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Why the Electoral College Matters More than than the Popular Vote

The issue of winning the popular vote and losing the electoral college is fraught with uninformed debate.

Our country has always been a state to state compact. It's embedded in our name: United States of America.

As we've grown more and more from regional factions with the vaunted labor mobility that has driven our economy, Americans today identify more with the America part than that state part, to the point where we've forgotten why it's the states that vote for President, not the people. Identifying nationally is not a bad thing. But, today, still in a polarized world, urban v rural, heavy regional differences, old v young, race v race, rich v poor, the state to state compact and the resulting electoral college matter even more than ever to give us all a voice.

Those framers today, are still looking really, really smart to have built a mechanism that drives geographical voice. Our framers did not even require that a popular vote is required for electors at all. Each state determines its own method voting for electors. A final check, I might add, that I'm damn glad to have when we have a sitting President refusing to promise to abide by the outcome, and election integrity concerns amid the pandemic.

We've had 58 Presidential elections, one third of those elections, 19x, we've had a President who did not win a majority of the popular vote. Far from rare, and far from a recent phenomenon. Many of these were heavily contested races with multiple candidates, and even more divisive than today. In one quarter of those 19 elections, spread over 200 years, the winner did not win the plurality of popular vote either, also not rare or recent.

  • Two of our most impactful Presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson, had two the 3 smallest % of Americans vote for them in at least one race.

  • Ronald Reagan won 90% of the electoral college and 80% of the states, with less than 50.75% of the popular vote, but did eek out a majority despite heavy 3rd party voting that year.

  • Even in the election of 1824, a 4 way race where Andrew Jackson, who won in 1828, won 40% of the popular vote to winner John Quincy Adams' 30%, the race was decided in the House for Adams when the 4th candidate, Henry Clay, through his support behind the winner, tipping the scales to over 50% of the state delegations.

Consider that in the two most recent examples that have engendered so much concern, Bush v Gore in 2000 and Trump v Clinton in 2016, the winner in both cases won a higher vote percentage in 60% of the states than the loser. Consider that. Bush and Trump each won 50% more states than Gore and Clinton. And in both cases, neither Clinton nor Gore won a majority of the popular vote, either.

But luckily for the Democrats, a majority in the popular vote has never been the standard, voting by state and winning a majority in the electoral college has been. Neither Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, or Bill Clinton ever won a majority of the popular vote. Neither did John F Kennedy for that matter. George W Bush did in 2004. Consider that. But neither Bill Clinton's nor JFK's victories were in doubt. Bill Clinton did however, win 70% of the electoral college, and over 60% of the states, even though a majority of Americans never voted for him. Hillary Clinton and Al Gore never won more than 40% of the states, nor did a majority of Americans ever vote for them. The winners beat them each in three states for every two.

In fact, no Democratic Presidential candidate but Barack Obama has earned the vote of a majority of Americans since LBJ - Democrats have depended heavily on a plurality and the electoral college, where the Republicans have mostly been forced to win an out right majority to achieve victory, with only the two notable exceptions.

To broaden the historical context, since 1900, in all but 3 of 17 of their wins, and every Republican President except Donald Trump, Republicans have won a majority of the popular vote, including George W Bush (2004 not 2000), George HW Bush (1992 not 1996), Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon (1972 not 1968), Dwight Eisenhower, Herbert Hoover, Coolidge, Harding, Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, and McKinley.

The Democratic record for a popular mandate is much more mixed, largely due to 3rd party impacts. Even in their victories 50% of the time the Democrats won the electoral college without a popular majority, and only 3 Democratic Presidents, Obama (2x), LBJ (1x), and FDR (4x), have won a majority of the vote since 1900. The other 5, Wilson (2x), Truman (1x), JFK (1x), Carter (1x), Clinton (2x), did not.

However, in every single one of those elections the electoral college win also meant the eventual victor won a majority of the States.

Inclusiveness and mandate in a Presidential election is not about getting a majority of Americans to vote for you, or even more Americans than the other guy. It never has been. It's about making sure that every part of America has a voice, it's about a system of checks and balances.

Voting, and winning by state, matters.


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