Plurality Wins in the 1980 Presidential Race: John Anderson's Role

In the 1980 presidential election a strong independent candidate, John Anderson, collected enough votes to lead 24 states being won by plurality. Anderson received fewer popular votes than George Wallace in 1968 and did not win any electoral votes, but had a clear impact. Republican Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980 was overwhelming in electoral votes, but much smaller in the popular vote. Since most believe that the moderate-to-liberal Anderson took more votes away from Democrat Jimmy Carter than from Reagan, it is possible that his candidacy contributed to this distortion between Reaganís electoral vote majority and popular vote majority.

If Anderson distorted the race, much of it could have occurred in the races in which Reagan barely beat Carter. For instance, there were 10 states in which Reagan won with a plurality and defeated Carter by less than 3% of the vote. Of course, Anderson could have distorted races in other states, but these 10 seem to be the most likely candidates.

Although Anderson did receive 6% of the vote and may have enabled either Reagan or Carter to win some states that they would have lost in a two-way race, it is highly unlikely that Anderson had an overall impact on the race, unlike George Wallace in 1968. For instance, Reagan won majorities in many of the major electoral states such as California, Texas, and Florida. The only major state in which Anderson may have played the spoiler role was New York, where Reagan beat Carter by a margin of only 2.7%.

Plurality victories in 1980

24 plurality victories total:

  • 19 won by Reagan
  • 5 won by Carter

Of 24 states won by a plurality:

  • 3 were won with less than 45%