Whoever Wins the Electoral College Would Have Won the Popular Vote

Since they lost the 2016 election to Donald Trump, many Democrats have become preoccupied with abolishing the electoral college. They point out that Hillary Clinton “won the popular vote”—a misleading turn of phrase, as we shall see. They conclude that there’s something both undemocratic and un-Democratic about the electoral college, that it’s unfair, and more importantly, biased against the left, and should therefore be abolished.

Sometimes they even assert that if the election had been decided by the popular vote, Hillary Clinton would have won. A different point of view comes from President Donald J. Trump, who remarked just after his election victory that he would have won more easily if the election had been decided by the popular vote.

I think in this case President Trump is right and most of the Democrats wrong. In fact, I would like to propose the following fundamental rule:

Whoever wins a presidential election under the electoral college system would also have won if the election had been decided instead by popular vote.

Quick-witted readers will have already figured out why this might well be true. But for the benefit of the sleepy-heads, I will now unpack this proposition at more length.

The obvious rationale for the claim that Hillary would have won if the election had been decided by the popular vote is that she certainly got more votes than Trump, and getting more votes wins you the popular vote.

The equally obvious rebuttal is that many people would certainly not have voted the same way if the election had been decided by popular vote. Knowing that the election was being decided by popular vote, not by the electoral college system, many people would have voted differently, including some people who would have voted for Trump instead of not voting at all.

Abolishing the Electoral College Would Probably Not Help the Democrats

There’s no going back to the electoral college as conceived by the Framers. People who vote in presidential elections think of themselves as voting for one or another candidate for president. They don’t think of themselves as voting for wise persons who will later pick the president.

Although there is no popular demand for abolition of the electoral college, it does appear that any future attempt by states to depart radically from a popular-vote system within each state (something they would be entitled to do under the Constitution) would be met by widespread outrage. And so, the electoral college is tolerated because it produces a result which approximates quite closely to a nationwide popular vote. And inasmuch as it departs from a nationwide popular vote, it does so in a way which is easy to understand and chimes with the idea that the United States is a federation of states. People easily comprehend that the president is chosen state by state.

Arguments for the electoral college include the claim that some autonomous role for the states is a good thing, and the claim that the electoral college tends to favor political tendencies which are more evenly spread across the country, as against tendencies concentrated in some areas. I am not going into these arguments here. On balance, I wouldn’t shed any tears if the electoral college system were replaced by direct election of the president, along the lines of the system in France.

What I do want to point out is that abolishing the electoral college would not help the Democrats, or at least that it’s not clear it would help the Democrats and might just as likely help the Republicans.

People who want to abolish the electoral college, currently mostly Democrats, typically say things like this: “If the 2016 election had been decided by popular vote, then it follows that Hillary Clinton would now be president.” This assertion is blatantly false. The people who make this claim appeal to the fact that Clinton got more votes—a bigger popular vote—than Trump in 2016. But, of course, the conclusion most certainly does not follow! There’s all the difference in the world between “winning the popular vote” in a system where no one who matters gives a flying freak about the popular vote, and winning the popular vote in a system where the popular vote is the all-important decider.

If the 2016 election had been decided by popular vote, then the popular vote would not have been the same as it was in the actual election. Many people would have voted differently than they did. Many people would have been caught up in the campaign who in fact ignored it almost completely, while voters in certain counties, who in the actual election became centers of attention, would have gone unnoticed.

The campaign would have been, in some conspicuous ways, unrecognizable compared with what actually occurred: absolutely no one, for instance, would have cared who “won” Florida or Pennsylvania, a virtually meaningless concept under a popular-vote-decided system. A few thousand more or less Republican or Democratic votes in California, which would have counted for absolutely nothing in the actual 2016 election, would have been exactly as important as a few thousand more or less Republican or Democratic votes in Michigan.

