The ‘Popular Vote’ is Irrelevant

The candidate I voted for got more than 200,000 votes for president than the winner. I'm okay with that.

electoral-college-sabato

For the second time in recent American history, the winner of the popular vote has lost the presidency. In 2000, George W. Bush got 50,456,002 votes to Al Gore’s 50,999,897, roughly half a percentage point difference. In 2016, Donald Trump currently has 59,611,678 votes to Hillary Clinton’s 59,814,018 with a few votes yet outstanding. Because we choose presidents via the arcane mechanism of the Electoral College, this leads understandably to charges that the “loser” won. This year, there are people taking to the streets all around the country protesting the outrage of it all.

As someone who’s been on each side of this, I find the reaction quite bizarre. In 2000, I voted for Bush. He carried my then-home state of Alabama, lost the popular vote, and won the Electoral College in narrow and controversial fashion.  In 2016, I voted for Clinton. She carried my current home state of Virginia, won the popular vote, and lost decisively in the Electoral College.

We ran both contests by the rules that have been in place going back to the earliest days of the Republic. The candidates campaigned and targeted get-out-the-vote efforts based on those rules. Similarly, voters themselves take the rules into account in choosing whether and for whom to vote. It’s simply nonsensical to say the outcome is illegitimate based on a different but irrelevant metric.

We judge baseball games by the number of runs scored, not the number of hits. We judge football games by the number of points scored, not yards gained or time of possession. While the stakes are obviously much higher in a presidential election, the same principles apply.

In this cycle in particular, a lot of people in states where there no doubt about the outcome surely stayed home, given the low overall enthusiasm for either Trump or Clinton, or cast a protest vote for Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, or a write-in candidate. We simply have no idea how the race would have turned out under a national popular vote rule-set.

My longstanding preference is that we should in fact replace the Electoral College with a national popular vote. Given that we are no longer a collection of quasi-sovereign territories bound together for trade and national defense, it really makes no sense to vote for president as though we were. And it’s not only manifestly unfair to have a voter in California have less say on who should be our next president than a voter in Montana, it’s also demoralizing to Republican voters in California to have their vote rendered irrelevant by the winner-take-all process. Alas, it’s inconceivable that we’ll amend the Constitution to fix this.

UPDATE:  Some commenters have made a point that I meant to also include in this post: that, while the popular vote is irrelevant in terms of the legitimacy of the election, it certainly should be a cause for humility for the winner. I went into the night expecting Hillary Clinton to win an Electoral College victory similar to the one that Trump enjoyed but to win the popular vote by a narrow margin. I would have cautioned her not to interpret her victory as a mandate to enact the most controversial of her policies.  That’s doubly true this cycle, which was mostly about personalities rather than issues.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, US Politics,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jenos The Deplorable says:

    In 2000, George W. Bush got 50,999,897 votes to Al Gore’s 50,456,002, roughly half a percentage point difference.

    Beg pardon, but you got those numbers transposed.

    Fixed – ed

  2. Aelio says:

    I’m watching an interview on Youtube just now and Jonathan Haidt repeated that America is not actually a democracy. That’s the problem with every vote actually counting. Michael Moore is actually out with some advice for Democrats that they should be saying that Hillary actually won the popular vote. There’s a bit of a keep your chin up to that. Moore is also saying that Democrats should be prepared to fight Republicans in Congress. Their morale must be rock bottom now. Voters have mostly done their jobs. But for Congress, they will have to earn it for the next 4 years. There seems to be a little high at the markets at the moment, until Republicans actually start implementing their reforms I guess. When the data gets plotted for historical purposes, we’ll see a curve going up at the transition from Obama to Trump. Mitt Romney wanted that curve so badly in 2012. Once they implement their debt ridden reforms though, the curve could change direction again.

  3. Democrats should be organizing for 2018 and 2020. That´s looking like a movie that I´ve already watched it and I did not like watching for the first time.

  4. Mikey says:

    @Aelio:

    Michael Moore is actually out with some advice for Democrats that they should be saying that Hillary actually won the popular vote. There’s a bit of a keep your chin up to that.

    Well, yeah, of course. But it’s also a way of reminding Republicans their Presidential win is not a mandate, that more than half of voters actually chose his opponent.

  5. Jen says:

    Question for anyone–a few friends have posted a Daily Kos piece (I know, I know) referencing the “National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.” They are suggesting that this, somehow, is a feasible path.

    My hunch is that no, this would be challenged in court as unconstitutional as the only real method to change from the EC is the path set out by the Constitution, which would require 2/3rds vote in Congress and 3/4 of the states ratifying the change–in other words, it would require smaller states to vote against their own interests diminishing their power, particularly that red swath down the middle of the country (Montana, SD, ND, etc.).

