Electoral Presidency

Donald Trump is the only president in the history of polling never to have gained the support of a majority of Americans for even a single day.

This sort of presidency is only possible because of the Electoral College system.

Donald Trump deserves full credit for his firm grasp of the essential attribute of this system: it benefits a candidate nothing to do what most people want. All that matters is what turns out the plurality in a few states.

The problem for most Americans is the system. It is constructed so as to create an irresistible pull into the presidency of candidates who ignore the preferences of a majority of Americans.

If you don’t like this, don’t blame Trump. Change the system.

The Electoral College Makes Him Do This

According to this article, the President will push "divisive" issues, particularly immigration, in order to win re-election. What is left out, because it is assumed wrongly to be as unchangeable as the weather, is that the Electoral College system makes not only the incumbent running for re-election but also all candidates push issues that can win a mere plurality in the swing states of the Midwest. 

If President Trump had to win a national plurality he would have overwhelming incentive to propose reasonable compromises on immigration. 

It is too easy to criticize the president for taking a position unpopular with most Americans when that same position is quite in accord with his likely voters in the few states that will probably pick the president in 2020: Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. 

Anyone in elected office or who seeks elected office should realize that if the national vote does not choose the president then all candidates in 2020 and forever will shape their policies, promises, and conduct to accord with the views of a small fraction of Americans in a handful of states.

Battlegrounds divide country by tribal politics

As the chart below shows, race and religion are attributes that are highly divisive.

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White evangelicals compose between a quarter and a third of the voting population in the Midwest battleground states. These states (stochastically) determine the presidency. Therefore candidates in the general election, such as the incumbent, adopt views appealing to evangelicals that are not necessarily held by the candidate personally and are anathema to the rest of the country.  In this way the electoral college educes hypocrisy, plays on division,  and intensifies hostility among Americans. 

Does anyone think that battles among people based on religion and race are good for an open and tolerant democracy?  Yet that is what the electoral college fosters. 


You cannot preach temperance from a barstool. A country cannot promote democracy globally without embracing it at home. 

As Professor Tooze writes, our country risks losing its birthright as the modern birthplace of equal rights — of which no one is more important than the right to vote with equal weight for all elected officials. 

This is why presidential candidates should have to compete to win the most votes cast by all Americans.

Believer War

Among its almost innumerable barbarisms, the Electoral College system pits evangelicals against non-church goers in an unasked-for struggle for the plurality in the three Midwestern states that decide the presidency in this century: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. 

Here's the people count on a national level as of now, according to Thomas Edsall of the New York Times:

White evangelicals, according to Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University, now make up 18.6 percent of the population, 4.4 percentage points less than the 23 percent of the population who profess no religious commitment.

Among white evangelicals, Republicans outnumber Democrats 61.1 percent to 21.7 percent, according to Burge. Among those without religious affiliation, Democrats outnumber Republicans 53 percent to 21.5 percent.

Religion and party, it seems, correlate closely. In the trio of battlegrounds, the politics is especially fraught because the size of the two factions, believers and mere ethicists, is about the same. This is an invitation for politicians to promote political divisiveness in pursuit of turn-out. As you may have noticed, you-know-who, the vindicated one, does tend to stoke that on occasion, despite the incongruity of himself as an evangelical apostle, not to mention the flock of epigones in his crowd of courtiers. 

Still another virtue of the national vote as a means of eliminating state battlegrounds is that it would tend to lower the stakes in localized, religiously grounded, factional conflicts and let the large consensus about religion that is in the First Amendment and in the hearts of most Americans provide ample freedom for everyone to follow their own beliefs without the aid (or interference) of state power. 

Former Governor LePage’s Racist Attack on the National Popular Vote

Former governor of Maine Paul LePage stated that white people will become a “forgotten people” if the winner of the national popular vote became the president.  LePage went on to say that if the president were chosen by popular vote, “white people will not have anything to say. It’s only going to be the minorities that would elect.” 

This is not the first time LePage has made racist comments, including referring to ”people of color or people of Hispanic origin” as “the enemy” and  falsely claiming that “90 plus percent” of drug dealers in Maine are minorities, who “half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave.”

Maine is currently considering joining the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, under which all member states would pledge their electors to the winner of the national popular vote if states with 270 electoral votes join the Compact.   

If the Compact goes into effect, it will guarantee that all votes across the country would be counted equally, regardless of race. Under the current system, many African-American voters see their votes systematically disregarded, along with many other Americans who do not happen to live in swing states.

