President Trump has come out in favor of the popular vote on numerous occasions, and his reasoning sheds some light on the debate. In fact, his position has been surprisingly consistent since tweeting in 2012, “The Electoral College is a disaster for democracy.” Trump has argued that in a system where the person who gets the most votes nationally wins, he would campaign differently. On Dec 21, 2016, just weeks after losing the national popular vote by the largest margin of any president-elect in history, he reaffirmed his position on Twitter:
“I would have done even better in the election, if that is possible, if the winner was based on popular vote - but would campaign differently.”
It’s impossible to know how President Trump would perform without actually seeing him campaign nationally. In 2016, and in every election for more than a half-century, neither major party presidential candidate has focused their efforts on turning out every voter across the nation. He and Hillary Clinton only focused heavily on states in 2016 expected to be close. Only three of the twelve battleground states in the end were both competitive enough and had enough electoral votes to determine the election. That is because in the current system, winning the most votes nationwide doesn’t matter, only winning the most votes in a state does. So President Trump is absolutely correct in the sense that an election based on popular vote would be a different sort of campaign.
Aligning the results of the election with the popular vote would require candidates to campaign on a national level and compete for votes in every state, equalizing the power of every vote. The reality of the 2016 election could not have been further from such a simple, national competition. In the current system, which follows the winner-take-all electoral method in 48 states plus DC, states that clearly favor one candidate aren’t worth fighting over. Both campaigns have to focus their efforts on the states where victory is possible for each of them, while in the vast majority of states they concede defeat or waltz to victory. Campaigning in only close states has it’s own risks: the loser gets nothing from even the slimmest defeat in a state. The Clinton campaign for instance expanded its goals to winning over Romney supporters in Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida. Her campaign made the critical error of assuming that the Democratic nominee would naturally capture the votes of former Obama supporters in the so-called “Blue Wall” without any decrease in turnout or losses to President Trump and third party candidates. By courting the elusive center-right swing voter and taking for granted former Obama supporters, the Clinton campaign allocated its time and resources too narrowly and to a large extent in the wrong states, pouring funds into campaigns in traditional swing states she did not need to win and ultimately did not. By contrast, Trump’s campaign saw cracks in the Blue Wall and a chance to draw a new battleground map. The Clinton campaign’s response was too little, too late in the decisive states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, which gave Trump 46 electoral votes he needed to win. By correctly identifying the key states that he would need to win the Electoral College, Trump's roughly 77,000 vote combined lead in these three pivotal states effectively canceled out Clinton’s three million vote vote lead nationally, which included gains by Clinton over Obama in 2012 in Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina.
President Trump advocating for a national popular vote is therefore all the more remarkable when considering how well he mastered the winner-take-all system in 2016. Is it possible he favors a fairer alternative system like a national popular vote because he knows how much of a gamble 2016 actually was for him? Despite Trump’s campaign strategy paying off in critical states, he still almost lost the election. The deciding states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania each came down to fewer than 1 percent of the vote – astonishingly few votes compared to other swing states. Again, Trump prevailed in all three by a figure only slightly greater than 77,000 votes combined. To put that number in perspective, in 2012 Barack Obama won the closest state, Florida, by nearly the same margin (he beat Romney in the state by 74,309 votes). Perhaps more telling—although results were still close in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania in 2012, Obama’s combined popular vote tally between the three came to almost one million votes more than Romney’s (he received 972,172 more votes in total between PA, MI and WI).
Few states mattered in 2012, and even fewer ended up deciding the most recent election. It truly was a game of inches. The combined margin of victory between those three closest states (77,000) shrank by a combined factor of more than ten from the nearly 1 million votes separating the winner and loser in those states in 2012.
This blog has discussed the reasons behind the downsides and perverse incentives of our presidential electoral system in depth. Stepping back from these comparisons, what else can 2016 tell us about the health of our democracy? The fact that the percentage of Americans voting for president has never risen above 43 percent should be cause for concern. It is tempting to look to voters to explain why so few votes mattered in the endgame of the election. But we cannot in good conscience blame them for this phenomenon, nor should we.
Voters aren’t lazy or apathetic. Non-participation is the result of a political system that distributes power unfairly and inequitably, leading to the understandable conclusion that participation is not worth it. Under normal democratic circumstances, voting is already costly in terms of time and energy, and the rewards of voting are almost always intangible, since one vote is unlikely to be decisive. Add to that the fact that most votes for president are cast in states that are either solidly red or solidly blue, and in which the winner is a foregone conclusion, and it’s a surprise that voter participation is not lower—in fact, turnout in 2016 actually exceeded that of 2012. That voters do care and do vote when they have some skin in the game is evidenced by higher turnout in the states that have in recent history swung an election and where the outcome was uncertain. As it's already been noted in this blog, "while the overall voter turnout rate for 2016 was around 60%, battleground states like Colorado, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire had voter turnout rates between 70 and 74%."
How might we increase voter participation and at the same time encourage candidates to run national campaigns? We might do well in this case to take a page from Donald Trump’s book, as far as the popular vote is concerned. It is not useful nor is it justified to blame candidates or voters for behavior justified under the rules of the system. Instead, we should consider how we might reform our presidential electoral system—namely, we should consider the advantages of making sure presidential candidates have to win the national popular vote to win the electoral college.