Electoral College Myth #7: Candidates who lose the popular vote shouldn’t win the White House
Welcome to my series of myths/facts about our unique presidential system. There are many common misconceptions about our Electoral College. One such myth has to do with a perception about simple vs. federal majorities. Is one better than the other?
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Myth: If a candidate wins the national popular vote, but loses the presidency because he lost the electoral vote, that is inherently unfair. The system is rigged! The winner of the national popular vote should be President.
Fact: The Electoral College does not award the presidency to the winner of the national popular vote because that vote can be won through over-reliance on one region, state, or special interest group. The Electoral College awards the presidency to the candidate who achieved a federal majority, which always requires support from many different types of Americans.
The Electoral College requires federal majorities, not simple majorities. Consider that, 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.
Second, let's take a look at how the rules of the presidential election game have succeeded, as a matter of history.
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 in those states. 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 vote, 233-168. The popular vote loser, Harrison, was elected President.
This was a good outcome. If Cleveland had won the presidency that year, then he would have done so based on the votes of only six states. Should six southern states be able to override the rest of the country and put its own candidate in office? The Electoral College did its job: 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.
Professor Russell Muirhead of Dartmouth once offered a thoughtful defense of the Electoral College as a “part of the most fundamental idea in the Constitution.” The system reflects the answer to the question of “who should rule” in America:
The Constitution’s answer is this, the Constitutional majority should rule. . . . What’s the Constitutional majority? The Constitution says it’s not just a bare majority of the citizens, as Gallup might register in a poll tomorrow or next week, it’s a more enduring, temporally enduring and geographically dispersed majority . . . . The Constitutional majority is larger in space and more enduring in time than any ordinary majority would be. The idea there, the idea of the founders was that a larger more enduring majority would more likely be thoughtful, reflective, right, design policies that are actually effective, and just, design policies that are really fair, even to minorities.
Over the course of more than 200 years, the system has proven itself successful in achieving its objectives. It has consistently worked towards identifying those candidates or political parties best suited to represent a broad cross-section of America. Such results are fair and just for a large, diverse republic such as our own.
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