Presidential Collecting: Does an Electoral College Victory Affect the Value?
Even an Electoral College victory allows for inaugural balls like this program portrays. This photo is from the official ball during the Inauguration of Benjamin Harrison in 1889.
An inauguration of a newly elected president is generally a time of new beginnings. Heralded as a bedrock democratic principle, the ceremony surrounding the oath of office is usually a celebration of peaceful transition of power that comes directly from “the voice of the people”— the individual vote.
The 58th U.S. presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017 was its usual celebration of peaceful continuity of government. A majority, though, sees it only as a technical victory, not a popular one. The 45th president decisively lost the election by nearly 3 million popular votes, but the U.S. Constitution under the Electoral College recognizes only the winner of state votes—not individual ones—to determine the winner.
Does losing the popular vote affect the value of inaugural collectibles over time? Since most of these electoral college victories occurred in the 19th century (elections of 1824*, 1876 and 1888), it may not be a fair question. Any 18th- or 19th-century inauguration item (or even political item for that matter), especially the very early ones, are somewhat scarce and rather limited and therefore very collectible no matter how the election was settled.
The inaugural medal for the Inauguration of Benjamin Harrison of 1889 is an example of the use of ribbons to attach the medal used until at least 1901.
Textiles, for example, played a larger role during the campaigns of the early Republic. Items such as 38-star U.S. flags, kerchiefs and silk ribbons, but mostly paper ephemera, like programs, song sheets, broadsides and tickets to various events were available as souvenirs. Medals with ribbons worn by spectators also were a big part of inaugurations around mid-19th century through 1900 or so.
Until 2016, the election of 2000 was the only other Electoral College victory over popular vote. George W. Bush was inaugurated over Al Gore, despite Gore’s 500,000 more popular votes only after the vote of the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the recount in Florida, throwing the state’s 29 electoral votes to the Bush campaign and, thus, providing a majority of the electoral votes.
The difference in collectibles between the 19th century Electoral College victories and the more recent one in 2000 is the ancillary material surrounding the recount, such as the older voting machines, the ballot boxes, the perforated ballots, and even individual pieces of chads (the paper perforations from the paper ballot) collected throughout Florida. They are a routinely available collectible since 2000, so values have remained constant.
A version of the 1400 or so different brass buttons sold to the public to commemorate the first Inauguration of George Washington on April 30, 1789. It was sewn onto vests and coats and is why we have campaign buttons today.
Is there a similar collectible value to an Electoral College victory in 2016? It doesn’t seem as likely as the earlier ones. While the campaign was made more personal than usual, any collectible market will be focused on the campaign material more so than the inaugural items. Collectors and dealers I spoke with recently have not seen the high level of interest in inaugural items as they had for any previous inauguration by this time in the cycle.
Even still, memorabilia from the official events—such as the congressional programs, ball and parade tickets, inaugural badges, newspapers, parking signs and such—will be available to complete collections. Stay with the more official inaugural items like the inaugural medals from the Presidential Inaugural Committee rather than the more commercially available ones as these items are more desired by collectors and retain their value over time.
If you don’t have an inaugural collection, you can easily start one with a nice item from the first inauguration of George Washington in 1789. At that time, it was fashionable to celebrate with specially made metal buttons bought from vendors and sewn onto coats and vests. It’s where the phrase “political button” originated.
There may be as many as 1,400 individual Washington inaugural buttons, according to leading collectors. Depending on condition and rarity, the values can range from $10,000 to $15,000 in excellent condition while many are in the $1,500-to-$3,500-range for good conditions. You can easily start an inaugural collection with a George Washington button in poor condition for $300 to $600.
Official inaugural medals, like this brass one, were sold to the public for official ceremonies beginning in 1901.” (Photo: loriferber.com)
And a final note: It’s eminently curious that the Electoral College settled elections in favor of Republican candidates in all five of these instances**, never Democrats. Perhaps the “voice of the people” is just that, a voice—not a vote.
* The 1824 election was thrown into the House of Representatives when no candidate received the 131 electoral votes to win, even though Andrew Jackson received the most of both the popular and electoral votes in the election. John Quincy Adams was elected by the House members after only one ballot and Jackson called it “a corrupt bargain.” But Jackson was elected in 1828 by a landslide.
** The top three candidates with the most popular votes were sent to the House and they were all officially from the same Democratic-Republican Party, later to split into the National Republican Party (then the Whigs and Republican Parties) beginning with John Quincy Adams and the Democratic Party under Andrew Jackson. That is why I consider the 1824 election a Republican victory.
Tom Carrier is a General Worthologist with a specialty in Americana, political memorabilia and the resident WorthPoint vexillologist (flags, seals and heraldry) since 2007, and a frequent contributor of articles to WorthPoint.
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