You know, in our history of electing presidents, we’ve had some narrow wins. In some cases, if a very few people had voted another way, the results would have been entirely different.
I was asked which margin was narrowest in our entire history of electing presidents. As best as I can tell, here’s the answer.
Now, bear in mind: This is one of those questions with half a dozen different correct answers, depending on how you think about the question.
In recent history, Bush v. Gore was settled based on a very few ballots in Florida; it came down to a certified difference of 537 votes. If 270 people had voted the other way, Gore would have been elected.
But that’s the simple answer. Split a few hairs and it gets complex.
We’ll start by assuming only American presidents, since that’s pretty clear in the question. But to be fair, we ought to consider: How early do we go? Does the president of the Continental Congress in 1774 count? Because Peyton Randolph was elected with only 52 people voting.
Let’s disqualify him and consider that the country didn’t actually start until after the Revolution. Under the Articles of Confederation, Samuel Johnson was elected first, though he declined; after him was Thomas McKean. But this was before the surrender at Yorktown, so properly the first would have been John Hanson of Maryland, who was elected unanimously by a smaller Congress than at any time in the future. So that’s a far narrower margin in terms of individuals than Bush v. Gore even though nobody voted against him.
(See? Splitting hairs. That’s what we get for being imprecise.)
Six others followed Hanson before the Constitution came into effect; some of these were contested, but overall it wasn’t a job many wanted. And I’m going to ignore them all and focus on the Constitutional presidents.
In 1788, George Washington was elected by unanimous vote of the 69 electors in our first modern quadrennial election. Again, that’s not many people — but we can’t really call the electors the decision-makers; two states had rough popular votes, and most of the rest at least voted with their legislatures. So overall, that’s a pretty big margin of victory.
In 1796, Adams was elected in a very narrow victory over Jefferson. He received a bare majority by a single vote in the Electoral College. Counting by popular vote only, the margin in Pennsylvania was 121 people — but in favor of Jefferson. Largely because of this, one Pennsylvania elector voted instead for Adams. One person, mind you; and he did it mostly on his own initiative. But if you discount this and focus on the popular vote, the margin in Maryland was a mere 549 votes in favor of Adams. It’s more than in Bush v. Gore, but not by much.
Still, there’s a far narrower election in our history; it’s a presidential race where nobody won. In 1824, there was no majority victor in the Electoral College; the House of Representatives had to hold a contingent election. 24 votes were cast; John Quincy Adams won in a three-cornered race, 13–7–4, with a bare majority of one.
It’s a bit more complicated, though. That’s votes by state, not by person. But the narrowest state margin in Congress was Louisiana, which followed its state legislature’s narrowly split decision and went 2 votes to 1 for John Q. Had that person voted instead for Jackson, the House would have been unable to choose, and the Presidency would have devolved onto the Vice President, John C. Calhoun.
That’s one person’s vote that made the entire difference.
Remarkable, isn’t it? That’s the reason I took you down this rabbit-hole. I hope you enjoyed the trip. :o)