Etymology

Some writers blame the Democrats, and especially the Southern Democrats, for Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860. The split in the Democratic Party that summer is said to have opened the door for the new Republican Party. Because the divided Democrats could not agree on a candidate, this theory goes, the split in the party allowed Lincoln to capture the White House with a mere 39 percent of the popular vote.

This is provably false. Lincoln would have won even if all the non-Lincoln votes had gone to a single candidate. Yet the "divided Democrats" myth persists. So here's the math.

Lincoln got 180 electoral votes and 1,865,593 popular votes.

Breckenridge got 72 electoral votes and 848,356 popular votes.

Douglas got 12 electoral votes and 1,382,713 popular votes.

Bell got 39 electoral votes and 592,906 popular votes.

Even if you take all the Democratic electors into one pool, they only have 123 electoral votes. Lincoln still wins. But what about the popular vote? As Americans learned again in 2000, elections can hinge on the distribution of votes among the states, and a candidate can win without a majority of the popular vote, so long as he has majorities in key places. So the thing to do is look at the vote by states in 1860. Surely 39 percent of the popular vote couldn't have carried Lincoln into the White House.

Amazingly, it could at that moment in American history. Here is the breakdown of the vote in the 33 states that then comprised the Union. Slightly different numbers are given in different sources, but they do not vary by more than a dozen or so in most cases, and never by enough to change the outcomes:

STATEELECTORS LINCOLN DOUGLAS BRECKENRIDGE BELL ALABAMA9013,618 48,66927,875 ARKANSAS405,357 28,73220,063 CALIFORNIA4 38,73337,99933,9699,111 CONNECTICUT6 43,48815,43114,3721,528 DELAWARE33,8221,066 7,3393,888 FLORIDA30223 8,2774,801 GEORGIA10011,581 52,17642,960 ILLINOIS11 172,171160,2152,3314,914 INDIANA13 139,033115,50912,2955,306 IOWA4 70,30255,6391,0351,763 KENTUCKY121,36425,65153,143 66,058 LOUISIANA607,625 22,68120,204 MAINE8 62,81129,6936,3682,046 MARYLAND82,2945,966 42,48241,760 MASSACHUSETTS13 106,68434,3706,16322,331 MICHIGAN6 88,48165,057805415 MINNESOTA4 22,06911,92074850 MISSISSIPPI703,282 40,76825,045 MISSOURI917,028 58,80131,36258,372 NEW HAMPSHIRE5 37,51925,8872,125412 NEW JERSEY7*58,34662,86900 NEW YORK35 362,646312,51000 N. CAROLINA1002,737 48,84645,129 OHIO23 231,709187,42111,40612,194 OREGON3 5,3294,1365,075218 PENNSYLVANIA27 268,03016,765178,87112,776 RHODE ISLAND4 12,2447,70700 S. CAROLINA8**-------- TENNESSEE12011,28165,097 69,728 TEXAS4018 47,45415,383 VERMONT5 33,8088,6492181,969 VIRGINIA151,88716,19874,325 74,481 WISCONSIN5 86,11065,021887 161

*New Jersey's electoral votes were split, four for Lincoln, three for Douglas.

**South Carolina still did not hold popular votes for presidential electors. The state's electors backed Breckenridge.

It's interesting to compare the electoral votes from today and see the relative importance of certain states, especially the enormous importance of New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The seven deep south states had 47 electoral votes, but were outnumbered by Pennsylvania and Ohio alone. Vermont had more electors than Texas.

To make Lincoln lose this election, obviously, the states that have to shift columns are the ones where he got electoral votes. Assume all the non-Lincoln voters would vote for one candidate. In fact there was such a fusion ticket in New York, Rhode Island, and a few other Northern places. It wasn't enough.

In other states, a fusion was unlikely. In places like Baltimore, the Constitutional Union Party vote for Bell represented local interests, or die-hard Know-Nothingism which likely would have gone for Lincoln if it had no other option. But allow that every non-Lincoln vote in 1860 could have gone to a single candidate, to give the "divided Democrats" argument every advantage. Here's what you get:

STATEELECTORS LINCOLN non-LINCOLN CALIFORNIA438,733 81,079 CONNECTICUT6 43,48831,331 ILLINOIS11 172,171167,460 INDIANA13 139,033133,110 IOWA4 70,30258,437 MAINE8 62,81138,107 MASSACHUSETTS13 106,68462,864 MICHIGAN6 88,48166,277 MINNESOTA4 22,06912,718 NEW HAMPSHIRE5 37,51928,424 NEW JERSEY758,34662,869 NEW YORK35 362,646312,510 OHIO23 231,709211,021 OREGON35,329 9,429 PENNSYLVANIA27 268,030208,412 RHODE ISLAND4 12,2447,707 VERMONT5 33,80810,836 WISCONSIN5 86,11066,069

Only California's 4 electoral votes and Oregon's 3 switch into the Democrat category. Lincoln's margin of victory narrows, especially in states like Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. But he still wins in those places. The "fusion" vote in New Jersey is unchanged. The electors there still split 4-3.

Lincoln has 173 electoral votes; his imaginary opponent has 130.

The Republican party had pored over election returns for six years, and it knew what it had to do to win. It had a regional strategy to win the election by playing the electoral college numbers game. It did so splendidly. The South was cut out of the political equation. The divided Democratic Party was a non-issue.

It's not as though the split Democratic ticket discouraged voters. The voter turnout rate in 1860 was the second-highest on record (81.2 percent, after only 1876, with 81.8 percent).

Choosing Lincoln as the candidate was all part of the strategy -- as was keeping him quiet until after the election so that the carefully constructed Republican platform of 1860, with a plank for each interest group, stood as the real candidate. Seward was the most famous Republican, but Seward, no matter how he tempered his rhetoric, was seen as a radical. And the Republicans -- not just the party bosses, but the rank and file -- had been studying this one hard since 1856, and they knew how many votes they needed to swing in three crucial Northern border states that cared little for abolitionists.

Lincoln's great virtue in 1860 was that he had not been nationally prominent long enough to have powerful enemies or a real reputation. He could be the anti-slavery candidate in Massachusetts, and the tariff protection candidate in Pennsylvania, and the genial rail-splitter in places where neither issue aroused much heat.

He could appeal to the important Know-Nothing element in the patchwork Republican Party, which rejected Seward. Former Know-Nothings supported him. "We cannot elect extreme men," said one of them, Richard M. Corwine. "Moderation in their past life & present views, must mark them or we cannot elect them." Corwine was one of the lower North delegates who blocked Seward early in the convention and opened the door for Lincoln.

Politics are strange. Lincoln and Seward both opposed Nativism, but as historian Tyler Anbinder has shown (in "Nativism and Slavery"), the Republicans needed those Fillmore votes. The old Know-Nothings had a conservative tendency that rejected Seward out of hand. And Lincoln did reward them with patronage, Simon Cameron being a notorious example, though that was a double-dip patronage: it rewarded Pennsylvania as well.

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