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Distribution of votes in the 1860 US presidential election

The 1860 election was one of the most divisive and influential elections in US history, with scholarly consensus citing it as one of the most decisive factors or catalysts that led to the outbreak of the American Civil War. The election saw candidates from four separate parties compete, with candidates not appearing on ballots in multiple states. The Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln, and opposed the extension of slavery into new states, while the Democratic Party nominated Stephen A. Douglas and favored popular sovereignty, which allowed states to vote on the legality of slavery. This approach however did not appeal to many Democrats in the south, who feared that this did not protect the status of slavery, and so rather than supporting Douglas, southern Democrats split and nominated John C. Breckenridge as their candidate. The fourth candidate was John Bell of the Constitutional Union, whose party's main focus was to avoid the secession of the south at all costs.


With a plurality of the popular votes, Abraham Lincoln won almost sixty percent of the electoral votes, and was named the sixteenth President of the United States. Despite winning almost thirty percent of the popular votes (the second highest amount), Douglas carried only one state, and received just four percent of the electoral votes. Breckenridge carried eleven states, however if both Democratic candidates pooled they would have received more popular votes, yet Lincoln would have still won due to the electoral college system. There were also ten southern states where Lincoln's name was not on the ballot, as he was so unpopular in the slave states that his team could not print or distribute ballots for voters to choose him (this issue would be rectified in the 1880s, with the introduction of the secret ballot).

Outbreak of the war

Political leaders and merchants in the south believed that a President with abolitionist views would implement measures that threatened the institution of slavery. Following Lincoln's victory, seven states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America, and elected Jefferson Davis to President of the Confederacy (despite Breckenridge's strong performance in the election). Lincoln did not take any action against the Confederacy, but also refused to surrender federal property in the area. This led to Davis ordering a Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, which led to retaliation from the Union, the cessation of four more states into the Confederacy, and the beginning of the deadliest war in US history.

Share of electoral college* and popular votes** in the 19th US presidential election in 1860

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Release date



United States

Survey time period


Supplementary notes

*Actual number of electoral votes:
Abraham Lincoln - 180
John C. Breckenridge - 72
Stephen A. Douglas - 12
John Bell - 39

**Actual number of popular votes:
Abraham Lincoln - 1,865,908
John C. Breckenridge - 848,019
Stephen A. Douglas - 1,381,944
John Bell - 590,946

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