Florida 2000 was the closest of 1,906 state presidential tallies in American history

I’ve often prattled on, usually in rebuttal to partisan blithering from one side or the other, about how the Florida election in 2000 was really just a statistical tie, and what a freakish event it was that such a razor-close national election hinged on such a really, really, really razor-close state election.

Little did I know.

While doing some research for my Electoral College paper just now, I discovered a fascinating factoid that I’d never known before: according to Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S Presidential Elections, which has state-by-state popular vote tallies going all the way back to 1824, the 2000 presidential election in Florida was the closest in American history, percentage-wise. Not just among decisive or important states, but among all state presidential tallies, ever.

I realize that, on the surface, this may seem unsurprising, even blasé. Everybody knows Florida ’00 was the closest election ever, right? But usually we only think of it in comparison to other close states that mattered, like Illinois and Texas in 1960 or Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina in 1876. Here, I’m comparing it to every single popular election for president ever held in any state — regardless of whether the national election was close, or whether the state in question impacted the national election at all — and it still comes out on top! That’s absolutely amazing, that the closest state presidential tally in American history also happened to decide one of the national elections in history.

To try and put it in some perspective… in the 46 presidential races since 1824, there have been 1,906 individual state popular-vote elections. Of those, only 70 individual state elections would have, by themselves, given the runner-up an Electoral College majority if he had won the state. What are the odds that the very closest of the 1,906 would also happen to be one of the 70?

Bush’s officially certified 537-vote margin over Gore amounted to a difference of 0.00901% out of the 5,963,110 votes cast in Florida. The only other margin that comes close is Henry Clay’s 0.01044% margin over Andrew Jackson in Maryland in 1832. Every other state presidential election winner in American history has had a margin at least twice the size of Bush’s in Florida seven years ago. All but four have had margins at least five times bigger.

The second-closest nationally decisive state presidential race in history was the 1884 election in New York, where Grover Cleveland beat James Blaine by 0.098%. That’s awfully close, but it’s only the 14th-closest overall, and the margin is more than ten times bigger than Bush’s margin over Gore in Florida ’00.

Okay, I know, I’m geeking out about this. :) I just think it’s an incredible little mathematical nugget, which really shows what a truly freakish occurrence Florida 2000 was. We could keep having presidential elections under the Electoral College system for a thousand years, and there would probably never be another election where a state race that close decides the presidency.

For those who want to geek out with me, some statistical data, compiled by yours truly from Leip’s database, is after the jump.

Fifteen closest state presidential elections in American history (by percentage)

* = not winner-take-all for electors
** = determined the presidency

1. Florida 2000: Bush over Gore by 0.009%**
2. Maryland 1832: Clay over Jackson by 0.010%*
3. Maryland 1904: Roosevelt over Parker by 0.023%*
4. California 1912: Roosevelt over Wilson by 0.026%*
5. California 1892: Cleveland over Harrison by 0.052%*
6. New Mexico 2000: Gore over Bush by 0.061%
7. Kentucky 1896: McKinley over Bryan by 0.062%*
8. Hawaii 1960: Kennedy over Nixon by 0.062%
9. New Hampshire 1916: Wilson over Hughes by 0.063%
10. Kentucky 1952: Stevenson over Eisenhower by 0.070%
11. California 1880: Hancock over Garfield by 0.088%*
12. Missouri 1908: Taft over Bryan by 0.088%
13. Virginia 1860: Bell over Breckenridge by 0.093%
14. New York 1884: Cleveland over Blaine by 0.098%**
15. Minnesota 1916: Hughes over Wilson by 0.101%
States that could have swung the election, all by themselves
(i.e., if the runner-up had won this state, it would have given him an electoral majority)

