Election Superstitions and Fallacies

"It is somewhat late to consider whether the superstitions and traditions of a hundred or more years are to stand, in the result in November."

It is not strange that in the one hundred and twenty years that have elapsed since the National Constitution became effective, a considerable body of political tradition has accumulated. What has happened only once does not impress men's minds. If it happens twice they begin to take notice. There are men who discern an occult and invariable law in the sequence on three successive occasions of a certain event after another event which has no relation to the first, and which could not have caused it. No doubt the superstition that the fall of a mirror forecasts a death in the family arose from the fact that, on several occasions, a death did occur after the fall of a mirror.

It is the same way in politics. In general those who are engaged in the lower activities of campaigns do not take extremely broad views of public affairs, nor do they discern the meaning and foresee the consequences of great events. That which is insignificant, transitory, and local, affects their judgment more than that which is really important. It is easy for such men to see portents and to originate superstitions; and, when their imagination has created them, even men who would not be afraid to walk under a ladder sometimes find themselves unable to persuade themselves that they run no risk in so doing.

Prior to the reelection of General Grant in 1872, there was a superstition prevalent that no man possessed of a middle name could be elected President a second time. The notion was based upon the fact that every President so endowed, up to that time, had, for one reason or another, failed to be reelected: John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren—if his was a triple name,—William Henry Harrison, and James Knox Polk. Even since Grant, who may be said to have been exempt from all rules, the tradition has held good. Rutherford Birchard Hayes, James Abram Garfield, and Chester Allan Arthur, were not reelected; William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt were; also Grover Cleveland, after the lapse of an intermediate term,—who, it may be suggested, escaped the hoodoo by dropping his first name, Stephen, which his parents incautiously gave him.

How clear it is to a superstitious mind that there is a definite law! Some of those who think there is something in it may fancy that Mr. Bryan had the law in his mind when he assured the country during his last candidacy that if he should be elected he would not be a candidate for a second term,—his middle name, Jennings, barring his further ambition. Now are we to apprehend that the supposedly meagre chances of Mr. Taft in the present canvass are really a result of his father's indiscretion in inserting an ill-fated Howard into his name? Does an evil genius put it into parental hearts to over-name their infant sons and thus prevent them from attaining unto the presidential years of Washington and Lincoln?

There is another superstition, much more commonly held, which has not yet been falsified, that no senator can be elected President. Jackson was a senator when he was defeated in 1824. Clay was a senator when a candidate against Jackson in 1832. Hugh L. White, senator from Tennessee, was one of several Whig candidates against Van Buren in 1836. Douglas was a senator when he was one of the Democratic candidates in 1860. Cass was a senator from Michigan when he was nominated by the Democrats in 1848; and, although he resigned four days after his nomination,—it would be an insult to his memory to suggest that his action was due to a belief in the superstition,—he was defeated, nevertheless. Garfield had been chosen a senator from Ohio when he was nominated for the presidency in 1880, but his term was not to begin until the day when he took the oath as President. In addition to this list, mention might be made of other senators who have been candidates for nomination by national conventions, but have not been successful in that first step. To go no further back than 1860, there are Seward, Cameron, Jefferson Davis, R.M.T. Hunter, Conkling, Oliver P. Morton, Sherman, Edmunds, Bayard, Blaine, Thurman, Logan, Allison, Cockrell, Cummins, LaFollette, and others. This is all very queer, but so far as it is not merely a coincidence it can mean nothing more than that senators arouse a certain amount of antagonism against themselves, or do not arouse enthusiasm for themselves. It yet remains for some bold bad man in the Senate to defy the superstition, and by attaining preeminence in statesmanship, force his party to nominate him, and the people to elect him.

It has been unusual for the Vice President to succeed to the first place in the government. After Adams and Jefferson, no Vice President was elected President until Van Buren broke over the rule; and none since Van Buren until Roosevelt. But there has been no superstition about it. For most of the time in the last forty years, both parties have nominated, for the second place on the ticket, men whom the conventions would never have considered for the first place. It would be invidious to name them or the exceptions to the rule. Moreover, the position and duties of the Vice President are not such as to keep the incumbent of the office in the public eye.

