Originally Published in MarketWatch : Dec 19, 2016
Hillary Clinton supporters are shellshocked as election results came in. Shocked and appalled by the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency, some supporters of Hillary Clinton have turned to minimizing and even delegitimizing Trump’s election. In an era of severe political polarization, in an election with two candidates seen from the outset in highly unfavorable terms, after the most brutal campaign in modern history, and with an outcome that astonished just about everyone, these reactions are understandable, but wrong.
Many die-hard Clinton supporters cannot bring themselves to believe their candidate could lose to Donald Trump. They think: How could such a crude and inept con man be elected president? Even after it has happened, it is unthinkable, a nightmare. So, the election must not have been fair.
Those on the fringe raise the specter of diabolical Russians hacking away at our democracy. More grounded Clintonians have less malevolent boogeymen — our Founding Fathers. As they see it, the election’s outcome should be blamed on a dysfunctional and archaic electoral vote system. Hillary won the national popular vote. She should be president. It is as simple as that. The Electoral College should go the way of Trump University.
They are right about one thing: Hillary did win the national popular vote. As votes continued to trickle in three weeks after Election Day, Clinton received 50.9% of the two-party vote to 49.1% for Trump. With about 135 million votes counted, Clinton has 2.3 million more votes than Trump.
Yet Clinton has only 232 electoral votes (in 20 states plus Washington, D.C.) to Trump’s 306 (in 30 states plus one from Maine), making him the president-elect. So Trump’s election without a popular-vote plurality is regarded as an injustice. Some Democrats claim a moral victory as victims of an electoral vote system that once again horribly “misfired.” Their claim, however, neglects two facts.
California single-handedly turns a Trump plurality in the popular vote into a Clinton plurality.
First, had the election been conducted with rules awarding the presidency to the popular-vote winner, the candidates and many voters quite probably would have acted very differently and the popular vote would not have been the same. Trump and Clinton would have campaigned in the “safe” states. Potential voters in those states would have felt more pressure to turn out and to vote for “the lesser of two evils” and not to waste their votes on third-party candidates. Some additional Clinton voters would probably have shown up, but gains on the Trump side would probably have been larger as more reluctant Republicans would have been pushed to return to the fold, particularly in big blue states like California, New York, and Illinois.
In short, a comparison of the national popular vote as cast and the electoral vote division is no simple matter. This is particularly true in our age of pervasive polling in which people should have a good idea about whether they live in a state where their presidential vote might make a difference.
Second, Clinton’s 2.3-million-popular-vote plurality over Trump depends on the votes in a single state: California. Clinton has more than a 4-million-vote plurality over Trump there. In the other 49 states plus the District of Columbia, Trump actually has a 1.7-million-popular-vote plurality over Clinton. So California single-handedly turns a Trump plurality into a Clinton plurality.
The electoral vote system in 2016 (as in 2000, when George W. Bush became president despite losing the national popular vote) functioned as its defenders have long claimed. It prevented a single region (in this instance, a single state) from overruling the verdict of the more populous and diverse nation.
Donald Trump’s election is difficult for many Americans to accept, but there is no good reason to question its democratic legitimacy. For better or worse, Trump won the presidency by constitutional and sensible democratic rules that guided both campaigns and were known to any politically conscious citizen. He also won the national popular vote cast outside of the single state of California. Moreover, Clinton won all of California’s 55 electoral votes despite the fact that 4.3 million of the state’s voters voted for Trump. That big winner-take-all advantage for California’s Democrats and Clinton was certainly felt, but it wasn’t enough to override her losses in many other states.
Under our electoral vote system, American voters elected a national president, not California’s choice. It is in the nation’s interest for Democratic Party’s leaders and for Clinton voters to fully recognize the legitimacy of the election as they had urged Trump to do after the third presidential debate.
The Electoral College system worked as it should. It did not “misfire.” The election’s outcomes were ultimately about what Americans wanted and what they did not want—not about electoral mechanics.