1844: If Clay had won New York (he lost by 1.05%)
1848: If Cass had won either Pennsylvania (lost by 3.67%) or New York (lost by 22.87%)
1876: If Tilden had won any of the 20 states that Hayes won (he was within 5% in ten of them, within 3% in six of them, within 2% in four of them, and within 1% in one of them — South Carolina, which he lost by 0.49%)
1880: If Hancock had won New York (lost by 1.90%)
1884: If Blaine had won New York (lost by less than 0.10%)
1888: If Cleveland had won New York (lost by 1.09%)
1916: If Hughes had won California (lost by 0.38%), Missouri (lost by 3.65%), Kentucky (lost by 5.41%), Ohio (lost by 7.67%), Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina or Virginia (all of which he lost by wide margins)
1976: If Ford had won New York (lost by 4.43%)
2000: If Gore had won any of the 30 states that Bush won (he was within 5% in six of them, within 2% in two of them, and within 1% in one of them — Florida, which he lost by less than 0.01%)
2004: If Kerry had won Ohio (lost by 2.11%), Florida (lost by 5.01%), or Texas (lost by 22.86%)

36 Responses to “Florida 2000 was the closest of 1,906 state presidential tallies in American history”

  1. Brian Foster says:

    Leip’s site is a treasure trove. I just wish it was more user-friendly.

  2. Joe Loy says:

    I don’t understand the part about Geeking Out ;> but That aside: Very Cool, BLL. (Yeah Brian, Dave Leip rocks. :)

    Also, Brendan, it looks to me like that data tend to support your general thesis. / Not that the EC necessarily Rocks :} ~ but it’s been closer to Rock-Solid than the unMitigated national PV (with its inherent, irremoveable, Margin of Error) would likely Be, as a mechanism for dispositively & timely determining Who is to be declared the legitimate Winner of the inevitable Close-PV election.

  3. David K. says:

    We will never, ever ever know who won in Florida, just as we will never ever ever know who won the 2004 Washington gubernatorial election, i really wish people on both sides of the aisle would simply accept that neither election was stolen, they were just simply too close to ever be decided with any certainty…

  4. Joe Mama says:

    I think you mean we will never, ever ever know who should have won in Florida. It’s obvious who did win, and that’s not a minor distinction.

  5. David K. says:

    Yes, well symantics.

  6. Mindsurfer says:

    Yes, and we will never ever know if Ohio state should have played in the NCAA title game. – ask Xavier. So, what if some Xavier players and fans spent the rest of the tournament harassing the OS team to try and cause them to lose?

  7. David K. says:

    Um, no Mindsurfer, why don’t you come back when you have a basic grasp of statistics, then we can talk about the glaring differences between the two situations.

  8. Mindsurfer says:

    My bad. I thought it obvious I referred to the officiating. Both the game and the election were decided according to the laws governing. The officials may or may not have been correct in their judgements, and in the one case you may disagree to the question of jurisdiction, but they had the authority to make it stick.
    If we are a nation of laws, then you accept that it is THE verdict and move on to an appeal or the next case.
    I was obviously referring to those few who believe that since they should have won, it is the same as if they did win.

    And … yes, I have a basic grasp of statistics. I’ve even taught statistics, albeit to sophomores as a TA – which is pretty lame. :)

  9. Joe Mama says:

    Yes, well symantics.

    Um, no. It’s not.

  10. gahrie says:

    Has everyone forgotten that a bunch of newspapers went back and looked at the Florida ballots? They decided that under every set of guidelines, except one that was specifically contrived to allow Gore to win, Bush won.

    Yes, the election was close, but under every fair standard Bush won.

  11. Brendan Loy says:

    Gahrie, that’s not actually correct. What the media emphasized, and what you’re remembering, is that under every standard that Gore asked for in the courts, Bush won. But there are several “fair standards” under which Gore won, most of them involving the “overvotes,” many of which reflect the voter’s intent more clearly than the famous “undervotes.” (For example, there were a number of “overvotes” where the voter punched Gore’s spot, then also punched the write-in spot, and wrote in Gore’s name. Stupid voters, but the intent was perfectly clear… yet those Gore votes were not counted. Because Gore never asked for them to be. Stupid Gore.) And the U.S. Supreme Court suggested that, ideally, “overvotes” should have been looked at, not just undervotes, so it’s entirely possible that if the recount had been allowed to proceed, those ballots would have been counted (even though Gore never specifically asked for them)… and thus he might very well have won.

