"A PRESIDENT elected by a minority," said President Andrew Jackson in 1829, "cannot enjoy the confidence necessary to the successful discharge of his duties." Four American presidents lost the popular vote but nonetheless gained the White House. The experience of the first three vindicates Jackson's dictum.
Let me explain, for those not versed in the mysteries of the American political system, how presidential candidates who carry the popular vote may yet be denied the presidency. The Founding Fathers in writing the Constitution felt it necessary to give the smaller states a distinct role in the presidential choice. Each state has an electoral vote determined by the "number of its senators and representatives in Congress, and each state (except presently Maine and Nebraska) casts its electoral vote as a unit. If no candidate wins a majority of electoral votes, the choice devolves on the House of Representatives in Washington".
Before George Bush three popular-vote losers have won the presidency. In 1825 John Quincy Adams (like young Bush, the son of a former president) became president when the popular-vote winner, Andrew Jackson, having failed to get a majority in the electoral college, was beaten in the House of Representatives. In 1877 a national electoral commission established by Congress awarded enough disputed votes to the Republican candidate Rutherford B Hayes for Hayes to win a single-vote majority in the electoral college. In 1888 Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote but won in the electoral college.
All of these three presidents had ineffectual administrations. All suffered setbacks in their mid-term congressional elections. None won a second term in the White House. The question for George W Bush is: can he escape the curse of the minority presidency?
This depends largely on the political skills he brings to the White House. As Republican governor of Texas, he showed an uncommon ability to get along with and even to win over the Democratic opposition. But the governor of Texas has less power than most state governors, and Texas Democrats are often as conservative as Texas Republicans.
As Republican candidate, Governor Bush succeeded in the Philadelphia convention in putting a human face on a retrograde party. He silenced the religious right, snubbed the ideologues and gave an acceptance speech 60 per cent of which might have been delivered by Vice-President Gore. In the subsequent campaign he dropped "hot-button" issues for the right wing - abolition of the Department of Education, of the Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, of affirmative action for minorities, criminalisation of abortion, legalisation of school prayer and English as the official language. He seems to accept a role, if a small one, for activist government - a considerable …