I’m not a historian, and I don’t know one well enough to ask, but it seems like the illegitimate president is a modern trend. Even if we’ve had one or two before, my guess is that we haven’t had three, could be four, in a row. What do I mean by an illegitimate president? A president who a large swath of Americans reject as the legitimate president because of one thing or another. Clinton, failed to get a majority of the vote. Bush, had a presidency that was decided by a Supreme Court case (which, in my non-legal expert opinion, was decided against the ideology of every single Justice on the bench). Obama’s citizenship, or fraudulent citizenship, made him illegitimate, and now, the election is rigged, so if Clinton wins, her presidency will have the illegitimate label also. Let’s look at each of these in a rational manner.
Clinton did, indeed, fail to obtain a majority of the votes in the election. He wasn’t the first in this position. Polk, Taylor, Buchanan, Lincoln, Garfield, Cleveland, Wilson, Truman, and Nixon were each elected with less than a majority of the votes, and won with a plurality. Wilson and Clinton are the only two, however, to experience this twice. Polk, a democrat, served one only term. He largely achieved his goals in his first term, and, as promised, declined to run for a second term. Taylor, in spite of being a key part of Polk’s administration (, having achieved his campaign promises, and keeping his promise to serve only one term. He was followed by Taylor, who was a key part of Polk’s military, but ran on the Whig ticket, against the democrat that the democratic party selected to follow Polk. Taylor was the second president, and the second in a row, to win with a plurality, instead of a majority. Buchanan ran in a three-way race and was elected without a majority, and did not run for reelection. He was followed by Lincoln, who won with only 39.8% of the vote, but was well above 50% in his reelection four years later. That achievement might not have been possible if the Confederate States were included in the election, but only two were under Union control during the election (and those votes weren’t counted anyway). Years later, Garfield won an amazingly close election, winning 48.27% of the votes over Hancock’s 48.25%. A dozen years after that Grover Cleveland won with 46.2% of the vote.
Then came Wilson who won a very divisive first election against a divided Republican Party. Wilson won with 41.8% of the votes. His reelection was a bit more normal, but the Socialist Party candidate received a bit over half a million votes, and Wilson was again elected without a majority, gaining 49.2% of the vote. Truman and Nixon would both fail to get a majority, and then Clinton would become the second president elected twice without a majority in either election.
As most of us remember, the Bush election was incredibly contentious. Al Gore ran an amazingly flawed campaign against a seemingly vulnerable Bush. I recall not being the only democrat pleased when Bush won the nomination over McCain, because I felt that McCain would be a far better candidate, and harder to beat. But Gore found a way to misstep over and over again, and voting issues in Florida brought the final decision into the hands of the Supreme Court. From my perspective, this was a very revealing moment for the Supreme Court. I’m not an expert here, and I would be very open to disagreement (and could be convinced otherwise) by those who are experts, but the case seemed to hinge on a states vs federal powers issue. Does the state control things, or does the will of the federal government win? This created a conflict, however, because siding with states rights would give the election to Gore, and the conservatives who tend to favor states rights clearly would want the republican to win. On the other side, those who would normally favor federal powers were more likely to want a Gore victory. In the end, the Justices all seemed to vote against their ideals with respect to states vs federal powers, and voted for the candidate we would expect them to side with. The 5-4 conservative majority sided with Bush, and made the decision that led to him winning the presidency. That stain would stay with him throughout his presidency, especially in his first term. Documentaries showing that Gore likely actually got more votes in Florida eroded confidence in the process, and gave fodder to those who viewed Bush’s presidency as a fraud. His reelection (with a majority of the vote) helped reduce that sentiment, but stories of rigged election machines and voting irregularities continued, albeit in smaller pockets.
Of course, most of us are familiar with the claims of Obama’s illegitimacy: claims that he was not born in the United States, but was instead born secretly in Kenya. Stories that his birth certificate was not the real form, which continued after the “real” form was released, but turned into stories of fraud. In spite of receiving almost 53% of the popular vote and winning the electoral vote county by 365-173, questions about his birthplace and citizenship would continue to allow some pockets to see him as a fraudulent president. These pockets did not seem to go away even after his reelection with 50.1% of the vote and a 332-206 margin in electoral votes.
And now we have the 2016 election. Within the Democratic Party, the contentious nomination fight and evidence of bias by the DNC has left many feeling that Clinton unfairly received the nomination. I will grant that there is clear evidence of bias by the DNC, and there are some horrible emails that have surfaced showing despicable tactics suggested that would help Clinton beat Sanders. It is less clear to me, however, that these efforts (many which were not executed, but just ideas) had any impact on the nomination process. In fact, it seems that any impact would have been on later contests, more so than on earlier contests. Looking at the numbers, however, this doesn’t seem to hold up. In fact, in the first 20 contests, Clinton’s vote totals were almost twice Sanders’s. That makes it seem like any efforts failed to hurt Sanders, regardless of how unfair they may have seemed. This idea of a rigged election, however, hasn’t died with the end of the primary season, but has been picked up by the Trump campaign. Although this is nothing new to politics…I imagine, as predicted by a good piece in Salon, that it will continue well into a Clinton (Hillary) presidency. That will not be much fun.