    But you’re missing the point. Arguing about a couple hundred ballots here or there, in an election in which six million people voted, is like arguing over angels on the head of a pin. It’s all meaningless mathematical noise. The election was a statistical tie.

  12. Brendan Loy says:

    P.S. To quote from the draft of my paper:

    An election is a measurement, and like all measurements, it has a margin of error. The margin of error in the initial count is the reason recounts are necessary in close races, and yet no recount can entirely eliminate the possibility of error. Even after the most precise tally possible, there is still some point at which the leading candidate’s margin becomes so small that, instead of being a solid indicator of victory, it signifies merely a modest probability that the candidate was the voters’ preferred choice. This point is the margin of error—and the “modest probability” begins to vanish altogether as the margin shrinks further and approaches zero.

    Recent revelations about flawed voting machines, confusing ballots, voter fraud, voter intimidation and other variables that obstruct an accurate measurement have aptly demonstrated that this margin of error is currently higher than it ought to be; there is much we can do to improve the accuracy of elections and thus decrease their margin of error. But we must not kid ourselves: there will always be a margin of error, even if it is substantially smaller than it is today. …

    To reiterate, an election is a measurement of the popular will – it is not the popular will itself. This point must be thoroughly understood, because those who confuse the measurement (the election) with the underlying variable that it is attempting to measure (the popular will) tend to regard the official, “final” vote tally as sacrosanct, rather than recognizing that it is just one of various possible interpretations of the people’s choice. The results of an election will inevitably vary depending on the systems and procedures that are used to measure the popular will. This is true of everything from the basic structure of the election system to details such as the type of voting machine and the rules of ballot-counting. No election system or procedure is totally neutral, and no measurement is perfect. A landslide election will usually only be subject to one interpretation, but when the population is closely divided between two or more candidates, reasonable minds can sometimes differ on how to “read” the popular will, just as they might differ on how to interpret a movie or a work of literature. As noted earlier, it is not as easy to ascertain the “right winner” as is often supposed.

    And so on, and so forth. :)

  13. gahrie says:

    Those over votes belonged just as much to the other candidate marked as Gore….that’s why they can never be counted. Because as improbable as it may be, some of them may have voted for Gore by mistake.

    And frankly, I don’t want the votes of people who aren’t competent enough to use a ballot to be counted anyway. They couldn’t have been too confusing…everyone else managed to use them correctly.

  14. Brendan Loy says:

    Those over votes belonged just as much to the other candidate marked as Gore

    I think you missed what I said. I’m not talking about “overvotes” where they voted for two different candidates, like the Palm Beach County situation where thousands voted for both Gore and Buchanan, and although you and I both know logically that the vast majority were intended for Gore, we can’t prove it on a ballot-by-ballot basis, so we can’t count them. I’m not questioning that. You’re preaching to the choir on that one. What happened in Palm Beach County with the butterfly ballot was a tragedy, and it cost Gore the presidency, but it is utterly uncorrectable. I’ll never argue otherwise. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

    I’m talking about “overvotes” where the voter voted for Gore twice, once on his ballot line, and then again on the write-in line (writing “Al Gore” on the line). Unless there was a registered write-in candidate in the state of Florida named Al Gore, I’d say the intent of those voters was 100% clear, or as close to 100% as can reasonably be demanded. Therefore, those votes should have been counted, and would have been, if a manual recount of overvotes had been ordered. Alas, Gore didn’t ask for it, because for some reason, he was so focused on the “undervotes” that he didn’t anticipate the “overvote” problem, and didn’t realize they were such an untapped gold mine of votes. A SCOTUS-ordered statewide recount probably would have demanded that the overvotes be counted, but Gore was a day late and a justice short.

