Landslide: The Top 5 Most Lopsided U.S. Presidential Elections Since World War II
Many presidential elections are close, competitive contests. However, some are extremely lopsided. In election years like these, the presidential campaign becomes an afterthought, as the inevitability of the winning candidate cannot be denied.
There are several possible reasons for a landslide election. One is a popular incumbent. Four of the five elections on this list were won by the incumbent president. Another is when a candidate is perceived as being too extreme or dangerous to be president. In this situation, voters are frightened into voting for the opposing candidate, if only by default. Fatal mistakes committed by a candidate – for example verbal gaffes, scandals, or risky strategic gambles - can also doom campaigns to oblivion.
When all of these elements combine together in the same election, a landslide of epic proportions can occur. Here is a countdown of the top five most lopsided U.S. presidential contests since World War II, based on their Electoral College margins.
5. 1956: Eisenhower 457, Stevenson 53
President Eisenhower cruised to a re-election victory in a rematch with former Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, who had been his opponent in the 1952 race. Eisenhower had ended the unpopular Korean War and the nation was experiencing solid economic growth. It didn’t hurt that Eisenhower was a World War II hero and an iconic figure to many Americans.
The main obstacle to Eisenhower’s re-election was concerns over his age and health. The president was 66 and had suffered a heart attack during his first term. However, Stevenson was unable to make significant headway with voters on this issue. Most did not see a valid reason to deny Eisenhower a second term.
On Election Day, Eisenhower emerged victorious in 41 states. He won over 57% of the popular vote.
4. 1964: Lyndon Johnson 486, Barry Goldwater 52
President Lyndon Johnson was still basking in the afterglow of John F Kennedy’s popularity. The Republicans held a stormy nominating convention that was characterized by bickering between the moderate and conservative factions of the party. The hardcore conservatives eventually won, selecting Arizona senator Barry Goldwater as their nominee.
Like many politicians, Goldwater had an unfortunate propensity for making off the cuff remarks. He infamously quipped that the U.S. should lob a nuclear bomb at the men’s room in the Kremlin. He also made statements about using nuclear weapons in Vietnam and making social security voluntary. Most Americans saw him as too right-wing to be president. They feared that he was a dangerous extremist who would start a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
The Johnson campaign brilliantly exploited this fear with their famous “Daisy” ad. It featured a little girl plucking flower petals. A countdown is heard, followed by a nuclear explosion. The ad ended with a solemn narrator saying, "Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you stay home." This was included because the Johnson campaign was worried that complacency among their supporters would lead to a low turnout.
Americans’ fears propelled the president to a lopsided win. Johnson won 44 states, including several that have not been won by a Democratic presidential candidate since - Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming. Goldwater won his home state of Arizona and a handful of southern states.
3. Reagan 489, Carter 49
Few incumbent presidents have been as politically vulnerable as Jimmy Carter was in 1980. The president was unpopular due to a weak economy characterized by high inflation and soaring interest rates. He was also receiving severe criticism because of the Iran hostage crisis. In the primaries, Carter had to survive a primary challenge from Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy. The president finally prevailed, but there was still profound dissatisfaction within many factions of the Democratic Party. In the general election, Carter attempted the strategy that had worked for Johnson in ’64, portraying his opponent as a dangerous right-winger.
The Republicans nominated California governor Ronald Reagan as their nominee. Reagan mocked Carter’s policies and had several memorable quips at their presidential debates. His skills as an orator and natural charisma helped him win over voters.
Carter’s extreme unpopularity led to the most lopsided defeat of an incumbent president since William Howard Taft in 1912. Reagan won 44 states.
2. 1972: Richard Nixon 520, George McGovern 17
Richard Nixon was running for re-election against a divided Democratic Party. Senator George McGovern of South Dakota had been nominated after a long and chaotic convention. He ran a left-wing campaign that most Americans felt was too extreme. McGovern was further weakened when it was revealed that his running mate, Thomas Eagleton, had undergone electro-shock therapy. McGovern dropped him from the ticket, enhancing his campaign’s reputation for ineptitude.
Nixon was able to capitalize on robust economic growth, improved relations with China and the Soviet Union, and perceived progress with the Vietnam War to win a lopsided re-election victory. He was able to shrug off the beginnings of the Watergate scandal that eventually destroyed his presidency.
The combination of Nixon’s popularity and McGovern’s struggles led to an unprecedented landslide. McGovern won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Nixon captured 49 states and over sixty percent of the popular vote.
Ironically, Nixon could have easily won the election without any dirty tricks. The Watergate break-in was not only devastating to his presidency, but totally unnecessary as well.
1. 1984: Ronald Reagan 525, Walter Mondale 13
Ronald Reagan had suffered several setbacks during his first term, but by 1984 he was riding high. An economic revival had begun. The high inflation and interest rates that bedeviled Americans in the ‘70s had declined. It was the perfect storm of factors for an incumbent.
Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s former Vice President, was the Democratic nominee. Mondale made two risky gambles that backfired. He made history by nominating a woman, Geraldine Ferraro of New York, as his running mate. Mondale also announced that he would raise taxes if he was elected president, but claimed that Reagan would be forced to do the same. Mondale trailed Reagan by double digits in the polls, but appeared to make some headway in the first presidential debate. Reagan performed poorly, seeming old and confused. This led to concerns about his age and whether he would be able to serve a second term. However, Reagan bounced back in the second debate, famously quipping that he would not make Mondale’s “youth and inexperience” an issue in the campaign. The remark effectively dispelled worries about Reagan’s age and slammed the door on any chance Mondale had to be competitive.
Reagan captured 49 states on Election Day, narrowly losing Mondale’s home state of Minnesota. Mondale also won the District of Columbia. Reagan’s 512 vote margin in the Electoral College is the largest in history. He won nearly 58% of the popular vote.
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