[ Skip Main Nav ]

Phoenix Forward

Close Calls: A history of tight presidential races

Presidential election

If you think your vote doesn’t matter when it comes to electing the next president, think again. Several elections for U.S. presidents in modern history have come down to the wire, according to political historians.

To understand why just one vote can make a difference in close races, it’s important to understand the Electoral College system, explains Allen Smith, JD, a history instructor for the College of Humanities and Sciences at the University of Phoenix Indianapolis Campus.

“In the U.S., we have a winner-takes-all system, where the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state gets all the electoral votes for that state.” The candidate winning the majority of electoral votes — 270 votes — wins. So when a race is close in a single state, your vote can have a big impact.

Here are five presidential elections where a few votes could have changed the outcome:


John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon, 1960

Amid fears that a Roman Catholic could never attain highest office, Kennedy used his personal charisma to play to the camera on the first ever televised presidential debate, to gain what appeared to be a lead on early returns on election night.

Former Vice President Nixon started to close the gap as the night drew on, and Kennedy wasn’t declared a winner until the afternoon of the next day. In the popular vote, Kennedy beat Nixon by only 0.1 percent, which remains the closest popular vote margin of the 20th century.


Richard Nixon vs. Hubert Humphrey, 1968

Against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, playing to an anti-war press corps, Nixon narrowly beat his opponent, former Vice President Humphrey, who had served under Lyndon B. Johnson’s pro-war administration.

There was only a 0.7 percent difference in popular votes, with both candidates losing votes to third-party candidate, anti-civil rights Alabama Governor George Wallace. The call was so close that the final announcement was delayed until the following morning.


Jimmy Carter vs. Gerald Ford, 1976

In the wake of the Watergate scandal, Carter’s campaign to give the government back to the people netted a double-digit lead over President Ford weeks before the election. But a controversial interview Carter gave to Playboy Magazine, where the candidate shared that he had committed adultery in his heart, had the candidates running dead even on election day.

Carter’s victory of 2 percent over Ford wasn’t declared until the next day, making Carter the first candidate to ever beat an incumbent president.


George W. Bush vs. Albert Gore, 2000

The now famous, too-close-to-call presidential race (Remember the “hanging chads”?) ended up in the hands of the Supreme Court after a recount was ordered in Florida, the state where Bush’s very own brother, Jeb Bush, was then sitting governor.

Ultimately, the court awarded the 25 electoral votes in dispute from the state of Florida to Bush, with a mere 537 popular votes in Florida separating the two candidates. Bush was the victor, but Gore received 0.5 percent more popular votes nationwide.


George W. Bush vs. John Kerry, 2004

As in the 2000 presidential election, voting controversies and concerns of irregularities, such as the tallying of numerous “provisional ballots” in the state of Ohio, emerged during and after the vote. In the end, incumbent Bush barely beat out Democratic Senator Kerry by less than 3 percent of the popular vote.

Interested in furthering your education?