Plurality Wins in the 1968 Presidential Race: The Impact of George WallaceBecause our electoral system for electing presidents uses plurality elections on the state level, a strong independent or third party candidate can have an overall disruptive effect on the election, splitting votes for other candidates or allowing them to win with only a plurality of the vote. This is exactly what happened in 1968 when George Wallace broke with the Democratic Party and ran as an independent against Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey. Only 22 states were won by a candidate who received a majority of the vote. The winner had less than 40% of the vote in four states, including three states won by Nixon, and the winner had less than 45% in seven additional states.
Of the 28 states with a plurality winner in 1968, 17 went were won by Nixon, eight by Humphrey, and three by Wallace. Nixon might have won some of these plurality victories due to Wallaceís splitting of the Democratic vote. The traditionally Democratic states of North Carolina and South Carolina provide good examples. Nixon's overall vote in these states was quite low, 39.5% and 38.1%, respectively. The deciding factor in these states seems to have been Wallace's strong level of support, which resulted in him winning more than 30% of the vote in each state. If one can assume that most of Wallace's support came from what had been the Democratic base ñ including many voters who were conservative, but not ready to support a Republican -- then it is likely that Nixon won these states only because Wallace was able to take votes away from Humphrey. This conclusion is strengthened when one considers that Nixon lost these two states to Kennedy in 1960.
Besides North Carolina and South Carolina, there appear to be other states in which Wallace split the Democratic base, enabling Nixon victories. In Tennessee and Florida, for example, the breakdown of the vote was similar to that of the Carolinas. Wallaceís candidacy likely affected outcomes in others states where he had less support. For example, Nixon had lost Missouri in 1960, but defeated Humphrey by 1% there in 1968 -- while 11% voted for Wallace. In addition to Missouri, there were 12 states won by a plurality of less than 5% of the vote.
Plurality victories in 1968
28 plurality victories total:
- 17 won by Nixon
- 8 won by Humphrey
- 3 won by Wallace
- 11 were won with less than 45%
- 4 were won with less than 40%