    Also, there are other examples of the “overvote” phenomenon in between the two extremes. Clearly, ballots with essentially two votes for Gore should be counted (though only once :), and clearly, ballots with two fully recorded votes for two different candidates (e.g., the Gore/Buchanan situation) should not. But what about situations where, say, the voters on an optical-scan ballot voted for one candidate, then erased it, and voted for Gore, so there’s only one circle that’s actually marked, but the machine still picked up the residue of the erased vote, and thus rejected the ballot? (If you’ve ever taken a standardized test with a No. 2 pencil, and had to change your answer, and frantically erased the old answer but still worried the scanner thingy would see it and you’d get the question wrong, you understand what I’m talking about.) Those votes should be counted, no? Or what about the situation where there’s simply a stray mark on another ballot line (whether a dimpled chad on a punch-card, or a pencil mark on an optical-scan ballot, whatever), but the only actual vote is for Gore, clearly? Shouldn’t those votes count?

    The standard is the intent of the voter, not whether you “want the votes of people who aren’t competent enough to use a ballot to be counted.” That’s an irrelevant emotional impulse on your part (and it ignores some genuinely understandable mistakes, like the “stray marks” and “eraser” issues just mentioned). It’s a logical fallacy to assume that all spoiled ballots are a result of poor intelligence, and moreover, there is no intelligence or literacy or competence test for registering to vote, and you can’t impose one retroactively just because you feel like it. The law says that if the intent of the voter is clear, the ballot should be counted, period.

    But again, this all angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin stuff. Florida was a tie. That point cannot be emphasized enough.

  15. Brendan Loy says:

    P.S. To give you a little context: unless I’m very much mistaken (the details vary from state to state, but I believe the following is generally true pretty much everywhere), a write-in vote for a candidate on the ballot, if it is the voter’s only vote for the office in question, will be counted for that candidate. So if I pick up my optical scan ballot, and instead of marking Bush’s ballot bubble, I decide, just for fun, to mark the write-in bubble, and then write in “George W. Bush” on the accompanying line, here’s what will happen: the optiscan machine will read my ballot, determine that it’s a write-in vote, and spit it out into the write-in pile. A poll worker will then inspect the ballot, determine that I wrote in Bush, and count my vote accordingly. For Bush.

    The only difference between that situation and the “overvote” situation is that, with the write-in “overvotes,” we’re talking about ballots that were spit out into the “overvote” pile instead of the “write-in” pile, because the machine saw two marked bubbles, and didn’t realize they were both votes for the same candidate. If a human had looked at them, that would have become instantly clear, and the votes would have been counted. As well they should. Logically, if the vote in the first situation should count, the vote in the second situation should count too; it certainly doesn’t make the voter’s intent any less clear that he/she voted for the same candidate twice on the same ballot.

  16. Joe Loy says:

    Hey, there’ll be no public Trailers before you’ve decided whether or not to Publish this thing :).

    …those who confuse the measurement (the election) with the underlying variable that it is attempting to measure (the popular will) tend to regard the official, “final” vote tally as sacrosanct, rather than recognizing that it is just one of various possible interpretations…

    Yes but We of the Electionbureaucracy High Priesthood ;}, who (trust-me-on-this :) Never confuse our the Measurement with the pesky people’s-will-o’-the-wisp Variable, still worship recognize our the Final Official Result, over which We have incanted the Benediction, as both: for Behold, it becometh the Sacrosanct Interpretation.


    (iow ya gotta draw the line Somewhere. / We do Admit the relevent Recounts & Court vettings & So forth into the Sanctuary. / Grudgingly. :)

  17. Joe Mama says:

    If Gore could’ve just won his home state of Tennessee, none of this FLA nonsense would’ve happened. But he couldn’t win over those who knew him best.

  18. David K. says:

    If Gore could’ve just won his home state of Tennessee, none of this FLA nonsense would’ve happened. But he couldn’t win over those who knew him best.

    Wow, its not even noon yet and Joe Mama has made the stupidest comment of the day…

  19. Alasdair says:

    I still say that that should be part of the Constitution – if the candidate’s Home State doesn’t go for him, that should disqualify him automatically …

  20. Alasdair says:

    “David K. Says:
    April 8th, 2007 at 11:49:42 pm
    Yes, well symantics.

    Typical Microsofter spelling-challenged anti-Symantec bigot !

