Richard Nixon was famously thin-skinned when it came to presidential politics.
But it turns out that Donald Trump is far touchier than the man who lost and won and lost the presidency in the 1960s and 1970s. When things did not go his way, Nixon grumbled and schemed, but he also worried about raising too many public objections—for fear that he might be seen as a “sore loser.” Trump is far less circumspect. His weekend meltdown over proposals to recount votes in battleground states where he only narrowly leads in this year’s presidential race identifies the hypersensitive billionaire as a far more delicate political type: the “sore winner.” And his tweetstorm claim that he lost the national popular vote because of “millions of people who voted illegally” reminds us that Trump’s paranoia exceeds that of the famously maladjusted Nixon.
As America engages in a suddenly intense discussion about presidential-election recounts, it is important to remember that we have been here before. People, of course, recall the Bush-versus-Gore Florida recount of 2000, which was mangled by the intervention of the US Supreme Court.
But people often forget about the conflicts that arose following the exceptionally close finish of the 1960 contest between Democrat John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Nixon. The popular vote split almost evenly; Kennedy won 49.72 percent to 49.55 for Nixon, with the Democrat leading the Republican by just 112, 827 votes nationally.
The national popular-vote divide provided just one measure of the closeness of the 1960 contest. The better measure of that closeness was found in the states. Ten states were decided by 2 percent of the vote or less, and eight of those states favored Kennedy. Kennedy won Hawaii by 115 votes, Alaska by 846 votes, New Mexico by 2,294 votes, Delaware by 3,217, Illinois by less than 9,000 votes, Missouri by barely 10,000 votes. In New Jersey, Kennedy prevailed by a mere 50-49 margin; in Texas, it was 51-49.
A shift toward Nixon in any of several combinations of states could have erased Kennedy’s Electoral College advantage, as the distribution gave him just 34 more electoral votes than he needed to prevail.
Nixon refused to formally pursue recounts—fearing, as he later wrote, that “Charges of ‘sore loser’ would follow me through history and remove any possibility of a further political career.”