It is a tradition as yet unbroken that no man is to serve a third term as President. It arose in a simple way. General Washington did not lay it down as a principle; there is no reason to suppose that he held the opinion that a President should not hold office more than eight years. He had originally accepted the office with reluctance, was full of honors, had reached an age when he felt the need of rest from public duties, had become a target for vituperative assaults, and believed that he should make way for others. His reasons for retiring were purely personal. But Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe each in turn gave place to a successor after eight years of service, willingly in all probability, in deference to the example of Washington; yet there is nothing in the political literature of the time to suggest that, with regard to any one of them, there was a movement to continue him in office beyond the two terms.

By the time Jackson became President the Constitution had been in operation forty years, and the tradition was established. Indeed, public opinion had gone even beyond it. There was a general feeling against a second term. Jackson recognized the sentiment, and in every one of his annual messages to Congress during his first term urged an amendment of the Constitution forbidding the reelection of a President. He was particularly emphatic in the second of those messages, December 6, 1830, in which, after arguing the matter, he said, 'I cannot too earnestly invite your attention to the propriety of promoting such an amendment of the Constitution as will render him [the President] ineligible after a single term of service.' His reiterated recommendations did not prevent him from accepting a second term, or from perpetuating his administration by dictating his successor.

After Jackson, no President was reelected until 1864, and Lincoln was assassinated six weeks after his second term began. Grant was elected in 1868 and reelected in 1872. As his second term was drawing to a close there were rumors that he was not disinclined to be a candidate for another term. A check upon his aspiration, if in truth he cherished it, was given by a resolution of the House of Representatives, in December, 1875, which declared that 'the precedent established by Washington and other Presidents of the United States in retiring from the presidential office after their second term, has become, by universal concurrence, a part of our republican system of government, and that any departure from this time-honored custom would be unwise, unpatriotic, and fraught with peril to our free institutions.' The resolution was Democratic in its origin, the Democratic party being then in control of the House, and it received the votes of all the member of that party who were present. Eighteen Republicans only opposed the declaration. The affirmative votes numbered 234. Not long afterward, in January, 1876, the House voted, yeas 148, nays 105, to submit to the State legislatures an amendment of the Constitution in these words:—

'No person who has held, or may hereafter hold, the office of President, shall ever again be eligible to said office.'

The resolution failed because it was not supported by a two-thirds vote; but inasmuch as most of the member who opposed it had just previously voted for a substitute, lengthening the term to six years and forbidding reelection, the House showed itself to be practically unanimous against a second term. It may be remarked in passing that no other proposition of amendment has been offered in Congress so many times as this forbidding the reelection of a President, sometimes with and sometimes without an extension of the single term to six years. The Constitution of the Confederate States limited the President to one term of six years.

The third-term question came up again in 1880, when Grant was really a candidate for a third term after the lapse of four years since his retirement. The prolonged contest in the Republican convention of that year, when Mr. Conkling was able to hold his 306 votes for Grant even on the ballot that nominated Garfield, is a part of our political history which is familiar to all. Grant was probably the only President who ever desired a third term. What might have happened in 1908 if Mr. Roosevelt had been willing to lend himself to the fiction that he was then serving his 'first elective term' must forever be left to conjecture. His extraordinary personal and political popularity, then and now, suggests that he might have broken the tradition,—a suggestion that acquires force from the present acquiescence of a great, but as yet unnumbered, body of the people in the theory that the word 'consecutive' should be inserted in this clause of our unwritten Constitution.

We come now to matters connected directly with the presidential canvass; and they may be considered in something like chronological order. It is needless to say that the following remarks do not fit in with anything that has taken place, or is likely to take place, in the present extraordinary canvass, in which conditions are absolutely as chaotic as they are unprecedented. But they are applicable to most of the presidential contests since the Civil War.

We are, let us say, at the beginning of the canvass, before the national conventions have been held. Politicians and political editors are studying tables of electoral votes and estimating results,—guessing how this State and that will cast its vote.

