Overview: Plurality Wins in Major American
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 PerotÝs 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
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 1930Ýs. 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.
ýIn 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 races
without 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....ţ
Almanac of American Politics 2002)
Plurality Wins in Federal
% of Races
U.S. Senate (1992-2002)
U.S. House (1992-2002)
Sources: Federal Elections
(92-2002): Election Results for the US Senate and the US House
of Representatives. Copyright of the Federal Elections Commission, Washington,
The Almanac of American Politics,
years 1992 through 2004 ,
by Michael Barone, Richard E. Cowan, and Grant Ujifusa, Copyright of
National Journal Group.
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
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.
significant that the best such non major party candidacies in the
1990s were in special elections ˝ when voters might learn more about
alternative options ˝ and in VermontÝs 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 BuchananÝs win in New Hampshire with 27% of the vote).
It also occurs in many congressional races, including in races
that can have significant impacts ˝ 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.
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.
Return to Plurality Index.