    Is this “interstate compact” a viable option?

  6. @Jen: The problem of the Insterstate Compact is that only large and Democratic states would be adhering to it.

  7. Rick DeMent says:

    The popular is certainly irrelevant to the electoral contest especially since the loser has a “D” next to their name (I have a hard time imagining the party that refused to nominate a supreme court justice would give a rat’s ass about the “Nuance” of the electoral college if they won the popular vote).

    That the Democrats won the popular vote for president (and similarly in the House since they won a higher percentage of the popular vote then they did representatives) is a reminder that the the ruling party should tread cautiously. Will they? who knows. The filibuster will be gone though and this seems like a big gamble for the GOP with such a tenuous hold on power, since they now own the government and everything that happens.

  8. Scott says:

    I wrote yesterday that the mandate claim has to be push back. Yes, Trump won the Presidency based on electoral votes but the Democrats gained in the House and the Senate and won the popular vote. It was not a landslide nor a wave election. They can’t let that narrative take hold.

  9. Todd says:

    In 10 years or so, the first time Texas again votes for a Democrat in the Presidential race, Republicans will be the ones calling for a national popular vote … and Democrats will fight as hard as they can to keep the electoral college.

  10. Todd says:

    @Rick DeMent:

    The filibuster will be gone though

    The Republican majority will be 52 seats. I’m not sure it’s guaranteed they can get 50 Republican votes to end the filibuster.

    That being said, to remain consistent, I wouldn’t be upset if they did eliminate it. I don’t think it’s how our system was designed to work, There are several instances spelled out in the Constitution where a supermajority is required. I have always thought that if the framers had intended for advise and consent, let alone normal legislation to require 60 votes, they would said so in the document.

  11. wr says:

    Legally, you’re absolutely right. Trump is the president.

    But I keep hearing how we terrible, elitist Democrats now must bow down to the wonderful real Americans who are the only ones who count, and who are the vast majority of the country. And it’s important to remember that this is hogwash. We have a political system set up to give more power to people in sparsely populated and rural areas — this does not give them a mandate to make me worship Jesus or whatever their “religious freedom” demands.

    And I don’t think the anti-Trump protesters are most saying that he’s illegitimate because of the way votes are counted, just that he is unacceptable to large portions of the population and they are not going to stay silent and watch their friends and families be deported, their marriages be annulled, or their lives upended by a man who has occasionally promised to do all of the above.

  12. dmhlt says:

    Donald et al:

    When 200,000 Americans wanted the other person to win, your election is NOT a “mandate”

  13. Jc says:

    To listen to Mitch McConnell you would think it was an absolute mandate, which everyone knows it was not. You have the POTUS and Clinton give speeches that recognize reality, and then a majority leader who still is in his alternate reality.

  14. Rick DeMent says:

    @Todd:

    I should have said, for Supreme Court nominations. I pretty sure that the Democrats would have done the same. but now that the Republicans have used ot to deny a sitting president the privilege of appointing his nominee, they will get rid of that as soon as they can becase they know the Democrats will return the favor.

  15. Todd says:

    @wr: First off, most of those protesters appear to be college kids who probably spent the past 4 months refreshing wikileaks every 15 minutes and bashing Hillary Clinton on the internet. Now they’re shocked and dismayed that Donald Trump got elected?

    But more importantly, what do they hope to achieve?

    If we are to believe the worst about Donald Trump, seeing all of these people out in the streets cursing his name will only make him MORE likely to take exactly the actions that they most fear.

  16. Avid sportman says:

    While it’s true that Trump lost the popular vote, I also think it’s instructive too look at the geographic nature of his victory. H/T Mish @ mishtalk for the graphic. https://mishgea.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/geographic-landslide1.png

    You can draw your own conclusions, but the difference between urban and rural America’s vote was striking to me.

  17. Pch101 says:

    @Jen:

    States choose the electors. If the winner-take-all systems that most states use today and laws that allow or ban faithless electors are constitutional, then I can’t see why another formula for choosing electors can’t be used.

    I am personally opposed to the compact, but my opposition is based more upon honoring original intent than any lack of constitutional merit. (I’m not inclined to argue that everything that I dislike is unconstitutional simply because I dislike it — I’ll leave that tactic to right-wing cranks.)

  18. Todd says:

    @Rick DeMent: I think they’ll want to eliminate it … and agree that the Democrats would have as well. I’m just not sure the Republicans can get 50 votes. I could imagine Susan Collins and Linsey Graham as the most likely holdouts, possibly with John McCain, Jeff Flake, and Dean Heller, who is in a State (NV) that went pretty Blue this election.