On both sides a start is made by conceding the 'solid South' to the Democrats, not without a reservation on the part of the Republicans that they have a chance to win some votes in that part of the country. But in fact the South has not been 'solid' since 1892. Five of the Southern States have already broken away, partially or wholly, from their traditional attachment to the Democratic party. Delaware and West Virginia have at the last four quadrennial elections given their electoral votes to the Republican candidates. Maryland did so in 1896, and cast a divided vote in 1904 and 1908. Kentucky was carried by the Republicans in 1896; Missouri, in 1904 and 1908. These are what used to be known 'before the War' as border states, but they did also once form a part of that South which was solid to a degree.

The North has usually been quite as solid as the South, but the circumstances which have brought about solidarity in the one region and the other are altogether different. The South has maintained a defensive attitude against a policy toward the relics of its former 'domestic institution' which it has fancied the dominant party of the North to be ready at any moment to launch against it; whereas, in truth, as every man in the North, whatever his politics, knows, that party has not for thirty years had the courage to undertake such a policy, however strong its inclination to do so may have been. So the South has been needlessly in an attitude of apprehensive defense, when it might have made itself more secure by an alliance with the timid enemy. The North, on the other hand, has been united because a majority of the people have favored a domestic policy which had no reference to a North or South, and which is as advantageous or as disadvantageous to the one region as to the other.

It is, unquestionably, the wish of every man who takes a statesmanlike and patriotic view, that no groups of States should be solid, but that the citizens of any State should approach national questions in a national spirit, differing in opinion as they must, but seeking to promote the general welfare, and fearing no assaults upon their own local interests, because convinced that their political opponents are as patriotic as themselves.

The first incident of the canvass which sets men thinking and revising their election forecast is the State election in Vermont. Before it takes place the politicians on both sides manifest an eager interest in the result. If the Republican majority should fall below a certain number of thousands the Democrats expect a victory for their party in November. A normal majority—so the Republicans assure themselves—foretells their own triumph.

After the election one party exults over the result as an infallible forecast of what is to occur in November; the other speaks contemptuously of 'the Vermont superstition,' and declares there is nothing in it. Yet the result is in almost all cases a sure prognostication of what is to happen, as is the result in Maine shortly afterward; and it is not a superstition. On the contrary, it is founded upon a philosophical principle that cannot be successfully disputed. Mr. Bryan was as surely defeated in 1896, when Vermont gave Grout thirty-eight thousand majority, as he was when the polls closed in November. In order to maintain this proposition it is not necessary to suppose that a single voter anywhere in the country changed his political intention as a consequence of the Vermont election, or that any man, previously undecided, determined to 'jump on the band-wagon.' The real reason is that men in Indiana, in Idaho, and in Vermont, influenced by the same motives, and listening to the same arguments, act in the same way. Some of them, of course, are drawn in one direction, others in the opposite direction, according to what manner of men they are, and what original opinions and tendencies they represent.

Grant that Vermont is not, politically speaking, a typical American community, yet it does contain all sorts and conditions of men, although in different proportions from the distribution in many other communities. When, therefore, it appears that there has or has not been a perceptible political change, caused by a movement by one or more of the many classes of population from one party to the other, the country is supplied with a reasonably trustworthy view of the state of political sentiment in Indiana, Idaho, and elsewhere. Events, it is true, may occur between September and November that will affect and modify political action all over the country, and in Vermont as well; but they must be events, and not merely transitory waves of sentiment.

We frequently see in the newspapers, a few weeks before the election, statements by political correspondents that the prospects of this party or the other have improved or grown less promising during the week past, or that there is now a perceptible drift toward this candidate or that. Do readers ever stop to consider what this means, or whether there can possibly be any foundation for such statements? Does any one suppose that there is ever a considerable body of voters in any State who are undecided how they will vote, and who secede in a flock from their party one week, and return to it the next? Or if there were such a body, can any one suggest how the sapient correspondents ascertain the fact? It may not be an unjustifiable conjecture that the sole basis of such statements as we are considering is the state of mind, optimistic or the reverse, of the committee chairman or the local politician who communicates information as to the political situation to the newspaper interviewer. The chairman may have received a despondent letter from a county manager, and from it may conclude that the cause is in a bad way in that part of the State. Or he may have had a good night's rest and an excellent breakfast. His mood will determine the character of his outgivings. But, in reality, nothing has happened; or if it has, he does not know it.