The Rules of the Game

One point to be clear about is that under the electoral college system, no candidate ever tries to win the popular vote. The popular vote is just an incidental outcome which no one is aiming for. It follows (though this is a bit harder to see) that every candidate deliberately aims to reduce their popular vote below what it might have been. If you can’t see this immediately, I will get to it shortly. (When I say “every candidate,” I mean every candidate who’s seriously trying to win the presidency; this doesn’t necessarily apply to candidates who’re running merely in order to “send a message.”)

Hillary Clinton was not trying to win the popular vote in 2016; she was trying to win the electoral college. She would never knowingly have sacrificed a single vote for state electors for the sake of any number of popular votes. And she would have sacrificed any number of popular votes to get one more vote for the electoral college. Of course, many things a candidate might do to increase their electoral-college vote total would also incidentally increase their popular vote, but where there is any conflict between these two objectives, then increasing the popular vote counts for absolutely nothing.

This is why it’s misleading to talk about “winning” or “losing” the popular vote under a system of rules where everyone trying to win views the popular vote as irrelevant to the capture of power. It’s like saying that someone who lost a game of chess by being checkmated “won” the piece-taking score because he captured more pieces than his opponent. This is just not the way chess games are scored. And if it were the way chess games were scored, then both players would have played very differently, and very likely the same player would have won (because skill in one game is transferable to skill in a somewhat similar game).

Most people with little interest in politics probably suppose that a state is given electors in proportion to its population. In fact, states are allocated electors according to their total number of House representatives plus senators. While this is roughly in line with population, it does give a definite built-in advantage to voters in low-population states, each of which has two senators just like the high-population states. While my impression is that currently this way of determining electoral college votes probably favors Republicans slightly, it does not favor them hugely—we can all think of some low-population states which are solidly Democratic (Hawaii, Rhode Island, Delaware).

Incidentally, I have not seen an arithmetic breakdown of the causes of the phenomenon where a candidate “wins the popular vote but loses the electoral college.” In Hillary Clinton’s case, how much (if any) of this disparity was due to low-population states having higher electoral college representation because of their two senators, and how much was due simply to the heavy concentration of Democratic voters in states like California and New York? No doubt someone has analyzed this, but I haven’t come across their conclusions.

I’m not going to do the math here, but common-sense guesswork suggests that the heavy concentration of Democratic support in some states is much more consequential than the built-in advantage to low-population states (though that would not necessarily remain true if all or nearly all low-population states happened to be of the same party).

Thwarting the People’s Will

A typical argument by Alex Cohen for the abolition of the electoral college (in this case, back-door abolition by means of a compact between states) asserts that when a candidate wins the presidency despite “losing” the popular vote, this “thwarts the people’s will.” <www.brennancenter.org/blog/national-popular-vote-explained>.

Now, first of all, as a pedantic and strictly irrelevant yet irresistible observation in passing, anyone who favors Roe v. Wade accepts that the people’s will should and must often be thwarted. That is the entire point of Roe v. Wade and other Supreme Court decisions beloved of Democrats. Thwart the people’s will, dammit! The Democrats are passionately devoted to using the Constitution to thwart the people’s will, and in this I completely agree with them.

But, more to the point, the way the popular vote turns out, in a system where the popular vote is not the decider, will be very different from the way it would turn out in a system where it is the decider. And therefore, if the latter would express the people’s will, the former cannot express the people’s will. Going only on the facts and arguments assembled by Alex Cohen, his conclusion that the electoral college thwarts the people’s will simply does not follow.

Alex Cohen also throws in the remark that the electoral college “potentially lowers voter turnout,” with a link that strongly suggests the lowering is more than merely potential. Mr. Cohen apparently says this because a high voter turnout is considered a good thing and so this is one more strike against the electoral college. He doesn’t notice that this explicitly recognizes that many people don’t vote the same way under the electoral college as they would have done under decision by popular vote, and that therefore it removes an essential premiss for his conclusion that the electoral college thwarts the people’s will.

