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.