It may be asked, if this be sound political reasoning, why the frantic campaigning and stump-speaking of the September and October preceding the election? If the race has been decided, why does one party not rest on its oars and the other give up and row back to the stake-boat? There is need that some old hand on the stump, who is also a good observer, should present to the country an analytical and philosophical study of the purpose and the result of campaign oratory. To the superficial outside observer, what should be, and ostensibly is, its main purpose,—the conversion of political opponents,—is seldom accomplished, even to a limited extent. How could one expect it to be? Unless the speaker is a man of great power and reputation, the audiences he attracts consist almost exclusively of voters who are already enlisted in his party and do not need to be convinced or converted. On the other hand, if he is a person of national prominence or noted for his eloquence, he has some, perhaps many, political opponents among his hearers. But they do not go to his meetings with open minds, but out of curiosity; and the views, principles, and intentions which they take to the meeting they carry away unchanged.

The most successful stumping tours in our political history, so far as the number addressed was concerned, and the most spectacular, were those of Mr. Blaine in 1884, and those of Mr. Bryan in his three campaigns. But the election returns at the close of the canvasses cannot be tortured, with the utmost mathematical ingenuity, into proving that by their eloquence an appreciable inroad was made in the ranks of their opponents. Moreover, if personal observation goes for anything, one might appeal to the common experience of every man with the question: Did you ever meet or know of a voter who was converted from one party to another by a stump speech?

Undoubtedly 'spell-binding' has its uses. If not, campaign committees would have found it out long ago and abandoned the practice, instead of organizing political meetings in every hamlet and providing as speakers a few stars and a multitude of third-rate men. The manufactured enthusiasm of those who attend the meetings probably has an influence in dissuading doubting and hesitating voters from deserting their party. It also certainly has the effect of bringing indifferent citizens to the polls on election day. It may be that experienced campaigners have been able to discover some other benefit, direct or indirect, of the system; but those just mentioned are the only ones that are obvious to the political student who is not in the inner circle of management.

The party that is at any time in the minority, and out of power, hopes for and predicts a 'landslide.' Now there is one test, heretofore infallible, to be applied to political opinion at any given time. A landslide, or a fairly stable condition of the political sentiment of the country, can be foretold with even more confidence than an inspection of the barometer gives us in respect of the weather. A political upheaval—to put it in paradoxical form—does not originate from below, but from above. It would be difficult to cite an important overturn in national politics which was not foreshadowed by an open revolt of party leaders, and led and managed by them. Small variations in close districts and states do take place without the preliminary symptom just mentioned; but we are speaking now of changes that may be described as revolutionary. The fact might be illustrated by numerous examples. Indeed, as is implied by the form of the statement above, every overturn furnishes an example. But it will be sufficient to mention a few of them.

The revolt against Jacksonism which resulted in the election of Harrison, in 1840, was forecast by the secession of such Democratic leaders as Tyler, and Hugh White, and Berrien, and Mangum. Cass was defeated, in 1848, by the defection of Van Buren and many other leaders. The election of Lincoln was preceded by a wholesale desertion to the new Republican party of a large group of senators and other prominent men. The movement which resulted in the defeat of Blaine was originated and engineered by life-long Republicans. The campaign of 1896 occurred but yesterday. It was characterized by two 'landslides,' one in the West led by Teller and other senators; the other in the East, where a host of leading Democrats set the example of revolt from the free-silver movement. Prior to the election of 1908 the Democrats predicted a landslide here, there, and everywhere. But there were no prominent men of the other party who were moved by principle to desert to the other side, none who scented a revolution which promised profit to those who should take part in it; and there was no landslide anywhere.

