The Keystone State’s Presidential Election History: Eleven Pennsylvania Electoral Winners Who Lost

By: Kyle R. Weaver, Editor at Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

October 29, 2016

Fun fact: As the second state admitted to the Union on December 12, 1787, Pennsylvania has been involved in all 57 U.S. presidential elections since 1788!

The Keystone State has had a strong impact on the outcome of those elections, because it has always been among the most highly populated states, meaning it has always carried a large number of electoral votes. Pennsylvania currently holds 20 electoral votes, but in earlier years when it ranked higher in population in relation to other states, it held as many as 38 (1912-28).

But did you know in 11 of the 57 elections, however, Pennsylvania’s electoral votes did not go to the candidate who ultimately won the high office? In the first instance, the 1796 election, Pennsylvania favored Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson, 1/11, over Federalist John Adams, although Adams won the national election and became president.

Incidentally, also in 1796, an elector from Pennsylvania, Samuel Miles, who had pledged to vote for Adams, cast his vote for Jefferson instead, making Miles one of the first “faithless electors.”

Twenty-eight years later, Pennsylvania rejected Adams’ son, John Quincy, 2/11, in the 1824 election, giving Andrew Jackson all of its 28 electoral votes. Although Jackson received more votes in the national election than Adams, neither candidate received the required supermajority, so the election was decided in the House of Representatives, which chose Adams.

It would be another 60 years before Pennsylvania favored a losing candidate. In the meantime, in 1856, Pennsylvania’s votes went to its native son, Democrat James Buchanan, the only President to this day who hails from Pennsylvania.

In the following election of 1860, however, the state’s votes went to Republican victor Abraham Lincoln. That marked the beginning of Republican voting trend and Pennsylvania followed the nation through the era of Republican domination (1861-1933), voting for the party of Lincoln even in the few instances when the national vote went to a Democrat, such as Grover Cleveland in the elections of 1884 (Pennsylvania favoring losing Republican James G. Blaine, 3/11) and 1892 (Pennsylvania favoring losing Republican Benjamin Harrison, 4/11) and Woodrow Wilson in 1916 (Pennsylvania favoring losing Republican Charles Evans Hughes, 6/11).

For the election of 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt, 5/11, unyielding after his loss in the Republican primary to incumbent William Howard Taft, formed his own Progressive Party and ran against Taft and Democrat Wilson. In a rare turn of events, Pennsylvania’s electoral votes went to Roosevelt—the only time a third-party candidate won the election in the state—however, the nation put Wilson in the White House.

Even as the national tide began to turn in 1932, Pennsylvania held fast to incumbent Republican Herbert Hoover, 7/11, over Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the campaign that led to FDR’s first term. Although Pennsylvania’s votes went to Roosevelt in the following three elections, the state favored Republican Thomas E. Dewey, 8/11, over FDR’s Democrat successor, Harry S. Truman, in 1948. Twenty years later, in the ninth instance that Pennsylvania’s vote failed to have an impact on the national outcome, the state’s electoral votes went to Democrat Hubert Humphrey, 9/11, over Republican Richard M. Nixon.

In recent years, Pennsylvania has been considered a swing state, where the margin of support for the two major parties is tight, with the result having a strong impact on close national races. Since 1992, however, Pennsylvania has consistently voted Democrat, including two elections with losing Democrat opponents—in 2000 with Al Gore, 10/11, over George W. Bush and 2004 with John Kerry, 11/11, over Bush for his second term.

For this year’s election, we’ll know in just over a week who Pennsylvania will choose with its electoral votes — and if they’ll be the ultimate victor. Have a happy election day, PA!

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Pennsylvania Heritage is a popularly styled, illustrated magazine featuring stories about the commonwealth’s rich culture and historic legacy, published by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) and the Pennsylvania Heritage Foundation. A one-year subscription of Pennsylvania Heritage is available as a premium with membership in the Pennsylvania Heritage Foundation, the PHMC’s non-profit partner organization. Individual issues are available at www.shoppaheritage.com.

Look for the launch of the Pennsylvania Heritage Online in 2017.

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