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11. Grover Cleveland (1884)

Grover Cleveland
Library of Congress

  • Percentage of popular vote: 48.5%
  • Popular vote: 4,911,017
  • Electoral vote: 219

Grover Cleveland managed to survive a scandal after fathering a child out of wedlock — his political opponent had serious scandals of his own — and managed to seize the presidency by a tiny margin. In doing so, he became the first Democratic president in 28 years.

The fractured Republican party had split into three warring factions at the time but agreed to nominate James G. Blaine. His campaign suffered after a reverend made anti-Catholic remarks at a pro-Blaine rally, dubbing the Democrats the party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion.”

Blaine took 4,848,334 popular votes and 182 from the Electoral College — close, but not enough to beat Cleveland’s 4,911,017 and 219.

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10. George W. Bush (2000)

George W. Bush
The U.S. National Archives

  • Percentage of popular vote: 47.9%
  • Popular vote: 50,465,062
  • Electoral vote: 271

This fiercely contested election at the turn of the millennium was as close as it gets. Democratic candidate Al Gore initially conceded on election night but retracted his concession when he realized how close the Florida votes were.

Weeks of legal battles followed the recount until Gore conceded a second time, leaving George W. Bush (the son of former president George H.W. Bush) the winner.

Gore took the popular vote with 50,996,582 supporters but lost the Electoral College with 266 votes — five less than Bush. Ralph Nader of the Green Party captured less than 3% of the popular vote.

9. Benjamin Harrison (1888)

Benjamin Harrison
Samuele Wikipediano 1348 / Wikimedia Commons

  • Percentage of popular vote: 47.8%
  • Popular vote: 5,444,337
  • Electoral vote: 233

Republican Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of 9th president William Henry Harrison, defeated Grover Cleveland’s bid for re-election despite losing the popular vote.

Harrison’s Civil War record ensured he would be popular with veterans. Cleveland did convince more voters to support him — 5,540,050 in total — but in the end Harrison beat the former president in the Electoral College by a commanding 65 votes. Cleveland even lost his home state of New York.

However, Cleveland got his revenge in the 1892 election, beating Harrison in his second run, making him the only U.S. president in history to serve two nonconsecutive terms.

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8. Zachary Taylor (1848)

Zachary Taylor
Samuele Wikipediano 1348 / Wikimedia Commons

  • Percentage of popular vote: 47.3%
  • Popular vote: 1,360,099
  • Electoral vote: 163

Whig nominee and war hero Zachary Taylor won the 1848 race by a nose, but his first term in office would be cut short by a fatal stomach disease in 1850.

The Whigs knew Taylor’s success in the Mexican-American War gave him broad support, even if it wasn’t clear how committed he was to the party’s policies. Michigan senator Lewis Cass ran for the Democrats, and former president Martin Van Buren represented the short-lived Free Soil Party, which opposed the expansion of slavery.

Cass received 1,220,544 popular votes and 127 electoral votes, and Van Buren drew 291,263 popular votes but no electoral votes.

7. Donald Trump (2016)

Donald Trump
Gage Skidmore / Flickr

  • Percentage of popular vote: 46.4%
  • Popular vote: 62,984,825
  • Electoral vote: 306

Despite losing the popular vote to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, billionaire TV personality and real estate tycoon Donald Trump won the presidency by 74 electoral votes.

Clinton, a former First Lady, New York Senator and Secretary of State, made history as the first female nominee by a major U.S. political party. She pulled only 232 votes from the Electoral College but drew 65,853,516 popular votes.

In her book, simply titled What Happened, Clinton says she failed to stir voters’ emotions, even if her policy solutions were sound. She admits that even she couldn’t take her eyes off her outlandish and entertaining opponent.

6. James Buchanan (1856)

James Buchanan
Matthew Brady / Samuele Wikipediano 1348 / Wikimedia Commons

  • Percentage of popular vote: 45.3%
  • Popular vote: 1,838,169
  • Electoral vote: 174

James Buchanan is often ranked one of the worst presidents of all time for failing to address the intensifying conflict over slavery. The Civil War broke out months after his term ended.

His Democratic party had supported the contentious Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed the residents of new territories to decide their stance on slavery.

Millard Fillmore, who had assumed the presidency back in 1850 after Zachary Taylor’s death, headed the American Party — a former secret society commonly called the Know Nothings. Explorer and military man John C. Frémont ran for the Republicans.

