The Electoral Insurance Policy


The United States is in the throes of its presidential campaigns season and, over the last week or so, candidates from both major parties have focused their sights on Nevada. Come November, that will again be true as Nevada can be a bellwether state — in each of the previous nine election cycles, Nevada voters supported the overall winner. That doesn’t mean that a candidate needs to win Nevada in order to be elected President (in eight of those nine elections, Nevada’s electors could have swung to the other major party candidate without changing the overall outcome), but in the very least, Nevada is a nice insurance policy for a hopeful candidate.

In fact, that’s why Nevada became a state in the first place.

By the summer of 1864, a Union victory in the Civil War seemed increasingly likely, although it was still an open question. As a result, sitting President Abraham Lincoln’s re-election was at risk from both sides. The Democratic Party was highly factionalized and offered a similarly factionalized ticket — a pro-war Presidential candidate in General George B. McClellan paired with a peace-at-any-cost running mate named George H. Pendleton. The official platform of the Democratic Party echoed Seymour’s sentiments, so McClellan ended up running against many of the stated views of his party-mates, but was still seen as the anti-war/quick reconciliation choice.

Lincoln’s Republican Party was similarly factionalized, but in the opposite direction. As a whole, the party wanted to continue the war it was likely going to win, leaving no doubts behind. The questions for Republicans were two-fold: first, how to best re-integrate the Southern states into the Union, and second, how to handle the issue of former slaves in the Southern states (and current slaves in the Union states which had them). Lincoln took a moderate approach to both questions, favoring an easier path to re-entry for Southern states and a limited number of civil rights afforded to blacks, but a group known as the “Radical Republicans” wanted to further punish the South and grant suffrage to all freed slaves immediately. On May 31, 1864, the Radical Republicans nominated General John C. Fremont, pictured, as their candidate.

As summer gave way to fall, Lincoln’s path to reelection seemed murky. GIven the makeup of the country at the time, the 24 states (the secessionists states did not get to vote) were to send, collectively, 231 electors to the Electoral College. In order for any of the three candidates to win, that candidate needed the support of a majority of the electors, or 116 of them. A three-way election put that at risk. Further, a divided Republican electorate could throw some of the larger states into McClellan’s column, thereby giving the Democrats the win even with well less than half of the popular vote.

Lincoln had planned ahead, though. In March of 1864, as notes, Lincoln issued an “enabling act” which created a path for Nevada to reach statehood — one which skirted Congress’s usual role in that process. All Nevada’s citizens had to do was draft a state constitution. If Lincoln approved of the document, Nevada would gain entry into the Union. As Nevada’s former state archivist explained, Lincoln (and everyone else) believed that Nevada’s three electors would support him in that year’s election. Further, if none of the three candidates received enough Electoral College votes to win, the election would go to the House of Representatives who, in turn, would vote for the new President on a one-vote-per-state basis. And in that case as well, Nevada would support Lincoln — and this time, Nevada’s vote would carry as much weight as more populous states such as New York or Pennsylvania.

The only question was whether Nevada could draft, ratify, and deliver an acceptable state constitution on time. Nevada voters approved a constitution on September 4, 1864, by an overwhelming majority (with nearly 90% in favor), and Fremont bowed out of the election shortly thereafter. Lincoln beat McClellan easily in their heads-up matchup that November, with the Republican incumbent taking 55% of the popular vote and 212 of the 233 Electoral votes. Two of those Electoral votes came from Nevada, which was admitted to the Union on October 31 — only a week before Election Day.

Bonus Fact: Even with Fremont out of the race, Nevadans wanted to vote for President. In order to ensure that their state-to-be became a state before Election Day, Nevada’s leadership needed to get their proposed state constitution to President Lincoln as quickly as possible. But this was before the advent of the Internet or, for that matter, two-day delivery by Fed Ex and the like. A long train trip was one of the options considered, but that ran the risk of being too slow. So, Nevada sent in its new constitution via telegraph. As Wikipedia notes, “the transmission took two days; it consisted of 16,543 words and cost $4303.27 ($59,294.92 in 2010 dollars) to send.”

From the Archives: First Dakota: Which Dakota became a state first? No one knows.

Take the Quiz: Name the 15 largest cities in Nevada. “Cities” is defined loosely — a lot of these are hardly cities. And this is basically impossible unless you really, really know the state. So, good luck!

Related: “The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics” by James Oakes. 4.5 stars on 25 reviews. Douglass was probably more aligned with Fremont than Lincoln, although ultimately supported Lincoln over McClellan (which should probably go without saying).