Myth number 8 in my series on Electoral College Myths! Please don’t miss the earlier installments here:
Myth #1: Only swing states matter, other states are ignored
Myth #2: The Founders did not trust the people
Myth #3: The Electoral College is undemocratic
Myth #4: Votes cast for a 3rd-party candidate are wasted
Myth #5: Eliminating the Electoral College will make it harder to steal elections
Myth #6: Eliminating the Electoral College would make every vote equal
Myth #7: The System Disenfranchises Voters Who Live in “Safe” States
Myth: If a candidate wins the popular vote, but loses the electoral vote, that is inherently unfair. The system is rigged! The winner of the national popular vote should be President.
Fact: In any game, rules are established for a certain purpose. I’ve noted before that America’s traditional pastime, baseball, is relevant in this regard. Any baseball fan knows that teams do not get to the World Series by scoring the most runs throughout the course of the season. Instead, teams earn their spot in the playoffs by winning the most games in their league. Naturally, rules could be established that would allow the two teams that score the most runs to play in the World Series, but such rules would not accomplish the stated objective of a championship game: Allowing the two best overall teams to face off at the end of the year.
A revised set of rules might allow a team, for instance, to earn a spot in the World Series by having one great month and several poor months. Or perhaps a team that is great at taking advantage of weak opponents (but rather poor at facing off against good opponents) would win a berth in the World Series. Excellent performances throughout the baseball season would not be required to earn the championship. Occasional, stellar performances could be sufficient.
The rules for the presidential election contest are established with a similar purpose. They seek to identify the best national candidate, overall. The system leans in favor of candidates whose strengths play out evenly, rather than those who perform brilliantly in one part of the country but terribly in other regions.
A historical example demonstrates how well this process tends to work.
In 1888, Democrat Grover Cleveland was running against Republican Benjamin Harrison. At the time, several events had led to a perception that Cleveland, then the incumbent President, was a candidate who cared only about the South and southern issues. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Cleveland won huge landslides in six southern states on Election Day. He won 72.2 percent of the votes cast there! By contrast, Harrison had run a campaign that was not so focused on a single region and its concerns. He didn’t have such large margins of victory in any part of the country, but he did have a more diverse coalition and he’d won states across various regions.
In the end, Cleveland won the popular vote with 5.5 million votes compared to Harrison’s 5.4 million; however, he lost the Electoral College vote, 233-168. The popular vote loser, Harrison, was elected President.
This was a good outcome! If Cleveland had won the presidency this year, then he would have done so based on the votes of only six states. Should six southern states be able to trump the rest of the country and put its own candidate in office? The Electoral College did its job that year: It gave the presidency to the candidate who had built the best coalition, composed of the greatest variety of voters.
Cleveland himself seems to have learned this lesson. Four years later, he ran a campaign with more broad-based appeal, and he was elected President in 1892.