Republicans' Small-State Advantage Is an Optical Illusion

Besides the obvious fact that Republicans won 'wrong-winner' victories in 2000 and 2016, one of the main reasons why GOP leaders believe the Electoral College generally helps their candidates is their supposed advantage in small states.  That bit of conventional wisdom is not confined just to Republicans.  Here's a recent statement from a respected neutral source, the fact-checking website Politifact:

Two factors explain why today’s political environment, if anything, gives Republican states a leg up in the Electoral College. First, smaller states get a disproportionately large impact in the Electoral College, because each state (plus the District of Columbia) gets a guaranteed two electoral votes before the rest of the electoral votes are allotted based on House seats (and thus, indirectly, on population). While there are some smaller blue states, the smallest states are disproportionately Republican-leaning.

Looking at any of the familiar blue-red Electoral College maps from recent elections, it's easy to see why such a perception took hold:

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Huge red swaths on the map represent vast, sparsely populated, solidly Republican states—Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas.  Blue small states, in contrast, tend to be small in area as well as in population—Hawaii, Vermont, Rhode Island, Delaware, the District of Columbia.  They're easy to overlook, so glancing at a map may result in an optical illusion rather than a reliable answer.  Instead, let's examine actual numbers from elections over the last three decades:

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In four of the last seven elections, the Democratic candidate won more small-state electoral votes than the Republican!  Over the same period, the median number of small-state votes won by the two parties is exactly the same—30 each.  In the two most recent elections, votes from small states split almost evenly, as they gave a one-vote margin to Obama in 2012 and a two-vote edge to Trump in 2016.  In short, the idea that small states reliably give Republicans a leg up in the Electoral College is a myth.

Jack Nagel is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. This is Part II of his series debunking the myths that the Electoral College always benefits Republicans and that the national popular vote would necessarily benefit Democrats.  Read Part I here.

Blast from Past

Below is the electoral map from 1960, the famous Nixon-Kennedy contest. The irrelevant popular vote was very close, 34.2 million to 34.1 million. But Kennedy won the Electoral College by 303 to 219:

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This big margin concealed numerous close statewide races. Labelling a state as a swing state if the popular margin statewide was 3% or less, we see that Kennedy won these swing states: Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, Texas, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. Nixon won these swing states: Alaska, California, Florida, Montana, and Washington.

Obviously there were so many swing states that the election felt like a national election. Moreover, the swing states were so different demographically that the candidates each had to appeal to big, complex coalitions of factions in order to prevail.

The Electoral College system did not appear to contribute to divisiveness, despite the extreme closeness of the outcomes in so many states and the indicative if meaningless closeness of the national popular vote.

Obscured somewhat by Kennedy’s large electoral victory was the untenable nature of the Democrats’ Electoral College block. Kennedy won New York, the state with the most electors at 45, by a 5% margin. This result marked a giant reversal from Eisenhower’s victory there in 1956 with 60% of the votes. The Democratic coalition in urban and suburban areas was racially, ethnically and religiously mixed. This coalition plainly was the base for Democrats to depend upon in future elections, given population gains in the former free states. Its composition, however, differed radically with the party’s southern base, from where 81 Kennedy electors came. That explained Lyndon Johnson’s presence on the ticket. But it foreshadowed the Republican choice to align its party with white voters in the south while relinquishing its historic Lincolnian alignment with African-Americans. New York’s results in 1960 taught the Republicans to look south for winning in the future. By 1968 Nixon’s southern strategy was in place.

With the popular vote virtually evenly divided, the parties could have taken different paths toward political victory if the national popular vote selected the president. The Electoral College system, however, made the southern electors, chosen almost exclusively by white votes, so critical that the Republican Party could not resist reshaping its policies, programs, and promises to take the pluralities in these states. The divisiveness of American politics today stems not from the popular vote in 1960 and thereafter, but instead from the pernicious electoral system.

The Midwest May Not Love the Wall

This chart from Gallup shows that twice as many Republicans as independents think immigration is the country’s top problem:

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Because there is no way the incumbent president can be elected without a big share of independent votes, the natural question is why he has elevated the wall to such political attention.

But the chart shows national averages. The results in the states that determined the 2016 election – Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – are now shaping President Trump’s policies.

At least in Michigan, whose electoral votes are critical to both parties’ nominees, independents do not agree with Trump’s insistence on a wall.

These independent Michiganders should support the move to have the national popular vote pick the president. They share the views of other independents in other states, and in numbers there is strength.

Institutions Matter

In “How Democracies Die,” the authors inveigh against the use of impeachment to defeat the incumbent, of whom they plainly disapprove. Instead, they say “If Trump is defeated via democratic institutions, it will strengthen those institutions.” As one of these institutions they list elections. Page 218.

But the most important of all elections, the only one that directly relates to their goal of defeating the incumbent, is not democratic.

If a Democrat were to defeat Trump in 2020 by winning the electoral college without prevailing in the national popular vote, the Electoral College would certainly neither be strengthened nor would it be considered a democratic institution.

