The Senate candidate who wins the popular vote takes office. It's the same for the House of Representatives. However, that's not the way to get into the White House. The United States doesn't have direct election of its president. The Electoral College chooses the winner. As set up in the Constitution, electors vote for that position. The number of electors for each state is the same as its number of congressional members. The District of Columbia also has three votes. In the vast majority of elections, the popular vote and Electoral College vote match. However, as of 2012, four candidates who lost the popular vote still made it to the White House.
Beyond the College
In 1824, four men ran for president: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William H. Crawford and Henry Clay. None of them received a majority of Electoral College votes, so, as prescribed by the Constitution, the House of Representatives voted on the top three candidates. Clay threw his support behind Adams, who was elected. Andrew Jackson actually received both the most popular votes -- the first time they'd been counted-- and the most Electoral College votes, but neither proved to be very important that year.
A Compromise, of Sorts
President Ulysses S. Grant was finishing his second term in office when the election of 1876 developed into a vicious battle. Democrat Samuel J. Tilden beat Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the popular vote by over 250,000. The margin was unexpectedly great in the South. Since the Democrats had the reputation of suppressing the votes of blacks and Republicans, a recount was held in South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida. Hayes won the electoral votes for all three states, but Democrats refused to accept the results. Congress appointed an electoral commission to settle the dispute. Hayes was again named the winner, and Democrats were still incensed. As a compromise, Republicans promised to pull federal troops out of southern states in return for accepting Hayes’ victory. Done and done. However, this opened the way for the notorious and repressive Jim Crow laws in the South.
Beating the Prez
In 1888, Republican presidential candidate Benjamin Harrison ran against the incumbent, Democrat Grover Cleveland. Although the candidates did not campaign extensively, their parties went all out, with parades, political cartoons, rallies and demonstrations. Cleveland won the popular vote by about 90,000, but Harrison received far more electoral votes: 233 to 168. Votes from the swing states of New York and Indiana -- Harrison’s home state -- put the challenger over the top. Republicans also took the Senate and House of Representatives.
Too Close to Call
Democrat Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 by more than 500,000, but he lost the Electoral College to Republican George W. Bush, 271 to 266. It was a very tight race, and, the morning after the election, results were so close in Florida that an automatic machine recount was held for the state’s 6 million votes. The recount narrowed the margin even more, with Bush beating Gore in the popular vote by 327. Gore requested a manual recount in four counties that had reported voting machine malfunction. However, Florida’s Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, refused to wait for the recount before certifying the election. The Florida Supreme Court sided with Gore and mandated that all ballots not yet counted be tabulated by hand. Bush appealed this to the Supreme Court, which decided 5 to 4 that the Florida court's order was unconstitutional because it treated ballots unequally. This decision left no time for a recount in Florida, so Bush got the state’s electoral votes and became president.
- National Archives: What is the Electoral College?
- History.com: Presidential Election Goes to the House
- Smithsonian: Hayes vs. Tilden: The Ugliest, Most Contentious Presidential Election Ever
- University of Virginia: Miller Center: The Campaign and Election of 1888
- History.com: Al Gore Concedes Presidential Election
- PBS: The Supreme Court: Bush v. Gore
- Digital Vision./Photodisc/Getty Images