If the election were held today, these polls indicate that Trump would lose by 10 million to 15 million popular votes – a margin even greater than the crushing defeat of Jimmy Carter by Ronald Reagan in 1980. But, unlike Carter, Trump would have about an even chance of winning a majority of electoral votes and becoming president.
Such an outcome would a disaster for all Americans. It would make a mockery of our system of choosing our leaders and cast severe doubt on the legitimacy of the president – and the presidency itself. It would validate Donald Trump’s own judgment in 2012 that the Electoral College is “a disaster for democracy.”
During the first 100 years of the American republic, only three candidates won the presidency without winning the popular vote: John Quincy Adams in 1824 in a four-way race, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 after a legal dispute involving 20 critical electoral votes, and Benjamin Harrison in 1888 when he carried New York by a tiny margin.
But in the 21st century, two of three presidents have been elected without winning the popular vote: George W. Bush in the tight race of 2000 and Trump, who received 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton (causing him to change his mind about the Electoral College’s threat to democracy). Perhaps with the exception of 1888, the 19th century races where popular-vote losers won were flukes. But in the 21st century, the anomaly has become institutionalized.