Indeed, it is easily possible to imagine the outrage among Trump supporters if they delivered him in 2020 a national popular vote plurality or majority and yet the swing states swung back to the Democrats, denying the incumbent a second term. Those Trump backers in this hypothetical would deserve support from everyone who believes in democracy.

One thing the incumbent is right about is this: he supports the idea that the winner of the national popular vote should always be president.

The Electoral College Puts Democracy at Risk

Our democracy is gravely at risk from foreign meddling.  As Michael Chertoff and Anders Fogh Rasmussen explain their article, “The Unhackable Election: What It Takes to Defend Democracy” in Foreign Affairs:

Because the Internet and automation enable aggressors to act anonymously on a large scale, technology has significantly reduced the costs and risks of election meddling.

In some cases, foreign meddlers have tried to directly boost whichever candidate or party was most likely to adopt a soft stance on Russia. However, in most cases, their strategy is simply to discredit the entire democratic process. In the 2016 U.S. presidential primaries, for example, Russian operatives supported both the Republican candidate Donald Trump and the Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, with the goal of radicalizing the political debate.

Nor is the threat limited to Russia:

In August, John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser, announced that there was a “sufficient national security concern about Chinese meddling, Iranian meddling, and North Korean meddling” and said that the U.S. government was working to crack down on it. That same month, Twitter suspended 284 fake accounts with apparent links to Iran, and Facebook discovered 76 fake Instagram accounts originating in Iran. 

The article discusses many approaches to the threat, including the technical and human aspects of cyberdefense; cooperation between the government and private sectors; updating our voting systems; and public education campaigns.  It does not, however, mention something that makes elections in the United States particularly vulnerable to foreign interference: the Electoral College.

To shift the result of our elections, a malevolent foreign power does not need to reach everyone—just a few people in the small number of states that decide elections.  If the president were elected by the national popular vote, coordinating a disinformation campaign would be more complicated, more expensive, and less successful.  

Women and the Electoral College

In 2016 more women voted for the president then did men. And women preferred Clinton by a bigger margin than men preferred Trump. Obviously, if the United States had a democratic system the preference of women would have become president. 

The chart below, showing what would happen if only women voted in the 2018 midterms, shows how the preference of women for the Democrats led to that party’s victory in the House of Representatives in 2018.

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The chart also explains how the preferred choice of women in 2016 did not become the president. It may very well explain how the democratic nominee may not become president in 2020 unless some states allocate electors to the national popular vote winner. 

The problem is the bizarre electoral college system in which the people in a few arbitrarily chosen states effectively pick the president.  

Despite the huge Democratic preference among women nationally, in 2018, women in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin were less supportive of that party. In many districts in these states women were still in the Democratic camp but statewide the female preference for Democrats was more muted than in the country as a whole. 

These happen to be the swing states where the results of the 2020 election will be determined. Unless the system is changed.  

Bloomberg Understands the Pitfalls of the Electoral College for Independents

Following the news that former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is considering running for president as an independent candidate, former mayor Michael Bloomberg released a statement regarding independent runs.  Bloomberg had considered an independent run in the past, but found that:

“The data was very clear and very consistent. Given the strong pull of partisanship and the realities of the electoral college system, there is no way an independent can win. That is truer today than ever before.”

 Bloomberg understands that, at best, independent candidates can only serve as a spoiler in presidential elections.  A centrist independent candidate would only have a chance of winning if we reform our system so that the winner of the national popular vote becomes the president.

The Shutdown Hurt Swing States Less—And it’s not a Coincidence

Take a look at this map of states most and least affected by the government shutdown:

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Now take a look at the list of the closest states in the 2016 election.  A cursory glance shows a remarkable amount of overlap between critical, close states and states minimally affected by the government shutdown.  The decisive states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and New Hampshire are among the states impacted the least.

 The shutdown hurt all of America, but it did not hurt all Americans equally.  The shutdown was most harmful to the states both parties can afford to ignore—D.C. and Maryland on the left; Alaska and Mississippi on the right—but largely spared the few voters that matter.

Though many have referred to Trump’s decision to shut down the government as a “gamble,” it was a gamble for which Trump understood the odds.  He knew who would feel the pain and who would not.  An increasingly large majority of Americans disapprove of the shutdown and held Trump responsible.  But as any president or candidate knows, it is the opinion of voters in swing states that counts.  The opinion of the country overall simply does not matter.

At least not yet.

Big Tents

“For most of the twentieth century, American parties were ideological ‘big tents’ each encompassing diverse constituencies and a wide range of political views,”  Levitsky and Ziblatt say on page 168 of “How Democracies Die.” They then assert that the Democratic embrace of the Civil Rights Movement collapsed the big tent. Next, immigrants supported the Democrats, and evangelists supported the Republicans. The result was two tinier tents, one for each party, and each with their own separate audiences.