    (innocent mainframer (non-PC) smile)

  21. Joe Loy says:

    Re your Comment #1, Alasdair, if Mitt Romney wins the Nomney :> I think he might Beg to differ :). Then again Finnegan :}, if we adopted your Amendment and it’s Hillary v. Rudy, we could save a whole lotta Moolah by just holding the election Only in New York ;}.

    Now you take Mee. I still say that the Brits should Write their silly old constitution Down, so that people can tell what the hell is Part of it & what Isn’t. [Constructive smile ;]

  22. Alasdair says:

    Joe – the problem with the written Constitution is that the eedjits in the Legislature then think they can change it by some form of majority tyranny … as long as it stays unwritten, then the eedjits can be outmanoeuvred by simply telling ’em that “We can’t DO that, old, boy, it’s just not the Done Thing …” and they then don’t do it …

    F’r’instance, to go closer to your own heart … if the Eirish Constitution had been written down and resepcted at the time of Finn McCool and his chums, the whole Cattle Raid of Wherever could not have happened, now, could it ?

    Personally, I would love to see a Hillary vs Rudy Presidential Election …

  23. David K. says:

    I still say that that should be part of the Constitution – if the candidate’s Home State doesn’t go for him, that should disqualify him automatically

    And apparently i spoke too soon, as Alasdair, afraid of losing his title of worst poster on the blog, decided to say something even stupider…

  24. Joe Mama says:

    Wow, its not even noon yet and Joe Mama has made the stupidest comment of the day…

    Do tell, David. Are you saying (1) it wouldn’t have mattered whether Gore won his home state of Tennessee in 2000? If so, you are obviously quite incorrect. Or are you saying (2) that Tennessee voters are not from the state that knows Gore best? At least that’s a somewhat more debatable point than (1), but I would be curious to know which state’s voters you think are more familiar with Gore than Tennessee’s (or is your point that no state’s voters can evaluate their own politicians better than the voters of other states?). Your insult screams out for support/clarification, but you offer none. To borrow a juvenile phrase you might understand, this must mean you got nothin’ ;-)

    In any event, you offer no support whatsoever for your merely conclusory insult that my comment was “the stupidest of the day,” which only reinforces the perception that you are utterly ill-suited for public discourse.

  25. Joe Mama says:

    David’s typically obnoxious posts do raise an interesting question, though: Has any candidate from either party besides Gore not won their home state (i.e., the state in which they held prior public office as a congressman, U.S. senator or governor)? I recall that when Mondale was trounced in 1984 he at least won his home state of Minnesota . . .

  26. Brendan Loy says:

    Mondale barely won Minnesota, 49.72% to 49.54%. Reagan was 3,761 votes away from becoming the first president since Washington to win every single state in the Union (though of course Mondale also won D.C., 85% to 13% — the District’s permanently Democratic status means that it would take a Reagan-magnitude Democratic landslide to approach electoral unanimity).

    Likewise, in ’72, McGovern’s only state won was his home state of Massachusetts, though by a more comfortable 54-45 margin.

    Goldwater in ’64 eked out a 50.45% to 49.45% win in Arizona (his only win outside of the Deep South).

    I’m not sure, though. I know back in the 1800s, there were some races where both candidates were from the same state, so obviously one of them had to lose it.

  27. Joe Mama says:

    Nice work, thanks Brendan. Something tells me David’s next comment won’t be nearly as informative ;-)

    P.S. David, you get a double attaboy award if your next post doesn’t contain the following phrases:

    “You act as though dissent is a bad thing.”

    “You and your fellow Bush Apologists . . .”

    “You refuse to accept any criticism of Bush.”

    “You think Bush can do no wrong.”

    “Your arrogance and blind partisanship are a bigger threat to this country than Osama bin Ladin.”

  28. Joe Loy says:

    (The following employs the abbreviation “Gov.” to denote both Governor and Former Governor)

    Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson lost the Land of Lincoln to Ike, big time, in both 1952 & 1956.

