Did you know that Donald Trump won because the system is rigged? No, I’m not talking about “voter suppression” or disenfranchisement, though there are some people who claim that the GOP suppressed its way to a win. I’m talking about something far deeper, far more structural, and inextricably connected to America’s original sin of white supremacy. I’m talking about the Electoral College.
If America elected its presidents through straight popular vote, there would be no President-elect Trump. There would have never been a President George W. Bush. The Democratic hold on the White House would be secure. After all, a Democrat has won six out of the last seven popular-vote majorities.
Instead, Democrats are left crying that the GOP has conspired with the dead, white Founding Fathers to defeat Democracy and override the express will of the American people. This is an idea with profound consequences, some of which we’re seeing in the streets of cities such as Portland and Oakland now. Chants of “not my president” are often grounded in the belief that there is something inherently unjust about swearing in a president who couldn’t even receive a plurality of the vote. In one poll, up to 33 percent of Democrats don’t believe that Trump’s election is legitimate, and a Change.org petition asking Trump-bound presidential electors to follow the alleged will of the people and vote for Hillary Clinton has garnered more than 4.2 million signatures.
I’m not going to spend much time arguing over the original vision of the Electoral College and the wisdom of Founding Fathers whom so many leftists thoroughly despise. Yes, I believe the system is a wise and just way to elect the leader of 50 diverse states with different political cultures and different political needs. Giving voters in a few densely populated urban centers the power to swamp the electoral desires of the vast heartland in perpetuity would create its own form of instability. The Electoral College is a modest, though important, way to preserve a delicate balance of power between competing political constituencies.
My more pressing concern is the absurd notion that Hillary is more legitimate because she won a game that neither candidate was playing. Both sides campaigned, strategized, and spent money to win not a popular-vote plurality but 270 electoral votes. If Hillary had reached 270 and without winning the popular vote, not a single left-wing protester would be demanding that electors switch their votes to Trump. Indeed, some of the same people who are decrying the “white supremacy” baked into our constitutional system would be relishing the sweet irony that the sexist Founders helped clinch victory for our first female president.
Here’s a fact: We don’t know who would have won the 2016 (or 2000) presidential races if the president was elected by popular vote because the race would have been run completely differently. Forget the millions of dollars spent squeezing a few-thousand votes out of New Hampshire precincts. Forget the micro-targeting of Iowa voters. Who really cares how Hamilton County, Ohio, turnout changed from 2012? After all, that’s just noise in the great race to, say, 65 million or 70 million votes.
Vote-rich secure red states like Texas would be blanketed with get out the vote efforts. The solid-red South, where states are individually small players in the Electoral College but collectively represent tens of millions of voters, would become ground zero for GOP turnout. Safe blue states such as California and New York would be the scene of a frenzy of activity, with each Democratic precinct given the same care and attention as the most hotly contested Florida county circa 2000.
If possible, the political rhetoric would grow even more heated. Who cares if you can switch the votes of 50,000 Obama Democrats in Pennsylvania if you can get 150,000 more Tennessee conservatives to the polls? What’s the point in winning over New Hampshire moderates if you can swamp Brooklyn precincts with angry hipsters? Presidential temperaments and policies are often driven by the need to gain and maintain small majorities in the swing states. Remove that incentive, and the world would change substantially — for the better in some ways and for the worse in others.
Democrats declaring Hillary’s superiority aren’t unlike sports fans who stubbornly cling to the notion that their team would win if only the rules were just a little bit different. “If we could hand-check Steph Curry, he wouldn’t have hit eight threes.” “If we could get more physical with the wide receivers, Tom Brady wouldn’t throw for 380 yards and four touchdowns.” It’s an interesting argument, but who ultimately cares? Those aren’t the rules.
At the same time, however, it would be a profound mistake for the GOP to completely write off its repeated popular-vote losses. Amid all the triumphalism, the sheer number of Democratic votes shows not just our nation’s polarization but also the immense challenges of repeating 2016’s victories for the GOP. Democrats lost this election because they lost reliably blue states in the Rust Belt, but that loss may not be permanent, and the states they can still rely on give them a bigger base of electoral votes on which to build than the GOP’s. Trump’s red wall is fragile precisely because it’s new and untested. The GOP still faces a precarious future, given that reliably red states seem more likely to become purple or blue in coming cycles than reliably blue states are to become purple or red.
The popular vote helps tell us our nation is closely divided. It demonstrates the difficulty in cobbling together electoral majorities. It does not tell us who should “really” be president. Hillary’s campaign is like a football team that piled up more total yards but couldn’t put the ball in the end zone. They can take solace that they came close to winning, but they cannot claim that they’re the true champions. In sports, these arguments are fun. In politics, they can be dangerous. Protesters and petition-signers need to understand that Donald Trump won under the only rules that mattered. The rest is just hypothetical.
— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.