All these desultory and disconnected remarks refer to the period before the election. One or two important matters that arise out of the situation when the votes have been cast, remain to be considered.

On many occasions, after a presidential election had been held and the returns were in, curious or alarmist statisticians have put forth calculations showing that the change of a small number of votes in one state, or two or three states, would have given victory to the defeated candidates. If 2554 men in New York who voted for Polk, in 1844, had voted for Clay, Clay would have been elected. Or the same result might have been reached if 3167 Pennsylvania Democrats had shifted to Clay, and if there had been no Plaquemines Fraud. The case of Blaine, in 1884, is hardly in point, because, although a shift in New York of 575 votes—as they were counted—would have elected him, there is a strong probability at least that he did actually have a plurality of the votes honestly cast in that state. But in 1888, although Cleveland had a popular plurality of almost 100,000 he had only 168 electoral votes, whereas Harrison had 233. The vote of New York was: for Harrison, 650,338; for Cleveland, 635,965. Plurality for Harrison, 14,373. So, and this illustrates the method under consideration, if 7187 of the Harrison votes had been cast for Cleveland he would have had the thirty-six electoral votes of New York, which would have made his total 204, and left only 197 for Harrison.

That is all true; but there is included in all such calculations an assumption that such a change can take place in one state without being reflected by a corresponding change elsewhere. That is contrary to the principle that similar persons, acted upon by the same influences, act in the same way. In the case just cited it is proposed to consider the consequence of a bolt from the party candidates by more than one in a hundred of the Republican voters. In that case we should anticipate and should find a bolt of about one per cent of all the Republican voters in the country, and the net change in that case would have been not seven thousand, but many times that number, and Cleveland's plurality would have been more than doubled. The loser of a hand at whist sometimes tells what he would have done if he had only had another trump. But that change in his own hand would have altered all the hands.

Inasmuch as it would have required a transfer to Bryan of more than seventy-seven thousand Republican votes, carefully distributed in eight states, to reverse the result of the last election, we did not hear the old story that the minority party came near to success. But the statisticians have indulged themselves in a consideration—one can hardly call the comments of most of them a study—which it may be worth while to examine, although any subject which, like this, involves an arithmetical analysis of figures, is necessarily dry.

The point that is made by them is that the total vote in 1904 showed a remarkable decrease, as compared with that in 1900, and that the increase in 1908 over 1904 was by no means as large as the apparent increase of population would lead one to expect. The facts are accurately stated, but the suggestion that they are not capable of easy and simple explanation is not justified. The total vote of the country at the last three elections was as follows. [These are the figures of the New York Tribune Almanac].




The decrease in 1904 as compared with 1900 was 3.27 per cent; the increase in 1908 over 1904 was 10.16 per cent; and the increase in the eight years from 1900 to 1908 was 6.56 per cent. If then we do not go beyond these figures the point mentioned above is proved, for the increase in population during the eight years had undoubtedly been more than seven per cent. But it will not do to rest upon such a general statement, for that is to disregard wholly the remarkable aloofness of the Southern states from the party contests of the rest of the country. There are nine such states in which there is never the semblance of a canvass. Not to burden this article with too many figures it may be said that the largest vote given in these states at any one of the last three elections, that of 1900, represented by 37.3 per cent of the males of voting age, and only 60.4 per cent of the white males. There is absolutely no inducement for Democrats to go to the polls, and—if that were possible—less than none for the few Republicans who may be allowed to vote. In two other states where the conditions are slightly different,—North Carolina and Tennessee,—the result is so well-assured in advance that whatever political effort is made locally—for the national committees take no part in it—is needless on the part of the Democrats and futile on the part of the Republicans. We may say, then, that whether a light vote, or one comparatively lighter, is cast in these eleven states is purely a matter of accident, and wholly without significance. The total vote in the eleven Southern states at the last three elections was as follows:—




Comparing these figures with those for the whole country, we see that the decrease during the first four years was just above half a million, which was rather more than that in the country as a whole; and that the increase in the second period, 200,000, compared with 1,362,000, in the whole country.