The point of view here disturbs me. The parties, like sellers in a market, position themselves to win elections like businesses want to win market share. The principal reason that the two parties re-aligned since the 1960s is that the presidential selection system makes the national vote irrelevant. If candidates knew they had to win the national vote in order to become president, then Republican nominees could not have been so willingly insensitive to the desires of black people and immigrants. Nor could Democratic nominees have resisted the concerns of evangelicals. The parties would have needed to create coalitions that could win national majorities, especially in close elections, as opposed to carrying a handful of swing states.

Immigrants did not inevitably support Democrats, and African-Americans famously had long seen the Republicans as the party of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. These groups did not choose parties so much as the parties chose them or left them. For Republicans, getting the immigrant vote would not help carry California, and the black vote in the old Confederacy could not beat the white vote. For Democrats, the evangelical vote in the Rust Belt, while huge, could not overcome the labor vote.  If the national vote mattered, a different calculus would have prevailed. Both parties would have had motivation to build big tents.

If you like moderation

Paul Starr contends that in the 2018 Congressional elections:

“The Democrats who flipped seats did so mostly in suburban districts where they attracted votes from independents and Republican moderates in what was an exceptionally strong year for Democrats. Many of the successful candidates were recruited to run precisely because they would appeal to moderates.”

The House races are the closest available proxy for a national presidential campaign. If the nominees had to win the national vote, they would ally with their party’s House candidates in every district, open get-out-the-vote offices with their House candidates, appear with them, and advertise with them.

Just as the Democrats won the House majority mostly because they attracted moderates, the presidential nominee also would have to attract moderates.

Requiring a national popular vote to elect the president would produce more moderate nominees, and the winner would be more moderate, than the current system which hinges the entire outcome on a handful of states not reflective of the demographics of the country as a whole. 

The Electoral College will Become Increasingly Undemocratic

University of Memphis law professor Steve Mulroy explains some of the major problems with the Electoral College, including how demographic clustering leads to “natural gerrymanders” the Constitution’s drafters never anticipated, and how it doesn’t actually protect small states:

“Even where there is no counter-majoritarian result, these electoral features can often lead to a significant “skew” between votes and seats won by a political party, racial minority, or other politically cohesive group.

The skew likely will only get worse, as “demographic clustering” (aka “The Big Sort”) continues, with Democrats overconcentrating in cities, leading to “natural gerrymanders.”  By 2040, 30% of Americans  will control 70% of the Senate, and they will not be demographically representative of the nation as a whole.

We should be troubled by such results.  Elections are designed to measure popular will; they should reflect that will accurately.

The Framers devised the College out of an inherent distrust of common voters; a desire to placate slave-holding states ; and as a compromise between large and small states.  None are persuasive today.  It’s not even clear the College really does protect small states.  Instead, it transfers power to about 10 swing states, only 2 of which are in the bottom half of states by population.”

(via Election Law Blog)

GWB the Big Tenter

In “How Democracies Die” the authors report that “President [George W.] Bush governed hard to the right, abandoning all pretense of bipartisanship [because] Republicans could win by mobilizing their own base rather than seeking independent voters.” Page 152.

Bush won a majority of the popular vote in 2004, and became the first presidential candidate to accomplish this feat since his father did in 1988. He ran as a “big tent” Republican, and generally held positions currently anathematized by the incumbent president.

In fact, it was not Bush but John Kerry who sought to use the Electoral College to thwart the will of the majority of Americans. Kerry battled hard to win a plurality in Ohio, and he came close. If he had pulled that off, he would have won an electoral victory even while Bush won the majority of votes in the country.

What Happens when Presidents Can Ignore Majority Opinion

As the shutdown drags on and on, it is becoming increasingly clear that our political system makes possible a course of action most Americans oppose.  As Ronald Brownstein writes for The Atlantic:

“Trump has abandoned any pretense of seeking to represent majority opinion and is defining himself almost entirely as the leader of a minority faction.

That carries big long-term risks for the GOP, as the Democratic gains in the House last November demonstrated. But because the structure of the Senate and the Electoral College disproportionately favors the older, non-college-educated, evangelical, and rural white voters who comprise his faction, Trump’s approach could sustain itself for years. And that promises a steady escalation in political conflict and polarization as Republicans tilt their strategy toward the demands of an ardent minority—and lose the moderating influence of attempts to hold support from a majority of Americans.”

Most Americans agree that appealing only to the extreme wings of both parties is a losing strategy for America.  The electoral college is the only reason a party can choose this approach and remain viable.

Voters Across the Country Reject Gerrymandering

In 2018, voters in four states—Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah—approved ballot measures limiting partisan redistricting.  But lawmakers from both parties are resisting these efforts for reform:

“Even as voters and courts vigorously rejected the practice this year, politicians in some states are doing their best to remain in control of the redistricting process. Critics argue that amounts to letting politicians pick their own voters.”