    Also, eliminating the filibuster would actually allow the red state Democrats who will be up for reelection in 2018 to take significantly fewer very tough votes. Simply voting against a Trump nominee who makes it to the court would not be the same as voting to deny the nominee altogether.

    I think it’s more likely we’ll see some sort of “Gang of 14” type deal … in an attempt by the Democrats to try to get the most relatively moderate Justice possible.

  19. Moosebreath says:

    The popular vote is irrelevant in determining who won because everyone knew the method by which the President was to be chosen beforehand. The method was the electoral college, and Trump won under that method. He is therefore the legitimately elected President.

    Whether future elections should be held under the same method is another question, and I can see the arguments each way. I tend to agree with @Pch101‘s arguments on why we should keep the electoral college.

  20. Bob@Youngstown says:

    We ran both contests by the rules that have been in place going back to the earliest days of the Republic.

    I thought that the early days of the republic had the Congress electing the President?

    BTW, I am not adopting a position that this current election was “somehow illegitimate”, rather a warning that as third or fourth parties gain traction in the future, the president elect will be a plurality president rather than a majority president. When and if you got a president that is elected by the people with 31% support, how could that president claim a mandate (of the people when 70% voted against him/her and their policies).

    Your analogies to baseball games or football games is fine, provided that there are only two teams on the field.

  21. Pch101 says:

    @Bob@Youngstown:

    I’m pretty sure that the founders didn’t care about majority rule per se.

    The basic ideas behind the electoral college:

    -The president represents both state and popular interests, not just one of them. (Hence, every state gets two electors as an equalizer just as each state has two senators, regardless of size.)

    -A president should not be chosen because he is a favored son in just one corner of the country; a president should be able to appeal to a broader constituency

    The implication of all of this is that having multiple simultaneous elections to choose a president should serve as a sort of gauntlet that is more likely to produce a decent one and avoid a bad one. (OK, so that part of it isn’t working so well…)

    On the whole, the priority was on stability. The government needs to have a president at all times; having a legitimately chosen president is more important than having one who is embraced by a popular majority.

  22. Kylopod says:

    @Bob@Youngstown:

    I thought that the early days of the republic had the Congress electing the President?

    No, that only happened in 1800 and 1824, when no candidates won a majority of electoral votes. That outcome is still theoretically possible in today’s system, but the emergence of a strong two-party system has made it less likely.

    It is definitely true that the EC today works nothing like the Founders envisioned. The original idea was that the states (through the legislature, not the voters) would choose a slate of electors who were a body of men who would convene to decide on a president. The Founders failed to anticipate two things: (1) the emergence of political parties (2) the gradual weakening of the states.

    In its original version, the vp was the candidate who came in second in electoral votes. It was as if Hillary would become Trump’s vp. The 12th amendment was passed to remedy this problem after John Adams’ vp Thomas Jefferson spent the entire presidency trying to undermine his boss who came from a different party. It just goes to show the Founders’ cluelessness about parties.

    Nowadays, of course, the electors no longer function as independent actors who come together to choose a president; they’re pledged in advance to support their party’s nominee and may face legal consequences for failing to do so (as the recent controversy in Washington State highlights). So the basic effect of the EC is an arbitrary shuffling of the vote.

    That’s why I get really miffed whenever I hear people invoke the “wisdom of the Founders.” First of all, the EC was from the beginning a compromise that a number of the Founders weren’t thrilled about. Second, whatever purpose it may have once served is long obsolete. People defend it largely because it’s there (and because of partisan incentives due to Dems being on the receiving end of this system and the GOP reaping its benefits), and then they look for ad hoc reasons to justify it.

  23. michael reynolds says:

    @Todd:

    The Republicans in the Senate will lie down for Trump. They don’t have the character to stand up to him.

    This is now a single party state, with misogynists and racists in control of all three branches of government, and a mentally unhinged toddler in the White House.

    Whatever nice, neat, due process thing you think is going to happen is really pretty unlikely.

  24. The ORIGINAL purpose of the Electoral College was to accommodate slavery: it allowed states that had slaves to have them counted as votes, even if they did not vote. I would argue that the Electoral College allows regional balance – from what I see in Brazil, São Paulo and Minas Gerais, the two largest states, have disproportional power over who is elected President.

    On the other hand, allowing someone that got overall less votes to be President in two in six elections is a huge institutional danger, and the Founders were not thinking about regional balance. They were thinking about accommodating the demands of the slaveholding states.

  25. wr says:

    @Todd: “First off, most of those protesters appear to be college kids who probably spent the past 4 months refreshing wikileaks every 15 minutes and bashing Hillary Clinton on the internet.”