A Game of Skill

Republican voters in California, New York, and Illinois would be more inclined to vote if we switched to decision by popular vote. Republicans know that under the electoral college system, as long as the state is heavily Democratic, their votes count for nothing. Under a popular vote system, they would know that their votes count the same as any other votes anywhere in the country.

It’s not quite as simple as that, because most people, having made it to the polling place, vote for a number of candidates, national, state, and local, as well as for referenda (in states like California that allow them). Having made the effort to get to the polling place, the additional cost of voting for one more item, such as president, is very slight. On the other hand, many California voters will see themselves as on the losing side of state and local contests as well as the presidential choice, so there will be some disincentive to show up to vote at all.

You might think that the number of Republicans who don’t bother to vote for president in California because they know they have no chance of winning will be balanced by the number of California Democrats who won’t bother to vote for president because they have no chance of losing. However, it’s a recognized fact of voter behavior that voters do like to vote for the side which wins, and assuming that to be true, it seems reasonable to infer that the disincentive effect of knowing that the state’s vote is a foregone conclusion will more severely affect California Republicans than California Democrats.

So, we see that people will vote differently under the two systems, regardless of anything the candidates do. But it’s additionally true that the candidates will campaign differently, and this will affect how people vote. That’s the entire point of campaigning, after all. So, not only would many voters with the same attitudes and preferences vote differently under the two systems, but also, many voters’ attitudes and preferences would be changed in different ways by campaigning under the two systems.

Trump won the 2016 election largely by superior strategy. He campaigned heavily in rust-belt states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. (There were other components to his strategy. He continually pounded away at a dozen key policy issues, whereas Clinton avoided talk about policy in favor of painting Trump as an evil monster.)

Great campaigns, like great battles and great chess games, tend to look easy in retrospect. Some people have second-guessed Napoleon at the Battle of Jena. If things had gone a bit differently, they conclude, Napoleon would have lost Jena . . . No! If things had gone a bit differently, Napoleon would, in all probability, have won Jena in a different way. We have to add “in all probability” because there’s always an element of luck.

Before the election, many conventional experts scoffed at Trump’s decision to campaign so heavily in the rust belt. Couldn’t this amateur, this dolt, see that he had no chance in those states? But Trump had superior intel (Cambridge Analytica) and superior strategic vision. He had been pondering, developing, and honing his working-class, protectionist, America-first electoral strategy for over thirty years. Trump did not win because Hillary was “a bad candidate,” as so many people now like to intone. Her “badness” corresponds with the conventional wisdom of all the accredited cognoscenti before the election, who all confidently expected her to win. Trump won because he was an extraordinarily capable candidate. He out-generaled the highly competent yet conventionally-minded staff of Hillary Clinton. Trump beat Clinton by better science and deeper thought.

Under a popular-vote system, the campaign would have played out very differently. But a brilliant strategist is a brilliant strategist. No doubt both Trump and Clinton would have spent a lot of time in California, New York, and Illinois, places where, in the actual campaign, they did next to nothing. Voter turnout in California, New York, and Illinois would have been higher—and the increased turnout would have been higher among Trump voters than Clinton voters. Trump would, in any knowledgeable judgment, have won the popular vote, probably by a bigger margin than he actually won the electoral college vote.

If you see that winning elections is a contest of abilities, a game of skill, you will appreciate the point that a better campaigner under one system will also be a better campaigner under a different system, just as Napoleon was usually a better general than his opponents, whatever the terrain or the weather. Add to that the fact that under the present system, candidates routinely sacrifice the popular vote to winning the electoral vote. There is a definite trade-off between the two, and the only reason we don’t hear more about this trade-off is because everyone is so thoroughly aware that the popular vote just doesn’t count.

There are parts of California and other solidly Democratic states which are “natural Trump country,” but where Trump did no campaigning, because it would have been a complete waste. An hour’s campaigning, or a million dollars’ worth of campaign spending in California would have netted Trump more popular votes than similar expenditures in Michigan, but this kind of move could have lost Trump the election (while winning him the popular vote), and Trump understood this perfectly.

Any presidential candidate deliberately makes decisions which he or she believes will reduce his or her popular vote (compared with what it would have been, given different decisions), in order to maximize his or her electoral college vote. This must always necessarily occur, whether or not the actual aggregate outcome is to “lose” the popular vote, because a candidate will allocate each unit of campaign resources where it will yield the biggest return in terms of electoral college votes alone, and there will always exist many more alternative ways to allocate each unit where it would tend to increase the popular vote by a greater amount while being less effective at increasing the electoral college vote. These alternative ways, as long as they are accurately perceived as such, are just instantly dismissed from consideration, so we tend to overlook the fact that serious candidates always deliberately sacrifice their popular vote to their electoral college vote.

The Complication of Runoffs

If the United States were ever to be converted to the popular-vote system for the presidency, it’s certain that provision would be made for a runoff second election. In France, for example, if the first presidential election does not give more than fifty percent to one candidate, then a second, runoff election is held, with only the two top-scoring candidates from the first election competing.

A runoff system for US elections under a new popular-vote system introduced by constitutional amendment would be certain because the people designing the new system would want to rule out the possibility that anyone could be elected with a minority of the votes. If there were only one round of voting, with victory going to the candidate who got the most votes, it would be possible for a candidate with a minority of the votes to gain the presidency. Indeed, it would be more than possible, it would very likely happen in the great majority of presidential elections.

Now, it could also happen under the electoral college system that a candidate could get more electoral votes than any other, yet still get a minority of all the electoral votes—even, with several strong candidates, a fairly small minority. The Constitution provides that in that situation, the choice of president goes to the House of Representatives.

It doesn’t look very likely at first, as a matter of practical politics, that the Constitution will be amended to replace the decision by the House of Representatives with a runoff election, while otherwise preserving the present electoral college system. Referring the decision to the House strikes most people as strange and unsatisfactory, yet it happens quite rarely—only twice so far in US history. If it were to happen again, the House might feel obliged to give the presidency to the candidate who had won a plurality of electoral college votes, or might even arrange a runoff election of the top two candidates as its way of deciding who would be awarded the presidency.

If for some reason neither of these expedients worked, and if there were a long period of three big parties (for example because the Democratic Party went into chronic decline and the Republicans split between traditional Republicans and Trumpists), then a runoff election for the electoral college might become a real possibility. Why didn’t the Framers hit upon this obvious solution? Calling a nationwide election was not such a simple matter in the eighteenth century. Many voters would require a journey of a day or two to get to the nearest polling place, assuming they could get ahold of a horse. But more significantly, presidential elections were not originally intended to be democratic. The members of the electoral college were not expected to follow the wishes of the voters, as they are now.

The mechanics of the electoral college system favors an outright majority for one candidate, whereas it’s quite common for the candidate who “wins the popular vote” to get a minority of the popular vote—this happens in about fifty percent of presidential elections. Hillary Clinton, for example, though she “won the popular vote,” received a minority of the popular vote in 2016. More people voted against Hillary Clinton than voted for her, and the same, of course, is true for Donald Trump.

Hillary Clinton got 48.18 percent, compared with Trump’s 46.09 percent. Just to keep the numbers in perspective, and not because it has any profound significance, note that Donald Trump plus Gary Johnson got slightly more votes than Hillary Clinton plus Jill Stein (Johnson got more than three times as many votes as Stein). If Johnson’s votes had gone to Trump and Stein’s votes to Hillary, Trump would have “won the popular vote.”

You might point out that very likely, in a runoff, a higher percentage of Stein’s votes would have gone to Clinton than the percentage of Johnson’s votes which would have gone to Trump. This is probably true—if there were no campaigning between the first and second elections. And yet, between the first and the second elections, there would have been a second campaign, and it can’t be ruled out that Trump would have won over more Johnson voters, and even captured some Stein voters and disgruntled formerly Sanders voters in the second campaign, not to mention possibly a few other Clinton voters!

This kind of exercise doesn’t prove anything at all about the real world, because if the election had been run under popular-vote rules, the actual vote totals, for the first round of voting, would have been quite different from the actual vote totals in 2016. But it does serve to illustrate some of the numerical issues.

A Test of Steele’s Rule

If you’ve followed me this far, you’ll be able to see that the so-called “loser” of the popular vote who wins the electoral college might easily have won the popular vote under a system decided by the popular vote. This is entirely elementary and indisputable.

You’ll probably also agree that who wins the electoral college is a much better indicator of who “would have” won the popular vote under a popular-vote-decided system than is the popular vote under the electoral college system.

These two propositions will be quickly accepted by most people who give any serious thought to the matter. But I’m going further. I am saying that whoever wins the electoral college would have won the popular vote (under a nationwide popular-vote system).

My rule refers to an abstract and simplified model of the world. (So does the contrary claim that the winner of the popular vote under the electoral-college system would have won the election under a hypothetical popular-vote system.) It compares an actual situation where someone wins the electoral college with a hypothetical situation where the election would be decided by nationwide popular vote and where the attitudes and preferences of all the voters would (to start with, let’s say one year before the election) be identical to what they are in the actual situation. It says that the gross outcome—who wins the presidency—would be the same.

In practice we can never make this comparison directly. There can’t be two worlds where the attitudes and preferences of the voters are identical but the electoral systems are different. So we’re dealing with an abstract model which sheds light on reality, rather than a direct observation of reality.

But there is an indirect empirical test of the rule, which goes as follows.

There is a positive association between votes for the presidential candidate and votes for House representatives of the presidential candidates’ party (all House seats are up for election on the same day as the presidential election). If the party of the winning presidential candidate gets the majority of House votes when the winning presidential candidate “loses” the popular vote, this would tend to corroborate my rule and to refute the rule tacitly appealed to by those Democrats who suppose that Hillary would have won a hypothetical election decided by popular vote in 2016. If those Democrats are right and I am wrong, you would expect the party of the presidential candidate who won the election but “lost” the popular vote to get fewer House votes than the other party.

We have two recent cases where the presidential candidate who won the election “lost the popular vote”: 2000 and 2016. In both these cases, the victorious presidential candidate’s party “won the popular vote” for the House of Representatives. (We’re looking at the total votes cast in elections for House candidates, not how many House seats were won or lost.)

In 2000 the Republicans got 47.6 percent of the popular vote for House seats, as against the Democrats’ 47.1 percent and in 2016, they got 49.1 percent, as against the Democrats’ 48.9 percent. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2000_United_States_House_of_Representatives_elections><https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2016_United_States_House_of_Representatives_elections>.

In elections for the House, there’s a comparatively large number of minor-party candidates (twenty-five in 2016, plus those classed as “Independent” and those classed as “Others”). If we count only the Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and Greens, the Republican plurality in 2000 rises to 49.28 and in 2016 to 49.70.

So, the popular vote for House representatives of the party which won the presidency but “lost” the popular presidential vote was in each case the plurality vote. On both occasions the party which won the electoral college while “losing” the popular vote for president “won” the popular vote for House seats. This corroborates my rule and lends support to the view that the electoral college vote has a fair claim to be taken as an expression of the people’s will.

The rule I am proposing is not a theorem, logically derived from axioms, but a generalization about two alternatives, one of them purely hypothetical, a “counterfactual conditional.” It can therefore never be conclusively “proved” nor even directly tested. But if we think seriously about what’s going on in presidential elections, it seems to hold up well, in terms of both its internal coherence and its agreement with the data.

We’re in a good position to conclude that Steele’s Rule is worth accepting as at least highly probable, as the best practical guide to thinking about presidential elections, and as maybe even true: Any candidate who wins the presidency under the present electoral college system, even if he or she “loses” the popular vote under that system, would have won the popular vote and therefore the presidency, if the election had been conducted and decided according to a popular-vote system.