When Did We Start Talking About “Landslide” Elections?

When people thought John Fremont was going to win the presidency in 1856.

Voters swept Republicans into office around the country on Tuesday

The Republican landslide predicted by many pollsters materialized on Tuesday, as the GOP took control of the House of Representatives, narrowed the Democrats’ advantage in the Senate, and took over several governorships. Indeed, the Weekly Standard and the Christian Science Monitor, both used the L-word in their headlines. When did people start referring to a lopsided election as a landslide?

In the mid-19th century. While plenty of American politicians suffered crushing defeats before then, no one appears to have compared their fates to being buried in an avalanche until The New York Post enthused over the prospects of John Fremont’s campaign for president in 1856. Fremont would ultimately lose to James Buchanan, starting an early theme for would-be landsliders. * Horace Greeley was projected to defeat Ulysses S. Grant in a landslide in 1872. In 1876, a Pennsylvania state senator named Daniel Ermentrout urged the farmers and shop owners attending a meeting in Berks County to support Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden for president in the upcoming election. In the penultimate sentence of his grandiose speech, which was published in the Reading Eagle, Ermentrout described the country’s turn away from the corruption of Ulysses S. Grant as “the great political landslide of the Centennial year.” The article notes, “Senator Ermentrout was frequently interrupted by vociferous applause.”

The metaphor still hadn’t really caught on, though, possibly because Republican Rutherford B. Hayes squeaked out an incredibly narrow victory in what is widely regarded as the most corrupt presidential election in U.S. history. But the phrase was back in play eight years later. Carter Harrison, a candidate for governor of Illinois in 1884, assured a New York Times reporter that he and presidential candidate Grover Cleveland would carry the state in “a perfect landslide, in fact.” In fact, they did not, although Cleveland at least won the presidency.

Despite the apparent inauspiciousness of the term, it was circulating more widely by the end of the decade. Newspapers in 1888 described several elections as potential landslides, although some used modifiers like veritable, or put landslide in quotation marks, suggesting it still wasn’t exactly common usage. When Republicans in Illinois’ Third Ward endorsed federal judge Walter Q. Gresham as their candidate for president at a meeting in 1888, a group called Colonel Knight’s Glee Club debuted the song “There’s a Landslide Coming, Boys,” according to the Chicago Tribune. Gresham lost the nomination to Benjamin Harrison and left the party four years later.

The idea of a landslide election is used in a few places around the world, but it’s not a universal metaphor. Swedes, for example, sweep beloved politicians into office in a jordskred. But our neighbors to the south did not describe Vicente Fox’s strong showing in the 2000 presidential election as a derrumbe or a deslizamiento de tierra. They do, however, use the verb arrasar (to devastate) to describe one-sided contests. The same word describes the effects of a hurricane or tornado.

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Explainer thanks Elisabeth Malkin of the New York Times and Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Correction, Nov. 4, 2010:The original identified Sen. Ermentrout’s 1876 speech as the original use of the word landslide in an electoral context. In fact, there are at least two prior examples, from the presidential elections of 1856 and 1872. (In all three cases, the word was used to predict a landslide political victory for a candidate who ended up losing.) The headline for the article has also been corrected in light of the new information. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Update, Nov. 5, 2010: For a more thorough explanation, see Slate contributor Ben Zimmer’s article on the same topic from 2008.

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