    Ah, yes, the same old song. Any out of work coal miner in Appalachia who demands that the entire economy return to coal power despite the fact that natural gas is much cheaper and that coal burning threatens to damage the entire planet simply so he can continue in the same job is a Real American whose every complaint, down to his hurt feelings, must be respected and even honored.

    But hispanics who fear the coming of the Immigration Squad? Women who have been promised that they will lose the right to control their own bodies? African-Americans who have been promised nationwide stop and frisk and have been told that white policemen who gun down blacks are always right?

    These are just whiny kids who should go back to studying.

    I just lived through eight years in which most progress was stalled because a bunch of hicks in tri-corn hats actually decided to make some noise when they were unhappy. So now it’s time for the other side to take to the streets.

    Sorry if you find this distasteful. It’s only lives we’re talking about.

  26. al-Ameda says:

    The popular vote does not matter and is irrelevant – not a problem until you realize that in this election Democrats received more votes than Republicans however Republicans have increased their control of our Federal government – it is now complete. And, to rub salt in the wounds of liberals and Democrats, Republicans have not considered the recent two-term Democratic presidents – Clinton and Obama – to be legitimate.

  27. Jen says:

    The problem I see with the elimination of the Electoral College is what I will call “The Maine Problem.” Maine has twice elected a mini-Trump in Paul LePage because of a fractured vote. He got the most votes in a 5-way race, and then the most votes in a 3-way race. The EC smooths out problems like this through the winner-take-all system. It isn’t perfect, but I (think) I prefer a system that favors half over one that could end up putting in office someone who only received 35% of the vote, simply because the remainder of the vote was split between 5 parties.

  28. Scott says:

    @michael reynolds: I’m thinking just the opposite. Trump will go for whatever the Republican Congress sends him. And I’m more concerned about the radical right in the House than Trump.

  29. Todd says:

    @wr:

    Sorry if you find this distasteful. It’s only lives we’re talking about.

    I never said anything about distasteful.

    My position is that it’s at best a waste of time and energy (what’s the realistically achievable goal?), and at worst it’s counterproductive.

  30. Todd says:

    @michael reynolds:

    The Republicans in the Senate will lie down for Trump. They don’t have the character to stand up to him

    I suppose we’ll find out. Perhaps I’m being naive, but I’m pretty sure there will be at least 3 Republican Senators who would have a hard time being convinced to eliminate the filibuster … especially on normal legislation. The Supreme Court nomination, if the Democrats block a Trump pick, they probably will eliminate the filibuster … but let’s be honest, if the Democrats had control of the Senate right now and could get 50 votes themselves, it would already be gone.

  31. Pch101 says:

    @Todd:

    Senators who have institutional memory will understand that these parliamentary rules will help them during those times that their party is a minority, and that those periods are inevitable in a two-party system.

    Some of those senators will be Republicans. If they go nuclear now, then they will eventually pay for it later, and they know it. Cloture is here to stay; senators are a bit calmer than the representatives in the House.

  32. george says:

    @Mikey:

    Not sure if mandate really means anything anyway. Bill Clinton never got 50% of the votes, did he have a mandate? In parliamentary gov’t like Canada’s, UK’s, Germany’s its very rare to get 50% of the vote for the ruling party (even if they often get more than 50% of the ridings due to first past the post) – do they have a mandate?

    Trump won. Its time to move on – listen to people, find out why they voted for Trump (thinking you already know is a great way to continue losing – if a bridge falls down the engineers don’t automatically blame the construction people or materials, they actually analyse what happened to avoid it happening again). And then change things so the mid-terms come out differently.

  33. Pch101 says:

    @george:

    Mandates are about moral authority, not legal authority.

    The Trumpistas need to be reminded that they came in second. Somewhat more than half of the country preferred someone else.

    They have won the legal right to rule, but those rights are limited and they should not be allowed to pretend that they have license to do whatever they like. Liberals need to push back hard, and become more adept at the pushing.

  34. grumpy realist says:

    @wr: Eh. Maybe we need to go through a round of “remember why we got rid of this stupidity? Because it’s really really dumb” before it really sticks.

    Like anti-vaxxers who have forgotten exactly how awful the illnesses were that they refuse to vaccinate their kids against. I’ve often thought they should be dropped with kids into somewhere in Africa sans vaccinations for a year or two just so they can learn from direct experience.

    Guess Americans will have to learn the hard way that food safety regulations and environmental protection regulations are A Good Thing…..

  35. Pch101 says:

    @grumpy realist:

    When the Trump nonsense fails to work, the Trumpistas will blame everyone but themselves for the failure. These people are not known for their analytical skills or introspection.

