Say what? After becoming the second person in sixteen years to lose the popular vote and win the presidency anyway, one might think Donald Trump would have a vested interest in promoting the benefits of the Electoral College. And yet, in an understandably overlooked moment from Thursday’s interview with Fox & Friends, Trump seems to undercut the defenses of his victory:
The president’s support for a popular-vote presidential election came as an aside during a freewheeling Thursday morning interview with “Fox & Friends,” the Fox News morning show he is known to watch and from which he receives almost unflinchingly positive coverage. Trump made the remark amid a larger point about public figures who publicly support him in turn benefiting from a boost of popularity from Trump supporters.
“Remember, we won the election. And we won it easily. You know, a lot of people say ‘Oh, it was close.’ And by the way, they also like to always talk about Electoral College. Well, it’s an election based on the Electoral College. I would rather have a popular election, but it’s a totally different campaign,” Trump said. “It’s as though you’re running — if you’re a runner, you’re practicing for the 100-yard dash as opposed to the 1-mile.”
“The Electoral College is different. I would rather have the popular vote because it’s, to me, it’s much easier to win the popular vote,” he continued.
It hasn’t proven to be easier, not for Trump in 2016, not for Bush in 2000, and if we’re talking about majorities, not even for Bill Clinton in his two presidential elections, thanks to Ross Perot. The popular-vote deck is more stacked against Republicans thanks to large populations in two deep-blue states, New York and California, which between them hold about a sixth of the nation’s entire population.If a sixth of the population resides in California and New York, then a sixth of the campaigning will take place in just those two states.
But wait — there’s more! Florida and Texas would likely get a big chunk of the rest of candidates’ attention, followed by deep-blue Illinois and normally blue Pennsylvania. Ohio, Georgia, and North Carolina round out the top ten. That group accounts for a little above 165 million people, or about half the population of the US. How much attention will get paid to the 40 states who collectively hold the other half?
That kind of density disparity was precisely why the framers of the Constitution created the Electoral College. They did not want a handful of populous states to control the executive, and they also feared direct democracy on a national level. The Electoral College takes population into account but still gives smaller states some influence on the outcome.
However, Trump offers a hypothesis that is tough to test without changing the system first. If presidential elections were decided by a popular vote, wouldn’t that change the way campaigns are structured and money is spent? It’s possible, sure, and Trump obviously thinks he can win that kind of campaign. It would certainly force candidates to become more populist in order to gain an edge in enthusiasm in states where politics have largely been static for some time, and Trump is the most successful populist in modern American politics. It seems unlikely that he’d win a straight-up popular vote, but it was unlikely that he’d win the Electoral College, too, and he managed it nonetheless.
Buried in this, though, is clearly a sensitivity to the argument that his win was less than legitimate because of the popular-vote loss. It’s not, of course, but it was seen as something less than legitimate by people who don’t understand or like the balancing effect of the Electoral College — just as it was with George W. Bush. And it may be worth considering that this popular sentiment about legitimacy may be one reason to consider the Electoral College has outlived its usefulness …. or perhaps more accurately, the people that it serves no longer values its protections for state sovereignty and the need for a broad geographical as well as popular consensus on important political decisions.
If that’s the case, though, we will likely come to regret our lack of appreciation for that need and the structure of a representative republic, no matter which party the Electoral College favors at the moment. That may be less corrosive, though, than a broad stain of illegitimacy when the Electoral College demonstrates that value. Effective self-governance requires acceptance of electoral results, and the aftermath of two disputed presidential elections suggests that we may have already lost that.