1860: A cautionary Electoral College story

One of the most important presidential elections of American history happened in 1860. It was also one of the messiest elections, with complicated consequences — notably a civil war.

It was one of only two American presidential elections with four major candidates (the other being 1824). This included Abraham Lincoln (Republican), Stephen Douglas (Northern Democrat), John Breckinridge (Southern Democrat), and John Bell (Constitutional Union).

Lincoln won decisively— but with less than 40% of all votes cast. This was a larger share than any of his three opponents. It was also a smaller share of the vote than won by any other candidate who won a majority in the Electoral College, which makes it an interesting election to look closely at.

Lincoln’s victory in turn led to a civil war. In addition to its immense historical significance, the election of 1860 illustrates vividly some of the quirks of the modern Electoral College system. The system rewards candidates who are regionally divisive and penalizes moderate candidates with broad support across the entire country.

The radicals and moderates of 1860

In 1860, the country was polarized on the issue of slavery, and the four major presidential candidates can be very easily placed on a spectrum.

By the standards of their time, both Breckinridge and Lincoln ran on fairly radical platforms, seeking to either promote or contain slavery. Bell and Douglas both tried to tack towards a moderate position. For Douglas, this was the position of popular sovereignty: Each state and territory could make its own choices on the slavery issue. For Bell, this meant taking no position on slavery at all.

It’s hard to know whether Douglas or Bell was closer to the national median (exact middle). However, by the median voter theorem, we would expect either of them to perform very well against either Lincoln or Breckinridge in a two-candidate majority vote.

Within the Electoral College system, however, they did not do as well as the more radical candidates.

Douglas, in particular, earned disproportionately few electoral votes because his support was spread widely across the country; Lincoln and Breckinridge, with more geographically concentrated support, earned disproportionately many electoral votes compared to their total popular vote.

You may be familiar with the spoiler effect, where two similar candidates harm each other by competing for support from the same voters. This wasn’t a major factor in the way that the Electoral College favored the candidates on the ends of the political spectrum over those in the middle. Out of the eighteen states that Lincoln won, he had over 50% of the vote in fifteen, adding up to 169 electoral votes out of his total of 180.

Out of the eleven states that Breckinridge won, seven states were similarly secure, adding up to 45 electoral votes out of his total of 72. The Electoral College system helps polarizing candidates with narrow support, and hurts candidates who have broad support.

Lincoln’s victory: What this means for a two-candidate race

As I just mentioned, most of Lincoln’s electoral votes (169 of them) came from states where he earned more than 50% of the vote, meaning that the spoiler effect only helped him in a few states.

Lincoln only needed 152 electoral votes to win the election, so it’s likely that Lincoln would have won even if he faced a single candidate who combined the support of all three of his opponents.

Lincoln’s victory with 40% of the vote, in other words, was not due to the fact that he had three major opponents. It was instead because once you lose a state in the Electoral College, it doesn’t matter how much you lose it by. Lincoln’s winning margins were smaller than his losing margins, in other words. Filtered by a winner-take-all rule, deep negatives are no worse than shallow negatives, and strong majorities are no better than weak majorities.

The dilemma of the Democrats: What this means for multi-candidate races

If the Republicans had nominated a less capable candidate than Lincoln, or if the campaign had simply gone a little bit differently, the Republicans might have gotten a little bit less than a majority in the Electoral College. In this case, as happened in 1824, the House would have voted between the top 3 candidates in a contingent election.

In this case, the top three would be Lincoln, Breckinridge, and Bell. In spite of having a level of popular support similar to Breckinridge and Bell combined, and having the endorsement of the larger part of the Democratic party, Douglas didn’t earn many electoral votes.

Neither Breckinridge’s strong Electoral College performance nor Douglas’s weak performance is unusual. Third party candidates have made this effect very clear over the course of American history. For example, in 1948, Strom Thurmond won 39 electoral votes with only 2.4% of the popular vote — concentrated narrowly in the deep South. On the other end of the spectrum, Ross Perot earned no electoral votes in 1992 after winning 19% of the popular vote — because his support was spread much more broadly across the country.

In elections like 1824 and 1860, when the two-party system breaks down and many candidates run, it’s possible that no candidate wins a majority in the Electoral College. The House of Representatives chooses the president out of the top three candidates in such a case — but since polarizing candidates do better in the Electoral College, the top three candidates may all be polarizing.


The Electoral College system in its current form rewards candidates with regionally divisive platforms. This is true to some degree even when there are only two major candidates; in the rare event of three or four major candidates, it matters even more.

From a modern perspective, Lincoln’s stance on the major issue of the day — slavery — is the most acceptable. We also look on Lincoln as a great president, in large part because he was the Great Emancipator who ended slavery, and he had a better claim to a real popular mandate than any of his rivals.

However, Lincoln wasn’t the only radical with strongly regionalized support who did well in the Electoral College in 1860: So did Breckinridge. Breckinridge may have fallen behind Lincoln in 1860, but it would be foolish to think that an anti-slavery victory was inevitable in 1860. Radical and regionally divisive candidates can come from both ends of any political spectrum just as easily.

With a different field of candidates in 1860 — or simply even a different sequence of events during the campaign — a pro-slavery radical could have just as easily won with the support of 40% of the population or less. The next divisive candidate who wins the Electoral College with a combination of deep negatives and weak majorities is unlikely to be another Lincoln.

Encouraging divisive presidential candidates is an unintended feature of the modern version of the Electoral College system — and a reason why we should seek to change the system.

Dr. Tomas McIntee is a mathematician and occasional social scientist with stray degrees in physics and philosophy.

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