  36. dennis says:

    @wr:

    I inferred that Todd was making the point (and he can correct me, if I’m wrong) that these protesters are out in strength now, but probably didn’t take the time to go vote, a point I was making to my colleagues just this morning.

    I heard one of the young protesters on NPR this morning say, “I wasn’t very politically engaged up to this point, and I regret it.” Meaning, “I didn’t go vote, but my sorry azz is out here now protesting!”

  37. dennis says:

    @george:

    Trump won. Its time to move on – listen to people, find out why they voted for Trump (thinking you already know is a great way to continue losing

    Yeah, I wonder if you were saying that when Obama won — twice. Hypocrite republicans are killing me with this “move on” s@#$ all the time. They were completely unable and unwilling to “move on” and let Pres. Obama govern. Ya’ll can eat — oh, never mind.

  38. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @Pch101: Absolutely !
    @Kylopod:
    I stand corrected, very interesting piece written in 2012 to discusses the history of the presidential election process appears here.

  39. Rick DeMent says:

    @Todd:

    Yeah I can see that. But there will be a lot of pressure from the brand spanking new voters of the hard core Trump coalition who are mistaken about the fact they elected a president not a dictator. I saw this on the Obama side when they realized he couldn’t just pass laws all by himself and became disillusioned with him.

  40. Mikey says:

    @george: Basically what @Pch101 said. Of course Trump will be President, with all that implies, but he must remember he wasn’t elected with majority support, and in addition, his party lost seats in the House and Senate. He’s not riding a huge wave of national support, even though he will claim he is.

    I don’t think Canada/UK/Germany are valid comparisons because of the great many differences between our system and their parliamentary systems. The latter expects a party to sometimes lack a clear majority, that’s why they build coalitions.

  41. al-Alameda says:

    @george:

    Trump won. Its time to move on – listen to people, find out why they voted for Trump (thinking you already know is a great way to continue losing

    With all due respect, I believe I already know why Trump lost the popular vote and won the Electoral College.

    (1) Republicans have methodically worked our system to the point where, as a minority party, they control the entire federal government. Advantage Trump.

    (2) There is apparently an exhaustible supply of angry white male voters who, through their elected representatives, obstructed virtually everything President Obama did since Inauguration Day 2009. Advantage Trump.

    (3) Because I have listened to these people (frankly, it is really hard to ignore 25 years of resentment, whining and self-pity) I now understand that resentment and being uninformed is in charge now. So yeah, I acknowledge that that there’s a toxic new sheriff in town, but I’m not inclined to accept it.

  42. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @Rick DeMent:

    But there will be a lot of pressure from the brand spanking new voters of the hard core Trump coalition who are mistaken about the fact they elected a president not a dictator.

    Jeff Sessions was being asked how Trump expects to execute on his first 100 day promises today on CNN.
    Specifically with regard to the construction of the border wall, if faced with a reluctant or “slow” congression, Sessions said Trump would just sign an Executive Order to overcome any Congressional foot-dragging.

    Wasn’t the use of executive orders something that Obama was roundly criticized for?

  43. Grewgills says:

    @Todd:
    If Texas goes blue, then Democrats are winning the popular vote and electoral college. In that scenario they won’t fight against a NPV, but they will lose interest in it.

  44. Pch101 says:

    @al-Alameda:

    To be fair, the electoral math that I’ve done so far tells me that Clinton lost the election by failing to get Democrats to turn out in sufficient numbers and by losing many of the independents.

    Someone should have pointed a gun at Joe Biden’s head and forced him to run for president (although in the case of Wisconsin, it may be worth trying to determine whether the voter suppression efforts contributed to the result.)

  45. Mikey says:

    @Bob@Youngstown: If you’re waiting for intellectual or moral consistency from these people, you’ll be waiting a very long time indeed.

  46. David M says:

    Dr Joyner, would your opinion about the popular vote change if the difference was 2 million rather than 200,000? How about if the loser had over 50% of the vote?

  47. Kylopod says:

    @David M: Samuel Tilden won over 50% of the popular vote in 1876.

  48. Chuck Myers says:

    My personal preference for the EC would be to divide the electoral votes according to the percentage of votes won by each candidate. The candidate that wins the state would receive two extra votes for winning.

    This would be a fairer proportiment of votes and not discourage voters in states that are solid blue or red from voting

  49. mannning says:

    The only “mandate” I can perceive is for the President and Congress to pass and sign legislation and remove Executive Orders and regulations from force as they promised during the campaign, and this “mandate” comes from those who voted for Trump and his party members and not the public as a whole.