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 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT