How the popular vote matters

Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election, but won the popular vote by 2% over Donald Trump, roughly in line with the popular margin George W. Bush enjoyed in his 2004 re-election campaign against John Kerry.

Does that matter?

As many of my conservative friends have pointed out, it doesn’t matter at all as far as who should be President.  Contests have rules.  If you don’t win the most games in the AL East, you don’t win the division; doesn’t matter if you scored more runs than the other teams and allowed fewer.  That’s not how we decide who wins.

It doesn’t matter; but it does matter.  If you actually want to know not just which team won the division, but which team is better at baseball, you do want to keep track of runs scored and runs allowed.  Same thing if you want to make predictions about which team will win the division next time.  Or to give good advice as to whether a team needs to reshape its whole strategy or is best off sticking with its current approach.

My conservative friends also like to point out that the United States is a republic, not a democracy.  They’re right about that too.  Our electoral system, by design, will sometimes choose as President someone the American people don’t prefer and whose promised policies most of us don’t want enacted.  With a little effort you can even come up with a story that makes sense of this:  at some moments, you imagine, you need a President determined to protect the interests of the more vulnerable parts of America against the crude rule of the majority, who has a clearly articulated political vision that doesn’t sway with the gusts of public opinion, who fundamentally doesn’t mind being disagreed with, even disrespected, by the majority of the people he serves.

I don’t think that’s the guy we got.




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7 thoughts on “How the popular vote matters

  1. Shecky R says:

    I sympathize with your view of course, but to play Devil’s Advocate, the argument from the opposing side is that IF the popular vote had been the ultimate goal (and not the Electoral College) they would’ve run a different campaign, with different time and place and ad allocations, and then won THAT vote. But playing by the rules as given they worked specifically for the EC victory and got it. Hindsight is a wonderful thing! ;-)

  2. Jon Awbrey says:

    When I was in school we were taught that “republic” — in its post-Revolutionary American sense — was defined as “representative democracy” but neo-cons today seem to think it means something like “the rules of a game where gaming the rules is the name of the game”. Principles like One Person One Vote mean nothing to them and One Dollar One Vote rules the day.

    Oh well … I retreat into the consolations of philosophy …

    Thoughts On Representation

  3. Bruce says:

    If Trump wins the actual Electoral College vote, he will have the power of the presidency. But will he have the “authority”? When Barack Obama, the best president of my lifetime, was elected twice with overwhelming popular and EC support, the other party refused to acknowledge his authority. Their explicit goal in Congress was the obstruction of all of his programs, leading to the failure of his administration. This should have been widely regarded as treasonous. It is hypocritical beyond belief for the Republicans to now demand that we respect Comrade Don the Con.

  4. CL says:

    When George W. Bush won the EC, but not the popular vote, I really bought into that argument about the Electoral College, that sometimes the popular vote gets it wrong and in order to protect our democracy, the EC was installed to overturn the vote. The problem is that the EC has never done this. In 2000, it makes sense. While Bush’s policies and legacy was rather damaging, he respected the office of the presidency and democracy. But this election. If this election is not one of those times in which the EC steps in and says “no, this particular candidate would be far too damaging for our country and our democracy,” then when? Come 12/19, this argument won’t hold much sway for me.

    An argument for the EC that is currently holding some sway with me is that a popular vote would disenfranchise the rural voters, and I could see an argument for giving these rural voters more voting power. Because they’re so spread out, they have a need for resources that doesn’t always make sense for politicians. For example, getting a road fixed in the city that sees a ton more traffic makes more sense than getting a road fixed in the country that is used much less frequently. Take this further, and politicians would have little incentive to direct any resources to these rural people.

    Either way, the popular vote definitely matters.

  5. ijs says:

    Whatever purpose the electoral college serves today, it was recently pointed out to me that its original purpose can only have been to decouple a state’s weight in the presidential election from the number of votes actually cast in the state, in order to benefit states with large slave populations, because this effect would outweighed the effects we see today.

    According to, the power of the Northern states with small slave populations was diluted by ~10% and that power was distributed among the Southern slaveholding states, principally Virginia and South Carolina. Adding 2 electors for each state counteracted somewhat less than half of this effect, and as the size of the House grew it would compensate ever less.

    I would guess that the incentives created by this were important, too, discouraging abolition at the state level because the electoral power of the white population would be greatly diminished, and encouraging new states to adopt slavery.

  6. Mike Taylor says:

    Remove California from the vote total and Trump won the popular vote by 860,000. So “we” didn’t get the president Californians wanted. The Founders created the Electoral Collge to protect against what de Tocqueville called “the tyranny of the majority”. Ipso facto, the system is working.

    Further, the Constitution does not require states apportion electors on a winner-take-all basis. States are free to allocate electors in any manner they see fit. Don’t like the system as it is? Work to change it, either at the state level or the national level. But quit whining.

    As for the baseball analogy, once you know who won the division, who cares which team was “better at baseball”? The best team on paper might not be at the top, but the team at the top is the winner. Accept it and move on.

  7. NDE says:

    It is a common error that the EC prevents “tyranny of the majority”. No electoral system can prevent tyranny; that’s done by limits on government power. All that deviations from “one person, one vote” can accomplish is to enable minority rule, and thus tyranny of the minority if the system allows for tyranny in the first place.

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