On Thursday morning, Donald Trump unexpectedly joined his voice to the myriad of Democrats calling for the abolition of the Electoral College. In his freewheeling interview on Fox & Friends, Trump told his hosts: “I would rather have a popular election, but it’s a totally different campaign. If you’re a runner, you’re practicing for the hundred-yard dash as opposed to the mile. . . . To me, it’s much easier to win the popular vote.” That statement came as a surprise to many, given that it was the Electoral College that gave him a 304–227 electoral-vote victory over his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 presidential election, even though Clinton had won the popular vote by almost 3 million.
Now that Trump has come out against the College, perhaps it is possible to finally have a discussion of the College’s merits that doesn’t immediately devolve into political gamesmanship. Does the 230-year-old institution for electing presidents still have a place in modern America? The question is gaining in importance as more states consider joining the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact to impose a popular vote on presidential elections — a state-based workaround that does not require amending the Constitution.
It is worth recapping how exactly the Electoral College works. In the electoral system, Americans are actually voting for slates of electors who then go on to elect the president. Electors are apportioned by the sum of a state’s representatives and senators in Congress, reflecting their unequal population (representatives are proportional) and their equality as states (each state has two senators). The electors have previously committed themselves to one party or candidate, and all but two states allocate their electors by a “winner-take-all” system, giving whichever candidate polls higher all the electoral votes from that state.
The electoral system gives lower-population states a small bonus relative to their higher population counterparts — reflecting a belief that rural population interests should not always be overwhelmed by urban interests — but the main effect the College has is to force candidates to campaign to try to win states. .
This keeps states relevant in the raucous federal election system. Candidates must travel — Trump made over 100 campaign stops in the final ten weeks of the campaign — and target their messages to the unique interests of the states they visit. Pollsters survey voters on state issues. Media bring events in Bangor, Maine or Everett, Wash., to the rest of the country. We see candidates visiting local eateries and meeting with local entrepreneurs. Famously, Boston-bred millionaire John F. Kennedy while campaigning in West Virginia was troubled by the real poverty that he saw there, an experience that would shape his economic policy and outlook on American society.
The differences among states might not matter much for a chief executive whose only job was to conduct war, but the modern president oversees 24 cabinet-level departments whose activities have disparate influence depending on the situation of the states they affect.
Without the Electoral College, most campaigning would take place in major media centers such as New York City and Los Angeles. Speeches, polling, and reporting would focus — even more than they already do — on national issues, without consideration to how they affect particular states as states. It is little wonder Trump would prefer this “hundred-yard dash.” So would any other national celebrity eyeing a run for the oval office. States would literally be wiped off the presidential election map we are so accustomed to seeing every second Tuesday of November in a year divisible by four. And what we do not see or talk about, we tend to forget about.
Forgetting states would be problematic because states and their people have unique geographic and political interests that ought to be reflected in the agenda of the nation’s executive. As even liberal stalwart Franklin Roosevelt acknowledged, “the vastness of the [American] territory presented geographical and climatic differences which gave to the States wide differences in the nature of their industry, their agriculture and their commerce.” These differences might not matter much for a chief executive whose only job was to conduct war, but the modern president oversees 24 cabinet-level departments including Education, Labor, Interior, Transportation, and Health and Human Services, to name a few, whose activities have disparate influence depending on the situation of the states they affect.
Some contend that the College empowers only swing states. If you are not in Ohio, they say, your vote does not matter. But if there is anything the past few decades should have taught us it is that no state can be taken for granted. Gore couldn’t take his home state of Tennessee for granted in 2000, and Trump even had to send top surrogates to ruby-red Utah in 2016 to fend off challenges from serious third-party candidates.
Under a popular-vote system, what would fill the void left by the states? Probably more-intense identity politics, cults of personality, and negative campaigning designed to ratchet up fear and anger to turn out the base, without regard for local nuance. Donald Trump is right that a popular-vote system would make national campaigning easier for candidates like him — Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne Johnson don’t want to talk to local Wisconsinites at Miss Katie’s Diner or attend town halls in Sandown, N.H. Whether Trump would win without the Electoral College is another matter. That does not mean we should get rid of it.