For the fifth time in history, the winner of the U.S. presidential election will not have also been the winner of the popular vote. And with it come the predictable calls to end the Electoral College. Supporters of Hillary Clinton who believe the electoral system is to blame for the result should both think again and be careful what they wish for.
Arguing that Clinton should be president because she won the popular vote is changing the rules of the game after it has been played. It’s akin to saying that if the Cleveland Indians had scored more runs during this year’s World Series, they should be considered the winner, even though the Chicago Cubs won four out of the seven game series.
In both cases, Donald Trump and the Cubs would have competed very differently, if these rules applied at the start of their respective contests. In Trump’s case, rather than ignore California and other voter-rich states that he had almost no chance of winning, he’d have worked hard in those places to lift his popular vote total.
The Electoral College process was designed so that voting power is balanced across the states and no one region of the country can gain too much control. America isn’t a pure democracy, it’s a representative democracy. James Madison wanted to avoid the tyranny of the majority and felt the Electoral College would prevent large factions from forming. In other words, its purpose is to protect minorities. (Theories that it was designed to protect slave states are fanciful and aren’t supported by the historical record, such as Alexander Hamilton’s writings in the Federalist Papers.)
The problem for Democrats is that, if the U.S. had already dumped the Electoral College and the 2016 presidential election had been by popular vote, there’s a good reason to believe that Clinton would have lost by seven or more times the margin she “beat” Trump by. That’s because unlike in the Senate, there was a truly nationwide popular vote in the House. All House seats were up for grabs and Republicans won the “popular vote” in those by a margin of about 3 million – 56.3M for the Republican candidates versus 53.2M for Democrats.
If Trump had campaigned nationwide and won 2.5 percentage points fewer votes than all the House Republicans received, he’d still have beaten Clinton by almost 300 thousand votes. Democrats shouldn’t assume they’ll perform better if America moved to a popular vote system.
To start winning again, Democrats need candidates who know how to campaign better than Clinton did, but more importantly they need better policies. Obama noted while campaigning for Clinton in Michigan, and elsewhere, that voters were choosing “whether we continue this journey of progress or whether it all goes out the window.” As we now know, Michigan decided not to continue with the policies of Barack Obama, and voters made the same decision in a majority of states.
Kimberly Strassel wrote this week that Trump’s election is best “viewed as a thundering repudiation, at every level, of Mr. Obama’s governing and policies.” Josh Kraushaar, in the left-leaning National Journal, wrote a concurring piece entitled “How Obama Inadvertently Set the Stage for Trump’s Presidency”, in which he wrote:
Obama’s mistake was refusing to acknowledge the import of the Republican wave elections in 2010 and 2014 and declining to pivot to the middle, which fueled the intensity of the conservative opposition. By spending his final two years doing end-runs around Congress on immigration and resisting any changes to his signature health care law, he all but invited Trump’s autocratic promises to fix things.
He was pointing out that, as others have noted, over the past 8 years whenever Obama’s name hasn’t been on the ballot, voters have rejected Obama’s and his party’s policies in election after election. In 2008, Obama’s run was largely policy-free and mostly a message of hope and change.
When people understood the president’s proposal for healthcare, we witnessed the remarkable election to the late Ted Kennedy’s seat of Republican Scott Brown in deep blue Massachusetts, where voters made a last-ditch attempt to block the law. In her viral Washington Post article, “I’m a Muslim, a woman and an immigrant. I voted for Trump”, Obamacare was one of many Democratic policies Asra Nomani was rejecting.
At a broader level, Strassel noted that, “In 2009, the president’s first year in office, the Democrats held 257 House seats, a majority that was geographically and politically diverse. After Tuesday the figure stands at 193, and fully one-third of these Democrats hail from three blue states: New York, California and Massachusetts.”
Strassel also noted that Democrats have lost roughly half the 29 governorships they held when Obama was inaugurated and they’ve lost exactly half the 60 state legislative chambers they held in 2010. Democrats no longer control a single legislative chamber in the South and they hold the governorship and both chambers in precisely five states.
Phillip Bump provides a graphical representation of this rejection of Obama’s “journey of progress” in a piece entitled “The decimation of the Democratic Party, visualized” He notes that the party has “shed 870 legislators and leaders at the state and federal levels—and that estimate may be on the low side. As Donald Trump might put it, that’s decimation times 50.”
If they are to start winning again, Democrats need to seriously reexamine their policies. A vibrant democracy requires two or more strong political parties. And in order to compete at the presidential level, Democrats need a healthy bench of candidates, something that will take time to rebuild given all the governorships and other seats they’ve shed in the past 8 years.
This should be the focus for Democrats right now, rather than investing time in protesting Trump’s victory. I’ve got nothing against peaceful protest and people participating in them have every right to do so. But I think it’s divisive behavior and a strategic mistake, if they want to get back to winning again. It seems to me the energy of the protesters would be better directed at bridging the divide with people who voted for Trump, identifying new policies that might bring them into the Democratic Party tent and gearing up to win the next set of elections in two years’ time.