Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

If it's close, watch out

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 11:07 PM EST, Tue November 6, 2012
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, order food at a Wendy's restuarant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Tuesday.
HIDE CAPTION
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
From the campaign trail
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
101
102
103
104
105
106
107
108
109
110
111
112
113
114
115
116
117
118
119
120
121
122
123
124
125
126
127
128
129
130
131
132
133
134
135
136
137
138
139
140
141
142
143
144
145
146
147
148
149
150
151
152
153
154
155
156
157
158
159
160
161
162
163
164
165
166
167
168
169
170
171
172
173
174
175
176
177
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Close elections often produce challenges for presidents, says Julian Zelizer
  • JFK found most of his legislation stifled in congressional committees, Zelizer says
  • Jimmy Carter struggled to win support from his own party on many issues, he says
  • Zelizer: After 2004, George W. Bush saw most of his domestic legislative proposals languish

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of the new book "Governing America."

(CNN) -- Election night could be a long one. Many of the polls continue to show a tight race with the candidates remaining in a dead heat in the swing states. Whoever wins the election, it might not be by much.

Close elections have produced challenges for the victor once he starts his term in the White House. If voters don't provide a clear mandate, presidents often find that they have added challenges when dealing with Congress, as legislators have far less fear about the commander in chief.

In 1916, for example, President Woodrow Wilson won reelection against former Supreme Court Justice Charles Evan Hughes by 23 electoral votes and 3.1 percent of the popular vote. The victory, which depended on Wilson's assurances to keep the U.S. out of war, hardened the lines of partisan battle. Republicans returned to Washington angry about how he had used the potential for war against them, even as he ushered the nation into World War I soon after the election.

During the war, and especially during the fight over the peace treaty that followed, Wilson found little cooperation from Republicans who felt confident that they could take him on in the home front.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Opinion: Media's pointless speculation over election outcome

When Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy defeated Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960 by 84 electoral votes and only 0.2 percent of the popular vote, the conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans in Congress read the close outcome as evidence that the young senator did not have a popular mandate.

The fact that Democrats didn't enjoy any coattails from his victory even made liberals and moderates nervous about going out too far on a limb for the president. On domestic policy, Kennedy found most of his legislation stifled in congressional committees through the time of his assassination.

Follow the election on CNN
CNN is covering Election Day right now on CNN TV, CNN.com and via CNN's mobile apps. Check up-to-the-minute results at cnn.com/results and join our live blog at cnn.com/conversation. Need other reasons to spend Election Day with CNN? Here's our list.

Opinion: Both parties have a huge race problem

When former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter squeaked out victory against President Gerald Ford in 1976, the same pattern recurred. Though Carter had excited many Democrats during the primary by promising voters that they could trust him in the aftermath of Watergate, he won by only 2.1 percent of the popular vote and 57 electoral votes. The nation was "hopeful, sort of," quipped Time.

During his first two years, Carter struggled to win support from his own party on issues like energy conservation, while Republicans such as Ronald Reagan felt emboldened to take him on over issues such as tax cuts and foreign policy. From the moment he entered office, the fragility of his election victory motivated Democratic and Republican opponents, who both played a role in his defeat in 1980.

CNN Explains: Electoral College
Candidates court undecided voters
CNN election night flashback
Obama leading in Ohio, tied in Colorado

Texas Gov. George W. Bush came under fire in 2000 when the Supreme Court ordered an end to a recount in Florida, resulting in his winning the presidency against Vice President Al Gore by five electoral votes. Bush lost the popular vote to Gore by 0.5 percent.

Many Democrats felt that the election had been stolen from them. Bush was not deterred and governed as if he had a mandate, pushing through a massive tax cut in 2001. His political standing was helped by the fact that the attacks of September 11, 2001, created a sense of national emergency and inspired a "rally around the leader" effect.

But stalemate soon set in, as Democrats had little appetite to help him.

Opinion: What's really at stake in election 2012

The 2004 election, which Bush won by 35 electoral votes and 2.4 percent of the popular vote, also generated controversy as some Democrats felt that there had been voter suppression and rigged voting machines in the crucial state of Ohio by Republican-supporting groups. Republicans claimed there had been voter fraud in other states, like Pennsylvania. Bush never received the political capital he expected from his reelection victory and saw most of his domestic legislative proposals languish.

Opinion: Cool Obama vs. square Romney

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In today's political era, every president -- even those who enjoy landslide victories -- faces immense challenges working in the current congressional environment. Partisan polarization, interest-group politics and the 24-hour media make legislating difficult.

But narrow elections only make things worse, and this would be the case for either a second term for President Barack Obama or a first term for Mitt Romney. The situation would be even worse if certain states are contested, as occurred in 2000, and if the chaos from Hurricane Sandy results in logistical problems in parts of the East Coast. The winner would walk into a toxic Washington environment with the perception that their mandate is thin.

Added to all of this is the fact that the winner of the electoral college vote might not be the winner of the popular vote, as has occurred a handful of other times in U.S. history.

Of course, the polls could be off and we might be heading to another Truman defeats Dewey moment, such as occurred in 1948 when the president proved the pollsters wrong and enjoyed a comfortable reelection victory. But since that's probably not the case, we'll be heading toward some rough times on Capitol Hill in the years ahead.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
updated 5:22 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
updated 12:08 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Sat September 13, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT