Could it happen again? In 2016, Donald Trump became the sixth president to win the office while losing the national popular vote and the second one to do so in the last five presidential contests. In spite of his low public approval, a second term for Trump is wholly attainable, and it winds through the Electoral College process. Indeed, a Trump re-election in 2020 would most likely mimic his 2016 victory where he won the Electoral College, but lost the popular vote.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton won 48% of the popular vote to Trump's 46%. Nearly 3 million more Americans voted for Clinton over Trump. Yet Trump captured 57% of the Electoral College vote to Clinton's 42%.
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As President, he has remained historically unpopular. He holds the distinction as the first President in Gallup polling history who has not enjoyed a single day where a majority of Americans have approved of his performance in office. Instead, a majority of Americans have actually disapproved of his presidency throughout most of his first two years.
Nonetheless, demographic shifts throughout the country have increased awareness that the 2020 election may produce another split decision between the popular vote winner and the Electoral College winner -- a scenario that would undoubtedly benefit Trump.
Some scholars have concluded that these so-called misfire elections are likely to occur with greater frequency and will most assuredly produce results similar to those seen in 2000 and 2016, with a Republican winning the Electoral College and a Democrat winning the popular vote.
Although the population continues to become more diverse, the location of that diversity matters. Democrats have done well with communities of color and college-educated whites. Republicans have done well with older voters and whites without college degrees. These different bases of support are not uniformly distributed throughout the country.
Norman Ornstein regularly points out that "by 2040 or so, 70% of Americans will live in 15 states. Meaning 30% will choose 70 senators. And the 30% will be older, whiter, more rural, more male than 70%."
These older, rural, white, and male voters have largely stood by President Trump and are concentrated in a majority of states -- most of which are among the least populated in the country. Because all states are given two votes in the Electoral College (based on the Senate) in addition to the votes they receive based on their respective populations, citizens in these states have disproportionate weight in the institution. For instance, in 2016 an electoral vote in Wyoming represented just under 200,000 citizens, while an electoral vote in California represented over 700,000 citizens.
The "bonus two feature," along with the winner-take-all method most states use to award their electoral votes, often leads to misalignments between the popular vote and the Electoral College vote. For example, in 1980, Ronald Reagan won nearly 51% of the popular vote, but 90% of the electoral vote. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson won 42% of the popular vote, but 82% of the electoral vote. In 1992, Bill Clinton won 43% of the popular vote, but nearly 70% of the Electoral College vote.
Trump's Electoral College victory belies just how narrow his path to the presidency was. A change in less than 1% of the vote in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan would have resulted in an Electoral College victory for Clinton to match her popular vote victory. In fact, the 2016 hairbreadth election is actually a norm in presidential contests. Half of all presidential elections have been decided by less than 75,000 votes cast across the country.
Trump talks about Electoral College
Losing the popular vote appears to be a sore spot for the President. Trump has talked more about the Electoral College than any president in recent memory. He has repeatedly suggested that he would have won the popular vote had it not been for millions of unauthorized immigrants who voted for Hillary Clinton (a claim that has been widely debunked).
Like many Americans, Trump has been conflicted over the institution. In 2012, just after the election, he tweeted: "the electoral college is a disaster for a democracy" and "this election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!" He also tweeted the following call to action: "Lets fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice! The world is laughing at us."
Four years later, he changed his tune. A week after his victory, he tweeted that "the Electoral College is actually genius in that it brings all states, including the smaller ones, into play. Campaigning is much different!"
Trump was correct in 2012 to note that we are not a democracy; the US is a republic with democratic processes. However, he was wrong in 2016 to suggest that candidates campaign in small states due to the Electoral College.
Not one state holding three electoral votes received a single visit from the presidential or vice-presidential candidates from the major parties during the final months of the 2016 campaign. After winning their respective nominations, Trump and Pence failed to step foot in 26 states, while the Clinton-Kaine ticket neglected nearly three-fourths of the country. Instead, 94% of all campaigning occurred in 12 states and nearly 70% of all campaign events were held in just six states (Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Michigan).
The framers of the US Constitution found the selection of the chief executive to be among the most vexing issues they faced. In addition to the idea of having the Congress select the chief executive, they also considered a national popular vote.
In Federalist No. 68, Alexander Hamilton suggested that "if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent" when he introduced the Electoral College. In truth, conflict over the institution has led to nearly 800 congressional proposals to amend or abolish it -- perhaps more than any other feature in the Constitution.
Newly elected Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently tweeted that "it is well past time we eliminate the Electoral College, a shadow of slavery's power on America today that undermines our nation as a democratic republic." Invoking slavery and emphasizing "democratic" over "republic," Ocasio-Cortez has joined a chorus questioning how representative the republic is.
Last May, Connecticut joined ten other states and the District of Columbia as part of the National Popular Vote Compact. The compact seeks to ensure that the winner of the popular vote receives a majority of votes in the Electoral College. Member states pledge their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. The compact currently represents 172 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to go into effect.
Although he has vacillated on the institution, Trump continues to say that he supports a national popular vote over the Electoral College process. If he were serious, he would support Rep. Steve Cohen's bill to eliminate the Electoral College. Doing so would serve as an immediate source of agreement with the incoming Democratic House. Cohen introduced the legislation on the first day of the new Congress. While unlikely to gain enough support in both the House and the Senate, the move to a popular vote would be one proposal from Trump that Democrats simply could not refuse.
The Electoral College will continue to be a source of conflict, with increasing attention devoted to it in the next two years. This is especially so, given the prospects for another misfire election along with concerns over the legitimacy of American electoral practices.