Politics & Policy

Nobody Understands What a Popular Vote Presidential Election Would Mean

Election day in Medina, Ohio, November 8, 2016 (Reuters photo: Aaron Josefczyk)
Republicans and Democrats have both decried the Electoral College — and they’re both opportunistic.

It happens the Wednesday after the first Monday of every fourth November: Those on the losing side of a presidential election turn to the pressing matter of apportioning blame.

Lousy strategy, infighting and factionalism, poor data operations, unheeded Cassandras, badly chosen surrogates, nefarious outside forces, not targeting the right voters, advertising in the wrong places, everyone but themselves — falling short of the White House is one failure that is anything but an orphan.

One popular scapegoat for presidential losers since the turn of the century is the Electoral College, the obscure, misunderstood body to which the Constitution assigns the responsibility of actually electing the president. Having watched their candidate win the popular vote yet lose the presidency, supporters of Hillary Clinton are understandably treating the Electoral College the way Goneril and Regan treated Lear.

But such is the interest in excuses for losses, this debate doesn’t come up only in years where electors and the popular vote diverge.

In 2012, though it attracted less notice, it was the GOP who had it out for the Electoral College.

Faced with a fifth popular-vote loss in six elections and seeing another foot or two of brick piled atop the Democrats’ seemingly insurmountable “blue wall,” chagrined Republicans decided that their best bet for gaining a majority in the Electoral College wasn’t to submit a better application but to rewrite the rules of admission. Hence, Republican legislators in several states alighted on a scheme to divide their states’ electoral votes by congressional district instead of giving them all to the statewide winner.

RELATED: Why We Have an Electoral College

Such proposals were mooted in Virginia, Michigan, Pennsylvania (where plans were being hatched as early as 2011), Ohio, and Wisconsin, all of which would have become much more favorable terrain for the GOP if they awarded votes by congressional district.

The motive for this gambit was transparent: If it had been in effect nationwide (as some GOP operatives desired), it would have delivered a Romney victory. Critics lambasted the idea as “vote-rigging.” One even excoriated it as “a corrupt and cynical maneuver to frustrate [the] popular will.” Commentators noted that the proposal was likely to be self-defeating and could even backfire. By the end of 2014, enthusiasm for this bit of gamesmanship had faded to the point that it was exiled to a filing cabinet in some forgotten office. Creigh Deeds, the Democrat who lost the 2009 Virginia governor’s race, described the ploy best: “It’s sore losers, it’s a sore losers bill.”

Do we want a president who wins by running up the score in one or two states, or do we want a president who wins by garnering narrower victories in a wide array of states?

Four years later, it’s Democrats and progressives who are being sore losers about the Electoral College. The press has filled with laments that the Electoral College contradicts modern democratic principles, editorials calling for its abolition, and stories speculating about its future after it awarded the presidency to the popular-vote loser for the second time in 16 years. The divide between the popular vote and the electoral vote has brought renewed attention to the National Popular Vote plan, in which states would award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. Four million people have signed a petition to have electors vote for Hillary Clinton when they meet on December 19.

Unlike conservatives after Romney lost, progressives can claim some sanction for their appeals in Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote triumph. But the irony is that both calls are just about equally opportunistic, because neither has a true claim to popular legitimacy.

To be blunt, Clinton’s popular vote win is an illusion. I don’t mean that it doesn’t exist, but it is more apparent than real. Presidential elections are run according to the Electoral College. Candidates compete to win electoral votes; the popular vote is a by-product of that. To put it in terms of video games, the popular vote is a side quest.

RELATED: Hillary’s Popular-Vote Win Is (Mostly) Meaningless

It’s impossible to say that Trump would have lost if the election had been contested on the basis of winning the popular vote because it wasn’t conducted that way — just as it’s impossible to say Romney would definitely have won an election with electors awarded by congressional districts.

Ideally, a candidate gains both the popular vote and the Electoral College, but if only one can be had, in our system it’s the Electoral College that matters, and that’s the way it should be.

Do we want a president who wins by running up the score in one or two states, or do we want a president who wins by garnering narrower victories in a wide array of states? Clinton won New York and California. Trump won Texas. And Florida. And North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and even one electoral vote in Maine. He won the Electoral College by assembling a more politically and geographically diverse group of states than Clinton did. In our system, winning the Electoral College confers legitimacy because such a victory exemplifies the reality the Electoral College was created to ground in our political order: that the United States is a federal union of semi-sovereign states.

Those states, not the Electoral College, were Hillary Clinton’s downfall.

#related#Shift 115,000 votes the other way in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania and we’re not having this discussion. When Democrats assert that Clinton’s loss proves that the Electoral College must go, they’re saying that those lost 115,000 votes are enough to justify overturning two and a quarter centuries of American constitutional order. In 2012, it was Republicans who wanted upheaval over an invented margin of a few hundred thousand votes.

Needless to say, this is no way to run a republic.

— Varad Mehta is a historian who lives in suburban Philadelphia. He can be reached on Twitter @varadmehta.