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."

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.]

Presented by

How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin


Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.


How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.


A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple


What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In