presidential election has seemed pivotal to the contending forces, but look at two of the hardest-fought and closest: Was the American trajectory radically affected when Grover Cleveland lost to Benjamin Harrison in 1888? Was the 1892 rematch between the two equally pivotal?

The same could be said regarding almost any election prior to 1980. Was Van Buren’s 1840 loss to Tippecanoe (and Tyler too) pivotal? How about Coolidge vs. Davis in 1924? Some say McKinley vs. Bryan in 1896 and 1900, but had Bryan won we still would not have had what a truly pivotal election—the Civil War–precipitating clash of 1860—brought upon us.

How about modern times? Conservatives were pleased when Richard Nixon edged out Hubert Humphrey in 1968, but Nixon in office helped to further big government. After Nixon in the purportedly pivotal election of 1972 beat George McGovern, an initially tiny Watergate cloud led to a huge Democratic victory in the 1974 elections and the rapid fall of South Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975.

The debate about Vietnam contributed to a change in American politics. Throughout much of the Cold War, the willingness to stand up to anti-American dictatorships was bipartisan, but a Democratic lurch to the left created an appeasement party that turned the 1980 contest between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan into a pivotal one.

I grew up during the Cold War, and had President Reagan not stepped up the military and rhetorical pressure on Soviet leaders as they were being forced to acknowledge that their economy was fatally flawed, my children might still be facing ICBMs with nuclear warheads. The Berlin Wall might still be standing, with tens of millions of Eastern Europeans still enslaved.

So that makes two existentially pivotal elections, 1860 and 1980. A third, the 1964 election, also was pivotal domestically because Lyndon Johnson’s big win and a liberal Congress that came on his coattails made possible civil rights legislation, Medicare, and much besides.

What about the elections from 1988 on? Almost every one has pitted a sometimes soupy GOP against a watery Democratic Party. Think about the election of 2000: If Al Gore had received a few hundred more Floridian votes, he would have made some presidential noises in September 2001, including probably a war in Afghanistan, but we probably wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. What would have happened? Hard to know, but can we confidently say that the world is a better place because of that effort?

I thought the 2004 election might be a pivotal one. I wondered whether John Kerry understood that there is evil in the world and that we must stand up against it. I thought he might think that those who hate America, as well as the Christian principles on which our country is based, can be massaged into politeness. So I was glad to see George W. Bush win. But did that make a huge positive difference, given continued Middle East problems and the recession that began at the end of his second term?

That year I was also looking at domestic social issues. In a darling of a sentence that I should have edited out, I wrote, “As Supreme Court justices continue to grab power, we can either curse their dark robes or push for the appointment of candles rather than smudgepots.” Then I added, “With several justices perhaps waiting until after the election to retire, the next president may have his judicial way for the next 30 years.”

Hmm … just think: If Bush hadn’t won, maybe by now the Supreme Court would have made same-sex marriage the law of the land. The Supreme Court wouldn’t have John Roberts as the fifth vote to repeal Roe v. Wade.

What, you say we have same-sex marriage, and Roberts in June was the swing vote on the pro-abortion side? Hmm … maybe the election wasn’t as pivotal as I thought it was.

In retrospect, disaster was in our grasp regardless of who won.

I did write in 2004, “I hate to describe this November’s election as pivotal. A Republican win will not mean victory for Biblical principle but only the opportunity to keep battling for the soul of the GOP—and victory for compassionate conservatism will once again be elusive. Sadly, if the Democrats win, international and further judicial disaster is within our grasp.”

In retrospect, disaster was in our grasp regardless of who won.

Part 2: What I wrote three days after the 2000 election

What a week! The stories that follow from WORLD writers in Austin, Nashville, Florida, and other dramatic venues show the color and suspense of events on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. But if the question comes to whether a presidential candidate will accept defeat or will instead provoke a constitutional crisis, we should remember and contemplate the reaction of two men: Samuel Tilden and Richard Nixon.

Samuel Tilden, the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1876, won the popular vote not by a whisker but by 3 percentage points. The Electoral College at that time had 369 votes; Tilden should have ended up with a clear majority of 204. He did not narrowly lose Florida, like Al Gore apparently did this year, but won it readily, along with Louisiana, South Carolina, and many other states.

But Republicans, through a complicated set of circumstances, found crooked ways to claim victory in Florida and her Southern sisters. Republicans and Democrats that year filed competing slates of Electoral College members. I won’t take you at this time through the enormously complicated details, but the political and constitutional battle lasted from November until early March, with Republicans eventually gaining dominance.

Democrats were furious; some marched toward Washington, threatening a new civil war. But Tilden discouraged further contesting of the vote, and some less civil party leaders gave in after receiving concessions from the Republicans: removal of troops from the South, one seat in the Cabinet, and some pork-barrel expenditures.

Richard Nixon, not normally known as one of the gentlemen of American politics, did not extract similar concessions when he agreed not to contest his narrow 1960 election loss to John F. Kennedy. Some of his advisers wished to fight on, since even untrained eyes detected massive vote fraud in Chicago and other cities. Nixon, though, argued that the need of the United States for a settled transfer of power from a Republican to a Democratic administration was more important than his own political satisfaction.

We’ve had many reports in recent years about “defining deviancy down”—lowering our moral standards. The future of the United States may rest on whether the losing candidate this year is more ruthless and less patriotic than the man who once had to announce, “I am not a crook.”

