One of the Smallest Electoral College Victories

Americans should be disturbed by the recent statement by the Donald Trump Transition quickly dismissing the CIA’s conclusion that Russia tried to manipulate the presidential election in Trump’s favor. Given the serious nature of the subject and its source, one would have expected those responsible for the statement to consider the evidence before dismissing it.

But perhaps even more disturbing was the assertion in the second paragraph of the same statement that "The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history.” Even putting aside the technical point that the Electoral College voting will not occur until December 19, 2016 and even assuming that Trump wins all electors’ votes in states he apparently won, his Electoral College victory will be one of the smallest, not one of the biggest, in history. Whereas dismissing evidence without considering it is disturbing, even worse is misstating uncontestable facts.

The United States has had 54 presidential elections under the presidential electoral system which was created by the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution in 1804. It provides that electors vote separately for president and vice president. The prior system, which was used for the first four elections, instead allowed electors to cast two votes for president and accordingly could produce some misleading results.

If Trump receives all 306 electoral votes from the 30 states he apparently won, his 56.88% of the electoral vote would rank 44th of the 54 elections. That’s 11th from the bottom among the electoral vote winners. Far from being one of the “biggest Electoral College victories in history,” only ten Electoral College victories were smaller than Trump’s. The ten smaller victories were those by John Quincy Adams (1824), who actually lost the electoral vote but prevailed in the contingency election in the House of Representatives since no candidate received an electoral vote majority; Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), who won the electoral vote by one vote based on the decision of a special commission that awarded him all contested electoral votes; George W. Bush (2000, 271-266) and (2004, 286-251); Woodrow Wilson (1916, 277-254); Grover Cleveland (1884, 219-182); Jimmy Carter (1976, 297-240); Richard Nixon (1968, 301-191); Zachary Taylor (1848, 163-127); and John F. Kennedy (1960, 303-219).

Put differently, in size, Trump’s apparent Electoral College victory ranks near the bottom 20%. Trump’s Electoral College victory would be smaller than the Electoral College victories of Barack Obama (2008, 67.8%; 2012, 61.7%), Bill Clinton (1992, 68.77%; 1996, 70.45%), and George H.W. Bush (1988, 79.18%) among others.

If the margin over the runner up, rather than percentage of total electoral votes, is measured among recent elections where close to 538 electoral votes have been cast, Trump’s apparent margin over Clinton of 74 votes is less than Nixon’s over Hubert Humphrey (110) or Kennedy’s over Nixon (84), thereby providing a basis to conclude that Trump’s margin is really smaller, not larger, than even those two elections. Moreover, Kennedy and Nixon each won the popular vote unlike Trump.

The Trump transition’s claim doesn’t become more meritorious if the first four elections are included in the analysis. In that case, Trump’s 2016 margin stands 46th of 58, again near the bottom 20%.

Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin currently exceeds 2.84 million, about a 2.1% margin. Only two presidential elections were ever won by someone who did worse in the popular vote than Trump, again John Quincy Adams in 1824 and Hayes in 1876. Thus, Trump’s popular vote showing is 47th out of 49 possibilities. In fact, Clinton’s popular vote margin would place her 9th from the bottom of the 49 presidential elections in which such information is available or roughly near the top of the bottom quintile.

If Trump’s Electoral College victory is one of the biggest in history so is Clinton’s popular vote margin. Of course, neither claim bears any resemblance to the truth. But whereas the Trump transition has made such a claim, the Clinton campaign has not.

The “one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history” claim just isn’t so. The correct information is readily available, so the failure to access it reveals either incredible sloppiness or indifference to the truth. Neither is very comforting.

Nor is it very prudent. Sustainable government in a democracy depends on trust between the government and citizens. Other administrations have lost credibility by stating things that just aren’t so.

Trump may win an Electoral College victory on December 19 but it will be one of the smallest, not one of the biggest, in history.

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