The Republican Party won 1,335,264 popular votes and 114 electoral votes, and the American Party received 874,534 popular votes and eight electoral votes.

5. Richard Nixon (1968)

Richard Milhous Nixon
Library of Congress

  • Percentage of popular vote: 43.4%
  • Popular vote: 31,710,470
  • Electoral vote: 302

Richard Nixon lost his first run at the presidency to JFK in 1960 but scraped by with his second attempt. He ended up beating Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey by a third of the electoral vote, but his margin of victory in the popular vote was razor thin.

Robert F. Kennedy, nephew of JFK, was initially poised to head the Democratic party, but he was assassinated just after winning the California primary.

Humphrey, who served as vice president under Lyndon B. Johnson, earned 30,898,055 popular votes and 191 electoral votes. George Wallace, a segregationist and former Alabama governor who ran for the American Independent Party, siphoned off 9,466,167 popular votes and 46 electoral votes.

4. Bill Clinton (1992)

Bill Clinton
Gage Skidmore / Flickr

  • Percentage of popular vote: 43.0%
  • Popular vote: 44,908,254
  • Electoral vote: 370

George Bush Sr. lost his 1992 re-election bid to Bill Clinton, a former Arkansas governor and attorney general.

Although Bush’s approval rating soared to almost 90% the year before thanks to his success during the first Gulf War, it quickly and steadily dropped off due to an economic recession. Bush managed only 39,102,343 popular votes and 168 electoral votes.

Billionaire business magnate Ross Perot also ran that year, representing the Reform Party, and drew almost 19% of the popular vote — making him the most successful third-party candidate since Roosevelt in 1912.

3. Woodrow Wilson (1912)

Woodrow Wilson
The U.S. National Archives

  • Percentage of popular vote: 41.8%
  • Popular vote: 6,293,120
  • Electoral vote: 435

The 1912 election saw two former presidents — Theodore Roosevelt and incumbent William Howard Taft — lose to a newcomer. It was Democrat Woodrow Wilson who would lead the nation into World War I.

Taft ran for the Republican Party again, while Roosevelt ran as a Progressive after failing to secure the Republican nomination. Eugene V. Debs represented the Socialists.

Roosevelt received 4,119,582 popular votes, Taft earned 3,485,082 and Debs mustered close to 900,000. The Republican split ensured Wilson’s victory; in the electoral college, Roosevelt and Taft received only 88 and 8 votes respectively, compared to Wilson’s crushing 435.

2. Abraham Lincoln (1860)

Abraham Lincoln
Gardner, Alexander / Library of Congress / PICRYL

  • Percentage of popular vote: 39.8%
  • Popular vote: 1,766,452
  • Electoral vote: 180

Today, Abraham Lincoln is widely considered one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history — his face is on a mountain, after all — but he managed to garner less than 40% of the popular vote before his first term in office.

To be fair, Lincoln was also standing against three other candidates — Stephen Douglas and John C. Breckingridge, who were each nominated by separate Democrat groups, and John Bell, supported by the Constitutional Union Party.

The lanky Lincoln — an impressive wrestler, by all accounts — pinned down the Electoral College and the popular vote with 1,766,452 votes against Douglas’ 1,376,957, Breckinridge’s 849,781 and Bell’s 588,879.

1. John Quincy Adams (1824)

John Quincy Adams
George Peter Alexander Healy / Wikimedia Commons

  • Percentage of popular vote: 31.6%
  • Popular vote: 114,023
  • Electoral vote: 84

The 1824 election was the first time the popular vote was reliably recorded and made a significant impact — though it didn’t actually end up deciding the election. The union now had 18 states in which the people appointed their electors and six in which the state legislature made the call.

With three other opponents, John Quincy Adams of the Whig Party managed a little over 31% of the popular vote. However, Democratic-Republican Andrew Jackson, who would later win the 1828 presidential election, received 42.3% of the popular vote — more than Adams.

But since none of the candidates won a majority in the Electoral College, the decision fell to the House of Representatives, which chose Adams.

That’s it for the narrowest wins in the White House. Up next are the presidents who obliterated their opponents, including a few surprising faces who became incredibly unpopular by the time they left office.