Note: Al Gore left us in suspense for a while, but he did not turn out to be more ruthless and less patriotic than Richard Nixon.

Part 3: Five lessons from five crazy weeks, published on Dec. 23, 2000

In Smiley’s People, the last novel of John le Carre’s brilliant Cold War trilogy, British spy George Smiley finally defeats Karla, his major Soviet enemy. The book ends with Smiley’s jubilant assistant saying, “George, you won,” and Smiley responding without much enthusiasm, “Did I? Yes. Yes, well I suppose I did.”

It’s with relief rather than jubilation that many greet the victory of George W. Bush. Relief, and thanksgiving for God’s kindness: One year ago He spared us a Y2K technological catastrophe, and in recent weeks, with incredible dramatic flair and the use of unlikely human instruments, He just barely saved us from the political chaos that would result if uneven vote-counting became an accepted way to win an election.

We should be thankful that God is giving us another chance at a time when, to quote the 18th-century British novelist Tobias Smollett, “one half of the nation is mad—and the other not very sound.” Actually, 4/7 of the Florida Supreme Court was mad, and the other 3/7 not very sound—but, in the crunch, Chief Justice Charles Wells wrote a crucial dissent that showed respect for the law. Lots of the main actors of recent weeks were mad and others were not very sound, but—undermining the belief of those who think all Democrats are bad—Judges Burton, Sauls, Lewis, Clark, and Wells did the right thing.

They, and the five Supreme Court justices who finally stopped the Florida follies, and Katherine Harris, and many volunteer election observers, have given all of us good gifts: opportunities to have a good man in the White House, to have law-abiding judges appointed, to correct our election laws. But, just as at Christmas we are supposed to think not just about the presents but about the deeper meaning, so I would like to suggest five lessons that we could learn from five wild weeks.

First, we should not succumb to political paranoia. The Clinton impeachment proceedings two years ago fed Christian and conservative rage against the Democratic machine, because no Democratic dissidents emerged. This time, both Democrats and Republicans experienced anguish, but since WORLD subscribers are predominantly Republican, I received message after message with this prediction: The Democrats will steal the presidency. Well, they did not, in large part because of some Democrats who did their jobs and stuck up for the rule of law.

Second, we should not adopt the Pollyanna attitude that everything is dandy. The Clinton impeachment and the Gore postelection campaign showed that some people, including some judges, are so much a part of a political machine that they prefer immorality or chaos to losing political power. Long-term Democratic pollster Pat Caddell recently said that his party “has been hijacked by a confederacy of gangsters who need to take power by whatever means and whatever canards they can.” Of course, the GOP has problems too; there’s a lot of work to be done everywhere.

Third, we have seen once again that God is in control, but God uses human instruments to do that work. We’ve seen the importance of individual courage, commitment, and the willingness to serve in grungy, oft-ignored positions like “county election supervisor.” I like this comment from WORLD subscriber Evelyn Murk: “I’m tired of being a thermometer, shaking my head and clucking my tongue over the shocking action of the Clinton administration.” Instead, “my greatest desire is to be God’s Thermostat,” able to change the existing temperature.

We’ve seen the importance of individual courage, commitment, and the willingness to serve in grungy, oft-ignored positions.

Fourth, we’ve seen the importance of basic logic. We need more teaching of the four deadly questions that I picked up several years ago from Professor Jeff Myers of Bryan College: What do you mean by that? Where do you get your information? How do you know you’re right? What happens if you’re wrong? The Florida Supreme Court could not readily answer questions like: What do you mean by voter intent? Are you getting your guidance from the legislature or are you making up procedure as you go along? If you do it your way, will chaos ensue? As a result, the U.S. Supreme Court had to step in and sadly shake its head at the mess made by judges who did not think things through.

Fifth and most important, we’ve seen once again that we are not to be pingpong balls. When everything seems shifting from day to day—a 4-3 ruling one day, a 5-4 the other way on the next—we should remember to trust the Rock whose birth we soon celebrate. On Christ alone we should make our stand, for all other hopes are shifting sand.

Warning signs and wise words

In case you missed them, here are the last two paragraphs in Janie B. Cheaney’s column in the Sept. 26 issue of WORLD:

“To partisans continually harping on voter suppression and voter fraud, add widespread confusion over how and when to apply for an absentee ballot. Recall if you can the bumbling Iowa caucuses in January, where nobody seemed to be in charge, and extend that incompetence coast to coast. After encouraging mail-in ballots for its June 23 primary, New York took six weeks to count them. Imagine 50 New Yorks: Is the Postal Service ready for an avalanche of ballots in October? Are there clear standards in place for deadlines and postmarks? Over 160 lawsuits (75 percent by Democrats) have been filed in state election courts by party officials and organizations seeking to change the rules—might that be only a warm-up for a legal onslaught in November?

“Given the real possibility of a train wreck, the Apostle Peter asks us, ‘What sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness’ (2 Peter 3:11)? First, we should be praying for our country, not just our candidate. We could be volunteering where we can to serve at the polls. And whatever happens, we ought not feel helpless or defeated. God is still at work, and so are we, in lives of holiness and godliness. We can be prepared not merely to hang on for a rough ride, but to hang on to our eternal kingdom. Christ is still shining. Our nation will desperately need that light, as well as calm voices and long-range perspectives in the days ahead.”

We may truly need leaders who can say what Abraham Lincoln spoke of in his sublime second inaugural address: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” It doesn’t look like we have such leaders, but that’s all the more reason to pray.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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