I saw a mention of Nebraska splitting its 2008 electoral votes today, and I somehow remembered that Stephen Douglas “won” New Jersey’s 1860 popular vote yet he only got 3 of 7 electoral votes. I also realized that I didn’t have the faintest idea how or why this happened. After a little “googling” and a lot of time in the 19th Century New Times Times archives, I think I understand now, and I think you might find the story interesting.
Of course, Abraham Lincoln was the nominee of the Republican Party and ended up winning a majority of the 1860 electoral college despite not even being on the ballot in many southern states. The Democrats had split and supported multiple nominees. Their national convention in Charleston deadlocked and adjourned. The subsequent convention in Baltimore chose Stephen Douglas as the candidate, but only after southern delegates walked out. They met in Richmond and chose John Breckenridge as their candidate. John Bell ran as an independent “Constitutional Union” candidate.
Remember that then and now American voters are really choosing actual people to be an Elector rather than directly voting for President. (Think too of the election of delegates in the 200 Democratic Primaries.) Let’s look at the New Jersey election results as printed in the October 16, 1860 New York Times:
J.C. Hornblower..58,345 Wm. Cook………62,801
Andrew K. Hay…..58,315 Joel Parker……..62,387
Chas. E. Elmer….58,334 Theo. Runyon…..62,309
Edward W. Ivins..58,341 Peter D. Vroom…..58,210
Geo. H. Brown….58,335 Alexander Wurts…56,182
David Thompson…58,322 Edmund Brewer …57,801
Isaac W. Scudder..58,323 Silas Condit………57,553
I have bolded the seven winners. In those days, voters actually got to vote for seven names and ticket splitting was possible. It’s rather like our New Jersey county freeholder election today. But ticket splitting is NOT what was going on. After all, you can see that the Republicans vary by no more than 30 votes, so 99.95% of Republican voters supported all of their seven men. The Democrats, which are labeled “Fusion” here, have a big gap of four thousand votes (6%) between Cook/Parker/Runyan and the other four. That’s what gave four Republican electors the victory.
So here’s the story as I understand, warning you that there are three slightly different versions in the 19th century NYT. The short version goes over the break, a longer version below.
You might think of New Jersey as a “northern state” but many Democrats supported the “southern candidate” Breckinridge, and other supported the “border state candidate” Bell. Obviously if they split their vote three ways Lincoln would have won easily. Party bosses hit on the idea of a “fusion” ticket, in which electors from each camp would be included. In early July the party bosses recommended a slate of four Douglas names and three Breckinridge names, but were denounced by Douglas supporters. Many Douglas supporters held their own state convention on 25th July, but the “official” state convention made a deal for two Breckinridge, three Bell, and two Douglas names. This was still not accepted by many, but sometime in October 1860, the final fusion ticket was reached with three Douglas, two Brekinridge, and two Bell electors. Once those seven men won, they hoped, they’d unite in the electoral college to pick one of three over Lincoln, or at least throw the election to the House.
Douglas supporters, however, wanted to run their own ticket of seven Douglas men. For the ardent Douglas supporters, the other Democrats were “seceders” and “traitors”.
The key to what happened was that in those days no one saw a neutral, government-supplied ballot with every candidate’s name. No, parties would print up their own ballots — Republicans, say, would print a sheet with the seven names above — supply them to their voters. An really independent person, could, I suppose, just write whatever seven names they liked on a piece of paper, but as I said before, you can see over 99.9% of people voted this way.
Dissident Douglas supporters distributed ballots with only Douglas candidates on it. About five thousand of these ballots were used, leaving the Cook, Parker and Runyan getting votes from both the fusion ballots and the Douglas ballots, while other Douglas candidates got the votes that could have put the Breckinridge and Bell men into the electoral college. On the other hand, if those men had been on separate ballots, Douglas would certainly have gotten many fewer votes than the fusion ticket, and the united Republicans would have won all seven electoral vote without reaching 50%. It’s not quite fair to say “Douglas” won New Jersey’s popular vote because of this fusion ballot.
Next: Long discussion with details.