As Far Back as Thomas Jefferson there have been presidential squeakers!

By Jay Zimmer

As we enter the last few weeks before the 2012 Presidential sweepstakes, the race between Governor Mitt Romney (R) and incumbent Barak Obama (D) has no clear front runner. Even though neither candidate has been officially nominated in convention (the GOP convention in Tampa is organizing as this article is written), the eighteen-month-long campaign has pitted two strong candidates neither of whom has been able to chalk up a significant advantage.

It’s not the first time, either.

America’s fourth presidential election, which pitted one-term incumbent John Adams against his vice-president, Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr, Adams received 65 electoral votes, and Jefferson and Burr 73 each. The tie threw the election to the House of Representatives for the first time and Jefferson came out the winner.

In 1888, incumbent president Grover Cleveland was defeated by Benjamin Harrison by one single electoral vote, yet Cleveland had won the popular balloting by a few hundred votes. Cleveland went on to be returned to office four years later, the only president whose two terms were not consecutive.

In more modern times – and in this reporter’s memory – the election of 1960 wasn’t decided until well into Wednesday. Early returns had favored Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy, but later, as Western states’ votes began to count, the lead swung to sitting Vice President Richard Nixon. The lead seesawed throughout the night and wasn’t decided – in Kennedy’s favor – until midday the day after the election. Kennedy would not finish his first term.

In 2000, George W. Bush defeated Vice President Al Gore by a paltry 5 electoral votes. It was the votes of a single state – Florida – which would be the deciding factor. A dispute over the votes from that state threw the election into the U.S. Supreme Court (not the House of Representatives: the Constitution calls for the House to decide the election only in the event of a tie) which decided for Bush.

So a paper-thin margin in a presidential contest isn’t without precedent. And they are not without advantages. Historically, tight presidential races tend to bring out voters who might otherwise have stayed home on election day. Tight races frequently result in more attention to the details of election issues leading to a more informed, more opinionated electorate, meaning a more carefully chosen chief executive.

The result in 2012? Finding out is going to be interesting.