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1916: The presidential election The Herald got wrong

Herald prematurely announced that Brown alum Charles Evans Hughes 1881 won election, but following electoral confusion, Hughes conceded to Wilson

On the morning of Nov. 8, 1916, the front page of The Herald, in a large print headline, read “Hughes Elected to Presidency; Republicans Carry Both Houses.” The story announced that University alum Charles Evans Hughes 1881 had won the presidential election.

But despite The Herald’s proclamation, Hughes — the Republican Party candidate for president — never made it to the White House, following several weeks of electoral uncertainty. Fourteen days after The Herald prematurely and inaccurately announced his victory, Hughes telegrammed his concession to the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson.

Hughes’ perceived victory represented an important moment for the Brown campus, said Jennifer Betts, the University Archivist and Assistant Director of the John Hay Library. “Because he was an alum, it was definitely a focal point for the students, for the campus. There was definitely a vested interest in the outcome of that election.”

In describing Hughes, The Herald wrote, “since George Washington was made the first president of the United States, there has been no instance when the office so evidently sought the man, and not the man the office.” Hughes served as the Governor of New York before being appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. He stepped down from his position at the Supreme Court after being asked by Republican leaders to run for president

“Brown University, preponderantly loyal to Hughes, is proud of his latest and most noteworthy recognition,” The Herald wrote of Hughes’ assumed presidential victory. 

But The Herald, despite its connection to the candidate, was not alone in calling the election incorrectly for Hughes. The Providence Journal and the Sun, a New York City newspaper, also wrote that Hughes had won the election, as did other college newspapers like the Harvard Crimson. 

The decision to call the election for Hughes, however, was not surprising. From the earliest election reports until after 3 a.m. the following morning, Hughes had maintained an electoral college lead over Wilson. It is even said that Hughes went to bed on the night of the election believing that he had won. Largely favored as the frontrunner, Hughes won nearly all of the Northeastern states by sweeping margins, but his lead began to wane as voting results became clearer over the following days.

As The Herald was distributed around campus the following morning, the tide had changed — Wilson pulled ahead and, most notably, California was within the realm of uncertainty. It took until Nov. 10 for California to be called for Wilson by a margin of just 4,000 votes. With California lost to Wilson, the election no longer pointed to Hughes. 

The uncertainty surrounding California was unusual, according to Matthew Waxman, a Columbia professor of law. “California is a big state, with significant rural areas, in which votes took a long time to tally. In most elections, back then as today, the margin is large enough that a result can be called before every last ballot is counted,” Waxman wrote in an email to The Herald. “But that California vote was razor thin.”

Following the California results, some Republicans argued that election fraud was behind Hughes’ surprising and narrow loss in California. Still, Hughes was quick to shut down the rumors, arguing that any accusations of fraud in the absence of proof would only hurt the nation and diminish the esteem of the office.

The Herald was far more judicious in 1948 when faced with another upset loss by a former Republican Governor of New York, Thomas Dewey, who sought to challenge incumbent President Harry Truman. On Nov. 3, 1948, when the Chicago Tribune famously and incorrectly printed in bold type “Dewey Defeats Truman,” The Herald’s front-page headline read “Truman Maintains Slim Lead; Some Crucial States Undecided.” This time, waiting until 5 a.m. before going to print, The Herald did not make the same mistake.

Betts believes that the 1916 mishap likely influenced The Herald’s more accurate reporting of the 1948 election results. “It was probably a good learning experience,” Betts said. The lessons learned from 1916, she suspects, were “passed down from one editor to the next.”

As the 2020 presidential election approaches, many have voiced concerns about uncertain or shifting election predictions and results, a product of a considerable increase in mail-ballots this season. Newspapers, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, have shifted away from using predictive models on election night — anticipating that it may be not be possible to determine a winner in certain states because of the slower process of counting and receiving mail-ballots.

With many Americans voting by mail due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the results of the 2020 election may unfold similarly to 1916. “Many observers predict today that if late-counted or late-arriving ballots shift the total from Trump to Biden, Republicans will cry foul and allege some sort of fraud,” Waxman wrote. “That's similar to what happened in 1916, when early signs of a Hughes win gave way to late signs of a Wilson win.”

Waxman argues that Hughes’ opposition to calls of fraud by members of his own party following the 1916 election’s uncertain results offers a salient model to modern-day American politicians. “One important lesson of 1916,” Waxman wrote, “is that healthy elections depend not just on law and careful procedures but on statesmanship and candidates' commitments to norms and to the democratic system itself.”

Correction: A previous version of this article compared the 2020 election to the wrong year, stating that "the results of the 2020 election may be a repeat of 2016" where in fact it should have stated that these results "may unfold similarly to 1916" in the context of a potentially contested election. The Herald regrets the error.

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