Presidential Election: The candidate with the most votes doesn’t always win

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It’s the ultimate trivia question for election followers – which presidential candidate trounced his opponent by more than 500,000 votes yet lost the White House by court order?

Al Gore’s defeat to George W Bush in the 2000 race remains the most controversial in the 224-year history of presidential elections, and among the closest despite his sweeping majority in the national vote.

Mr Bush’s final margin of victory in Florida was deemed to be just 537 votes – enough to swing the state and its 25 Electoral College votes his way by 0.0092 per cent and ultimately tip the race in his favour.

But it needed a ruling by the US Supreme Court on 12 December, a month and five days after the chaotic election, to settle the issue. It was only the fourth time, and the first since 1888, in which a candidate had won the popular vote but lost the election.

It also introduced the world to a whole new election lexicon of butterfly ballots and hanging chads, the cardboard dots on punchcard ballot papers that should have been fully detached but which remained at least partially intact on many thousands of cards, leading to confusion over whether the votes should be counted or not.

The closest race, judged by Electoral College votes, was the 1876 contest in which Republican Rutherford Hayes beat rival Samuel Tilden 185-184.

After controversies earlier in the century, including the House of Representatives appointing a losing candidate, John Quincy Adams, to the White House in 1824, Congress rectified the Electoral College system of declaring a winner.

That system, still used today, allocates a numerical value to each state depending on its size, then awards that number of votes to the candidate who wins the state’s popular vote. The first candidate to reach a majority of Electoral College votes, which has remained at 270 since 1964, then becomes president.

More recent close races by popular vote include John F Kennedy’s 1960 defeat of Richard Nixon by 0.2 per cent and Mr Bush’s victory over John Kerry in 2004 by 2.4 per cent in an election.

There was nothing close about the 1948 election, in the minds of editors of the Chicago Tribune at least, when the newspaper’s post-election edition declared “Dewey defeats Truman” in large type on the front page. However, in the greatest upset in presidential election history, Truman, the Democratic incumbent, actually beat his challenger by more than two million popular votes and by 114 in the Electoral College, prompting newspapers to become much more cautious in calling future elections..