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Lincoln’s birthday and election days of 1860 and 2008

Today is the bicentennial of Lincoln’s 1809 birth. It’s also a good day to remember his election in 1860 – and how he voted – and our last presidential election.

Speaking of voting and speaking of Abe Lincoln…

(Today is the bicentennial of Lincoln’s 1809 birth. I plan to pester you with Lincoln pieces all year.)

… the ballot system in Illinois in 1860 (and in widespread use around the country) was this: On his way in to vote, a voter would pick up a pre-printed partisan ballot. On the ballot, your party would have thoughtfully printed the name of all of its candidates. You didn’t have to fill it out at all, just take it from the party worker and deposit it into the ballot box. (Not much privacy in this voting system. The party ballots were often given distinctive coloration, so while you were in line to vote, everyone could see which party’s ballot you were holding.)

You could, if you wanted to, modify the ballot, striking out the names of those for whom you didn’t want to vote and writing in others, but most folks just voted the party line.

Lincoln, the Republican nominee for president that year, had a particular problem with his own vote. Presidential candidates were expected to do nothing to advance their own election, waiting modestly to be called by the nation to serve.  In keeping with this tradition, Lincoln had remained behind the scenes during the entire campaign, giving no speeches nor making any appearances that we would consider campaigning.

According to Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, who has written extensively about Election Day 1860, several of Lincoln’s friends were convinced that, out of respect for that tradition, Lincoln would not vote at all, since the Republican ballot contained the names of the Republican electors who were pledged to vote for Lincoln for president.

But, Lincoln wanted to support the rest of the party ticket. So he showed up at the polling place (to great hurrahs from his friends in Springfield), took the Republican ballot (I don’t guess we can call it the Grand Old Party ballot since the GOP had just come into existence in the 1850s), and, in sight of all, tore off the top of the ballot that included his name and the names of the electors pledged to him. Then he “voted” by putting the torn ballot into the box.

In the parlance of today’s recount, Lincoln’s ballot would have been an “undervote.”

Lincoln and Obama

Although he received only 39.9 percent of the popular, because it was a four-way race and because Lincoln pretty much swept the northern states, he won a solid Electoral College majority (he got 180 EV to 72 for runner-up John C. Breckenridge, who carried most of the southern states).

Lincoln was the first Republican president. The states he carried (including Minnesota, which was a strong Lincoln state) became the Republican base for the next 18 presidential elections, with surprisingly little variation. That based was shattered in 1932, when the Roosevelt coalition shook up the voting norms of the nation. Then, starting with Goldwater in 1964, the South became part of the Republican base.

Anyway, the reason I bring it up today is that if you look at the 1860 Electoral College map, and compare it to the most recent Electoral College map, you’ll find that Obama carried all 18 states that Lincoln carried, plus a few more (five western states that weren’t in the union in 1860, plus four former slaves states, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina), and the states that McCain carried were drawn entirely from the states carried by Lincoln’s three opponents.

The two major parties have almost completely traded bases.