There are five 'border states,' Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri, where the contest is as strenuous as it is anywhere in the United States. Here are their total votes:—




The lowest total vote of the three represents 86.9 per cent of the males of voting age in those States, and 78.4 per cent of the white males.

There remain twenty-nine northern states, and Oklahoma, which must be excluded from a comparison of totals as it did not participate in a presidential canvass until 1904. The total vote in these states was:—




A slight increase of a little more than one per cent in the first period, followed by an increase of a little more than seven per cent in the second period, and an increase for the eight years of 8.54 per cent, which is quite as large as the increase of the voting population, if we bear in mind the fact that a large part of the increase of the total population in recent years has been made by immigrants who do not always come to stay, and who do not always become citizens if they do stay.

Statistical calculations of this sort are necessarily dry; but those who have followed the foregoing analysis will perceive that little is left of the point which we set out to examine. That little is the fact that in the Northern States the total vote did not increase in 1904, as compared with 1900, so much as the natural rate of increase of the voting population would lead one to expect. But the fact involves no mystery for those who observed and remember the characteristics of the last three presidential canvasses. Although the statement involves what every one knows, or ought to know, it may be put briefly and broadly.

The canvass of 1896 was characterized, as has been already remarked, by two distinct movements: Republicans by the thousand going over to the Democrats, Democrats revolting against the party platform and candidates. Almost all the Northern States west of the Missouri River gave their electoral votes to Bryan; every Northern State east of that river voted for McKinley, generally by very large majorities. In 1900 the situation was more nearly normal. There was a great decrease of the Bryan vote in the Far West, a considerable increase in the Eastern States; but the vote for Mr. Bryan was still in a marked degree a vote of radicals, who had full control of the party and dictated candidates and policies.

This brings us to the canvass of 1904, and to the explanation of the comparatively light vote of that year. A variety of influences affected the result. There was, first, the exceeding popularity of Mr. Roosevelt; secondly, the voluntary or enforced effacement of the radical element of the Democratic party; thirdly, the absence of any 'paramount' issue. They all tended in one direction. They produced an enormous increase of the Republican vote—more than 400,000. A vast number of radical Democrats manifested their displeasure at the change in the tone of their party, by either voting for Mr. Roosevelt or neglecting to vote at all, and the returns showed a loss of more than a million and a quarter Democratic votes.

It is, of course, impossible to estimate the extent of the defection, or to guess how many 'bolted' the ticket, and how many failed to vote. But we see the resultant of all the forces, and it is precisely that which coincides with the observation of every man whose eyes and ears were open in 1904. The canvass of 1908 saw the radicals again in control of the Democratic party, and it saw also a much more kindly and tolerant spirit toward Mr. Bryan on the part of conservative members of the party. Moreover, there were local contests in such states as New York, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and others over the governorship, with an advantage in every case on the Democratic side. This led to a spirited contest, an enlarged vote, and a sympathetic increase of the strength of the Democratic electoral ticket. General result: a slightly larger Republican total than ever before, caused by an increase of moderate amount in the Far West and a decrease in some states of the East and the Middle West; a large increase of the Democratic vote in the states where the governorship contests were fierce; [see endnote] and a general total larger than ever.

Artemus Ward, in his famous lecture on the Mormons, used to tell his London hearers that the greatest British artists came by night, bringing lanterns, to see his pictures; and that when they saw them they said they never saw anything like them before—and hoped they never should again. Most of us would like to employ language something like that to express our opinion of the current presidential canvass. Certainly we never saw or heard of one in the slightest degree resembling it.

In the words of the sporting editor all records have been broken, and we may almost say that all the traditions and conventions of political campaigns and of political conduct have been affronted, if not violated. That being the case, it is somewhat late to consider whether the superstitions and traditions of a hundred or more years are to stand, in the result in November. All we can do is, to use the phrase that has become current in British politics: 'Wait and see.'

[Endnote: In the four states of New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana, the Republican majority was 830,000 in 1904, and only 462,000 in 1908. Of the 368,000 loss, 329,000 represented an increase of the Democratic vote, which was, nevertheless, 7,000 less than in 1900.]

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