Overview: Plurality Wins in Major American Elections, 1992-2004
There has been a significant number of plurality (non-majority) wins in American elections, starting in 1992-1994. These years have been marked by great successes for those seeking to impose term limits on elected legislators, by Ross Perot's strong independent candidacy in 1992, by independent gubernatorial wins in Minnesota and Maine, and by the Republican gain in U.S. House elections in 1994.

They also have been marked by plurality wins that indicate significant voter interest in going outside the two major parties.  For example, five non major-party candidates won more than 10% of the vote in 2002 gubernatorial elections, leading to plurality winners in Minnesota, New York, Oklahoma, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

In presidential races, far more states were won by plurality in 1992-1996 than in any other two elections in the 20th century, and more U.S. Senate seats were won by plurality in the 1990's than had occurred since the 1930's.  In fact, the number of Senate general elections won by plurality has been rising since the 1950's, as is illustrated in the graph below.  For more details see charts on plurality wins in the Senate. 

Plurality Wins in the US Senate, by Decade 

Interestingly, exploration of third party and independent candidacies appears to be greater the more significant the office. As indicated in the chart below, 57% of all states were won by plurality in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 presidential elections, compared to 10.3% of all U.S. Senate general elections in 1992 to 2002 and only 3.4% of all U.S. House general elections in that period.

        In fact, we have now had three straight presidential elections and three straight House elections in which neither party has won 50% of the vote. The last time there were three straight presidential raceswithout a majority was in 1884-1892. The last time there were three straight House races without a majority, aside from 1910-16 and 1890-98, when there were many third party Progressive and Populist candidates, was apparently ... in the 1880s...

            (Barone, Almanac of American Politics 2002)

Plurality Wins in Federal Elections

Office Plurality of Wins
% of Races
 President  (1992-2000)
 President (States)
 85 57%
 U.S. Senate (1992-2002)
 22 10.6%
 U.S. House (1992-2002)
 90 3.4%

Sources:  Federal Elections (92-2002):  Election Results for the US Senate and the US House of Representatives.  Copyright of the Federal Elections Commission, Washington, DC.

The Almanac of American Politics, years 1992 through 2004 , by Michael Barone, Richard E. Cowan, and Grant Ujifusa, Copyright of National Journal Group.

A high number of governors have been elected by plurality as well: 15 (about 30%) of the 50 currently serving governors have won general elections by plurality.  Another seven current governors have won a primary election with a non-majority vote.  Several important races could have been changed with the use of a majority voting system, as is used in most presidential races around the world.

The fact that high-profile elections have more non-majority winners suggests that the more voters follow a race and learn about the candidates, the more they will explore voting outside their traditional voting patterns. In federal elections, voters are most consistent in U.S. House races in their partisan voting behavior. They are less likely to hear much about U.S. House candidates, and thus more likely to vote their basic party inclination. That fact, combined with the fact that many U.S. House races are gerrymandered to boost one party, leads more races to be won by a majority and fewer strong showings by third party and independent candidacies.

It is significant that the best such non major party candidacies in the 1990s were in special elections ñ when voters might learn more about alternative options ñ and in Vermontís statewide House seat, where Bernie Sanders could achieve greater visibility. Nevertheless, even though fewer U.S. House races were won by plurality, enough seats were won by plurality to be a factor in overall control of the House, given the close margin between the major parties as of 2000. In the 1990s, one in seven U.S. House districts had a plurality winner in at least one election.

Plurality victories appear to be much more likely to occur in primary elections. It certainly can occur in presidential primaries, as was the case in many early primaries and caucuses in the 1992 Democratic presidential race and the 1996 Republican race (including Pat Buchananís win in New Hampshire with 27% of the vote). It also occurs in many congressional races, including in races that can have significant impacts ñ either by electing a candidate in a safe seat who only had minority support within his or her party or in nominating a weak candidate in a race where the party had hoped to be more competitive.

In order to avoid plurality wins, several southern states hold two-round runoffs in primary elections.  For instance, there were 69 runoffs for primaries in the US House and 15 in the US Senate from 1994 to 2002.  There were also four runoffs in gubernatorial elections (primary as well as general) in this same time period.  While runoff elections ensure that candidates win these races with a majority of the votes cast, there are some problems associated with them, including using extra time and money and having less people vote.  In three of the four gubernatorial runoffs, voter turnout declined, by as much as 45% in the 1998 Democratic primary in Georgia.

Voter turnout decline is also apparent in congressional elections.  The graph below illustrates the significance of the decline in voter turnout when runoffs are held.  From 1994 to 2002, the average voter turnout dropped by at least 25% in second round elections.

Source:  Federal Elections (94-2002):  Election Results for the US Senate and the US House of Representatives.  Copyright of the Federal Elections Commission, Washington, DC.

Instant runoff voting (IRV) offers solutions to the problems associated with both plurality wins and conventional runoffs elections.  For instance, with IRV, the winning candidate will receive at least 50% of the vote.  Additionally, IRV requires no additional elections, so there can be no decline in voter turnout and less wasted time and money when runoffs are needed to determine a clear winner.  For more information on this topic, see IRV vs. Runoff .