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Obama Popular Vote Margin Largest Ever for Non-Incumbent

Here’s an impressive-sounding statistic, even if it’s mostly an artifact of population growth. Barack Obama’s victory margin from November 4th now stands at 9,124,522 votes, and will probably grow a bit more once states like Illinois, New York and California finalize their counts.

This is the 6th largest victory margin of all time, and the largest ever by a non-incumbent.

Largest Popular Vote Margin

Year Candidate Inc? Margin
1972 Nixon Yes 17,995,488
1964 Johnson Yes 17,951,287
1984 Reagan Yes 16,678,120
1936 Roosevelt Yes 11,070,786
1956 Eisenhower Yes 9,551,152
2008 Obama No 9,124,522*
1980 Reagan No 8,423,115
1996 Clinton Yes 8,201,370
1924 Coolidge Yes 7,377,547
1988 Bush No 7,077,121
* Provisional

If looked at in percentage terms, however, Obama’s 7.0-point margin is really fairly middle of the road, having been bettered 26 times overall and by 12 non-incumbents:

Largest Popular Vote Percentage Margin, Non-Incumbents Only

Year   Candidate    Inc?   Margin
1920 Harding No 26.2%
1932 Roosevelt No 17.7%
1928 Hoover No 17.4%
1912 Wilson No 14.4%
1836 Van Buren No 14.2%
1828 Jackson No 12.4%
1856 Buchanan No 12.2%
1952 Eisenhower No 10.9%
1860 Lincoln No 10.3%
1980 Reagan No 9.7%
1908 Taft No 8.6%
1988 Bush No 7.8%
2008 Obama No 7.0%*
* Provisional

One compromise between these two approaches is to look at a candidate’s raw popular vote margin divided into the total number of eligible voters; this accounts for population growth while rewarding a candidate for higher turnout. By this metric, Reagan’s win in 1980 is still somewhat more impressive than Obama’s — he won by 8,425,115 votes out of 159,635,102 available, or 5.3%. By contrast, Obama won by 9,124,522 votes out of 213,005,467 available, or 4.3%. However, Obama’s fraction is slightly better than George H.W. Bush’s in 1988, who won by 7,077,121 votes out of 167,701,904 available, or 4.2%.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.