11. Dwight Eisenhower (1956)

Dwight David Eisenhower
The U.S. National Archives

  • Percentage of popular vote: 57.4%
  • Popular vote: 34,227,096
  • Electoral vote: 303

Undaunted by a heart attack and abdominal surgery during his first term as president, Dwight Eisenhower won his second term in 1956. He defeated Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson for a second time in a row, capturing even more of the popular vote.

Voters, as it turned out, still liked “Ike.” Eisenhower’s military leadership as a general during World War II and the subsequent economic boom ensured a second stay in the White House.

Stevenson, who previously served as governor of Illinois, took 26,022,752 votes and 73 from the Electoral College.

10. Herbert Hoover (1928)

Herbert Clark Hoover
Library of Congress

  • Percentage of popular vote: 58.2%
  • Popular vote: 21,392,190
  • Electoral vote: 444

Herbert Hoover won public support as “The Great Humanitarian” when he helped feed war-torn Europe as head of the Food Administration during and after the First World War. The Republican won the 1928 election by a huge margin.

Hoover was a strong proponent of Prohibition, while the Democrat nominee Alfred E. Smith was a Catholic who favored repeal. No Catholic had ever been elected president before — it would take more than 30 years before John F. Kennedy became the first.

Hoover beat Smith 444-to-87 in the Electoral College and 21,392,190-to-15,016,443 for the popular vote. However, his popularity would crumble completely in the Great Depression to come.

9. Ronald Reagan (1984)

Ronald Reagan
Marion Doss / Flickr

  • Percentage of popular vote: 58.8%
  • Popular vote: 54,455,074
  • Electoral vote: 525

Former Hollywood star Ronald Reagan bulldozed his way to a second term with almost 60% of the popular vote. At 73, he was the oldest person ever elected president until 77-year-old Joe Biden.

Reagan trounced Democratic nominee Walter Mondale 525-to-13 for the electoral vote, losing only the state of Minnesota and Washington, D.C. Mondale collected only 37,577,185 popular votes — around 17 million less than what Reagan garnered.

Mondale’s running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, did make history as the first woman on a major party’s presidential ticket. Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, stood for the following election in 1988 and won.

8. Warren G. Harding (1920)

President Elect Warren Harding arriving at Union Station, Washington, D.C. March 3, 1921. He was inaugurated as 29th President of the U.S. on the following day.
Everett Collection / Shutterstock

  • Percentage of popular vote: 60.3%
  • Popular vote: 16,152,200
  • Electoral vote: 404

Republican leader Warren G. Harding stomped Democrat James M. Cox in 1920, though he didn’t get to complete his victory lap. His time in office ended abruptly upon his death from a heart attack in 1923.

Cox, the governor of Ohio, received 9,147,353 popular votes and 127 electoral votes. His running mate was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would go on to win the 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944 presidential elections.

The Socialist Party nominated familiar face Eugene V. Debs. It was his fifth campaign, and he received more than 900,000 votes despite being in prison at the time for urging resistance to the draft during World War I.

7. Richard Nixon (1972)

Richard Nixon
Nancy Wong / Wikimedia Commons

  • Percentage of popular vote: 60.7%
  • Popular vote: 47,169,911
  • Electoral vote: 520

In a complete reversal of his close shave in 1968, the 1972 election was almost a clean sweep for Richard Nixon. His first term in office was marked by economic growth and low unemployment, and he promised to end the draft for the Vietnam War.

His Democratic opponent, George McGovern, managed just 29,170,383 popular votes and 17 from the Electoral College, which came from Massachusetts only. McGovern’s campaign suffered after it was revealed that his initial running mate, Thomas Eagleton, had undergone psychiatric electroshock therapy for depression.

While he received a strong mandate, Nixon’s second term as president would be cut short by the Watergate scandal two years in.

6. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1936 & 1932)

The U.S. National Archives

  • Percentage of popular vote: 60.8% in 1936; 57.4% in 1932
  • Popular vote: 27,751,612 in 1936; 22,809,638 in 1932
  • Electoral vote: 523 in 1936; 472 in 1932

Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was the only president to serve more than two terms in the White House — he served four. His 1932 and ’36 victories were both landslides.

In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, FDR flattened deeply unpopular incumbent Herbert Hoover. People blamed Hoover for their poverty as they slept beneath “Hoover blankets” — that is, newspapers — inside “Hooverville” shanty towns. The Republican won only 15,758,901 popular votes and 59 electoral votes.

