Popular Vote vs. Electoral College Explained

Impressive amount of stupid on the loose this morning, so let’s take this slowly:

  1. Campaigning works. Showing up and asking people for their votes tends to inspire people to vote for you – that’s why politicians do it. In general, a politician will get more votes in places where he actually campaigns.
  2. Individual states determine how their electoral votes are to be allocated to different candidates. California and New York, like all but two states, are “winner takes all” states.
  3. In winner takes all states, it doesn’t matter how many votes you get, as long as you win. If a candidate wins or loses 51%-49% or 85%-15%, he gets the same number of electoral college votes.
  4.  Now, putting the above points together – here’s the important part – if a candidate doesn’t think he has a realistic chance of winning a particular winner takes all state, he has little reason to campaign there
  5. If he doesn’t campaign in a state, following point #1, he will tend strongly to get fewer popular votes in that state.

Now, how hard did Trump campaign in New York and California? Not hard at all – because, even if he could convince several million more people in those states to vote for him, he was still almost certain to lose, just by a smaller margin, and would still get zero electoral college votes out of it.

Evidence suggests that Trump was a better than decent campaigner, meaning that he did in fact change people’s minds to vote for him when he showed up someplace and pitched hard. But he and Clinton both did the math, and spent the bulk of their time campaigning in places where such campaigning might make a difference in the actual election run under the current rules. In practice, this means a light touch and fundraising junkets to states you think you have in the bag or are sure you will lose, medium touch on states you think you’ll win but want to be sure, and heavy touch on states you think you might win but could lose. Thus, Clinton swings through California and New York to provide fan service and raise funds, but spends essentially no time in the South except maybe in (weirdo) Florida. Trump similarly will campaign hard in places he needs to win, show up to fire up the troops where he’s pretty sure he’ll win, and does the minimum in states where he’s sure to lose.

This is (evidently not so) common sense. When victory is defined in terms of electoral college votes, a candidate doesn’t even look at how the popular vote in general shakes out, except out of morbid curiosity. To then claim that losing the popular vote shows much of anything about the candidates relative popularity is is either ignorantly or willfully missing the point.

History: the electoral college was set up so that a few populous and rich states – say, like California and New York – would not easily be able to dictate to the other poorer and less populated states.

Subtract out California and New York from the popular vote tally (1) – and Trump wins the rest of the nation in a popular (and electoral college) landslide. More to the point, if we did not have the electoral college but instead relied on direct popular vote, Trump and Clinton would have campaigned hard in the cities on the coasts and Texas and in Chicago – and pretty much ignored all the rest of the country. With the electoral college system, candidates are forced to pay attention to ALL of the people – or risk having the rubes down in Florida or out in Michigan cost them an election.

Bottom line, something that we all should have learned in about 6th grade: If you want people who don’t live in a few larger cities to have some skin in federal elections, leave the electoral college alone. If you’d rather be ruled by rich city dwellers, go with the popular vote. If you live in one of those cities, you might feel all warm and fuzzy and involved. If you don’t, you’ll wonder how the President can be said to represent you at all.

  1. In fact, just subtract the votes of NYC, LA and San Francisco, and maybe Chicago and Philly, and you’d get the same result. The electoral college is intended, in modern terms, to prevent all of us from being ruled from a couple large cities.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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