    For your “One-of-’em’s-gotta-Lose” back-to-back Examples, in New York State FDR (D-NY) beat (a) Wendell Willkie (R-NY) in ’40 and (b) Gov. Tom Dewey (R-NY) in ’44. [However Willkie, the only Native Hoosier :> ever nominated by a national party for President, did carry Indiana, albeit by a Whisker :]

    In ’36 Roosevelt whupped Gov. Alf Landon, R-Kansas, in Kansas. (Alf won the electoral votes of Maine & Vermont :> …btw in ’96 Kansas did Not desert Bob Dole :)

    When FDR ousted President Herbert Hoover in ’32, he beat the Californian (a native Iowan) in California (as in all but 6 states). / OTOH when he got Elected in ’28, Hoover beat Gov. Al Smith (D-NY) in New York state.

    I’ll stop there :). Yes, candidates have Lost their Home States.

  29. Alasdair says:

    Venerated Fount of Wisdom Joe the Elder – has there been a situation where the one who became President did so in spite of managing to lose his own home State vote ?

  30. Joe Loy says:

    hee hee…OK, Laird A., I give in :) I’ll even agree to Unwrite the constitution of Eire and let the Shanachies simply Tell its provisions henceforth :> ~ so long as we can continue to call it the Bunreacht na h’Eireann. I just Love that word “Bunreacht” ;}.

    Actually (though this cuts the Opposite way from Your argument :) the Repooblich will have Need for all the unfettered flexibility it can concoct find, when in due course the Six Counties return to Mother Ireland ;>. Various regional, economic, cultural, Devolutionary and Denominational accomodations will be Called for, to keep the new Orange Citizenry feeling respected, secure & serene :).

    Oh and btw, it’s Cooley. The Cattle Raid of Cooley :] aka Táin Bó Cúalnge. And that one didn’t involve Fionn mac Cumhaill & his Fianna. ‘Twas Cu Chulainn was yer man, he was. (mythic grin :)

  31. David K. says:

    Simple answer, Martin van Buren won the election despite not winning his home state.

  32. Joe Mama says:

    Thank you, all :-)

  33. Andrew says:

    I can’t think of a more played-out partisan debate than the one over the Iraq war and occupation.

    Oh wait!

  34. David K. says:

    Hmm, why is it stupid. Well lets go for the obvious. Under your plan a Republican from Massachusetts or a Democrat from Utah, no matter what their qualifications or whether the rest of the country wanted them. Under your plan 50 states don’t matter, 2 do. The one each candidate is from, or better yet, if they happen to be from the SAME state only that state matters, as only that person can become President. Under your plan if neither candidate wins their home state we HAVE no President. Ooooh but i’m sure you could think of convoluted rules to add to address each of these problems. I can add just one. Don’t have the rule. See, most people believe that making a situation simpler is better than making it more complicated unless there is a strong reason to add a complication. So what advantage does your rule add? None! Your base argument is centered on the premise that the person was rejected by the people that know him best, yet you offer no evidence that a candidate must have been in a position to be well known as a representative for the majority of his or her state. Cause you know its not like someone has ever run for President who wasn’t the Governor of his or her state… Why would you hold someone who is a Representative and has been reelected by their constiuents multiple times, who has won the majority of the votes to be artificically disqualified simply because the rest of the state he is from doesn’t lean his way? And thats just it, its arbitrary and pointless, it adds ZERO value because there is nothing to say that someone who isn’t prefered by their state is in any way disqualified to run this country (just as there is nothing to say someone who DOES win their state IS qualified).

  35. Alasdair says:

    Is there any way we can attach David K to a turbine ?

    By doing so, and then, every so often simply saying “Dubya is a Great President”, he just starts spinning and spinning … that *has* to be good for electricity generation, doesn’t it ?

    Of course, with all the huffing and indignant puffing, it’s not exactly carbon-neutral …

    Oh well …

  36. David K. says:

    Um, Alasdair, this discussion has nothing whatsoever to do with Bush being a good or bad President and everything to do with statistics. It wouldn’t matter if Bush, Gore, or Kucinich had won in Florida as far as the statistics part is concerned.