Yet FDR’s biggest victory was in 1936, as elements of his New Deal — including Social Security and unemployment benefits — were starting to work. Alfred M. Landon won just 16,681,913 popular votes and eight from the Electoral College.

Congress placed a two-term limit on the presidency after FDR’s death.

5. Lyndon B. Johnson (1964)

Lyndon Baines Johnson
The U.S. National Archives

  • Percentage of popular vote: 61.1%
  • Popular vote: 43,128,958
  • Electoral vote: 486

Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the presidency after JFK’s assassination in 1963 but a year later proved he could definitely hold his own in an election. Like his predecessor, Johnson pushed for a new health care bill, and in 1965 he signed Medicare and Medicaid into law.

Republican Barry Goldwater took only 27,176,873 popular votes and 52 from the Electoral College.

Goldwater had voted against the Civil Rights Act and pushed for military action against North Vietnam, while Johnson seemed, at least, to oppose interference. Four months after his election, however, Johnson sent troops over to Vietnam.

4. James Madison (1808 & 1812)

James Madison
W Kennedy / Wikimedia Commons

  • Percentage of electoral vote: 69.7% in 1808; 59.0% in 1812
  • Electoral vote: 122 in 1808; 128 in 1812

James Madison, who helped found the Democratic-Republican Party with Thomas Jefferson in 1792, won both the 1808 and 1812 elections by a wide margin.

Jefferson’s popularity gave Madison a big boost, and in 1808, the Federalist Party’s Charles C. Pinckney received just 47 electoral votes.

The Federalists fared slightly better in 1812, as new leader DeWitt Clinton collected 89 votes. Unfortunately for Clinton, many of his personal supporters were warhawks eager to continue the War of 1812, while his actual party was almost entirely opposed. He ended up on the fence, adopting a pro-war stance in some parts of the country and an anti-war stance in others.

3. Thomas Jefferson (1804)

Thomas Jefferson
W Kennedy / Wikimedia Commons

  • Percentage of electoral vote: 92.0%
  • Electoral vote: 162

Founding Father Thomas Jefferson coasted to re-election in 1804 against two-time runner-up Charles C. Pinckney.

During Jefferson’s first term in office, he had greatly expanded the country with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, reduced federal spending and repealed the whiskey tax. The tax was so unpopular that it had led to violent rebellion against the fledgling government.

Unlike his narrow win in 1800 against predecessor John Adams and unsuccessful presidential run in 1796, this time the staunch anti-Federalist bowled over his opponent with 162 electoral votes to 14 and carried the vote in every state except for Connecticut and Delaware.

2. James Monroe (1820 & 1816)

James Monroe
Billy Hathorn / Wikimedia Commons

  • Percentage of electoral vote: 99.6% in 1820; 84.3% in 1816
  • Electoral vote: 231 in 1820; 183 in 1816

Fifth U.S. president and Founding Father James Monroe was backed by predecessor James Madison during his first election and met with little opposition in his second run.

In 1816, Monroe won a narrow victory over Secretary of War William Crawford for leadership of the Republican Party — but crushed Federalist leader Rufus King in the actual election. King received only 34 electoral votes.

Monroe’s second bid for presidency won him almost 100% of the electoral vote — a single one went to John Quincy Adams. It’s unclear whether sole dissident William Plumer was dissatisfied with Monroe or was highlighting his friend Adams as a potential presidential candidate.

1. George Washington (1789 & 1792)

George Washington
Edward Savage / National Gallery of Art / Wikimedia Commons

  • Percentage of electoral vote: 100% in 1789 and 1792
  • Electoral vote: 69 in 1789; 132 in 1792

The nation’s first president, who famously rejected the idea of trying to become king, nevertheless ran basically unopposed in both of his election years.

Before the Twelfth Amendment, each elector had two votes for president, with the runner-up becoming vice president. In the union’s first election, all 69 electors cast one vote for Washington and one vote for someone else. John Adams became the first vice president with 34 votes.

In the following election year, it was a unanimous win for Washington again, but this time with one vote from all 132 electors. Adams won the vice presidency again with 77 votes.


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About the Author

Serah Louis

Serah Louis


Serah Louis is a reporter with Moneywise.com. She enjoys tackling topical personal finance issues for young people and women and covering the latest in financial news.

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