Popular Vote v. Electoral College (Why The Media Badly Needs A History Lesson)

Despite Barack Obama's (D) amazingly consistent lead throughout the general election over John McCain (R), the talking heads on cable television returned to their incessant bloviating over whether Obama should be leading by more than just five points over McCain. It's really painful to watch these fools who don't bother to pay attention to history to understand how a five-point popular vote victory almost always translates when it comes to the only metric that matters -- the Electoral College. (Hint: landslide)

So, rather than expect that someone will take a peek at historical data, I figured I'd go ahead and do it myself.

Below are the results from the last 20 presidential elections, listing the Electoral Vote margin by the winner over the loser (or second place finisher), as well as the popular vote margin.

Year Winner EV Margin Pop Vote Margin
2004 Bush 36 2.4
2000  Bush 4 -0.5
1996  Clinton 220 8.5
1992 Clinton 202 5.6
1988 Bush 315 7.8
1984 Reagan 512 18.2
1980 Reagan 440 9.7
1976 Carter 57 2.1
1972 Nixon 503 23.2
1968 Nixon 110 0.7
1964 Johnson 434 22.6
1960  Kennedy 84 0.1
1956  Eisenhower 384 15.4
1952  Eisenhower 353 10.9
1948  Truman 114 4.5
1944  Roosevelt 333 7.5
1940 Roosevelt 367 9.9
1936  Roosevelt 515 24.3
1932  Roosevelt 413 17.7
1928 Hoover 357 17.4

Then, I charted this data into a simple Excel spreadsheet and added a trendline.

Take note of just how large of an electoral landslide results from a five-point popular vote victory. It's pretty massive and usually results in an Electoral Vote margin of about 200. The elections that most closely mirror the margin in the current contest are:

  • 1992: Clinton won the popular vote by 5.6 points, winning the Electoral College by a 370 to 168 margin (a difference of 202);
  • 1948: Truman won the popular vote by 4.5 points, winning the Electoral College by a 303 to 189 margin (a difference of 114).
  • Also, keep in mind that Obama's current five-plus point lead is with undecideds added to the mix. If you simply allocate undecideds by the percentage each candidate is getting, Obama's lead jumps to close to seven points (w/o undecideds in parentheses):

    CBS News: Obama 45-39 (Obama 53.6-46.4, +7.2)

    AP/IPSOS: Obama 47-41 (Obama 53.4-46.6, +6.8)

    Time:     Obama 46-41 (Obama 52.9-47.1, +5.8)

    In contrast, Bush's landslide over Dukakis in 1988 happened with a popular vote margin of just 7.8 points and Reagan's rout of Carter in 1980 saw a margin of 9.7 points. In a historical context, a five or six point popular vote victory always translates into a landslide.

    So, exactly, what are the dimwits on cable news talking about?

    What about a five-point lead do these people think is not large enough when you look at the last century of American presidential elections?

    Mark Nickolas is the Managing Editor of Political Base, and this story was from his original post, "Popular Vote v. Electoral College (Why The Media Should Do Its Homework)"