The Popular Vote-Electoral College Disconnect: The New Normal?

The Popular Vote-Electoral College Disconnect:
The New Normal?

From the creation of our Constitution until 2000 the winner of the popular vote was also selected President by the Electoral College except in three cases. But in the five elections since 2000, the anomoly of the popular vote winner not prevailing in the Electoral College has occurred twice, in both the Gore-Bush 2000 election and last week in Clinton-Trump. As we see a renewed public discussion about the value of the Electoral College to the American poliitical system, it's useful to understand why Electoral College inversions may be the "new normal".

The previous exceptions to the popularly winning candidate also being elected president were Andrew Jackson's 30,000 vote margin over John Quincy Adams in 1824, Samuel J. Tilden's 250,000 margin over Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, and Grover Cleveland's 90,000 margin over Benjamin Harrison in 1888. These accounted for three of 52 US presidential elections. In the elections since 2000, Al Gore had a 547,000 vote margin over George Bush in 2000, and Hillary Clinton will have an apparent 2,000,000 or so vote margin over Donald Trump in 2016 when all votes are counted. Thus in the last five presidential elections, we have seen this result 40 percent of the time. What had been an historical aberration has now become the new normal.

As both a political scientist and a political practitioner, I anticipate that this trend may continue and possibly accelerate over the next decades.

The Electoral College, by the deliberate design of the Founders, overrepresents small states. The number of Electors is equal to a state's representation in the House and Senate. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787 the Southern states feared domination by the more populous northern states.

As a counterbaance, the South demanded that its slaves be counted as part of each state's population in determining representation in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral College. The infamous "Three Fifths Compromise" addressed this concern. For purposes of representation in Congress and the Electoral College, slaves were to be considered as three-fifths of free men. This moral anomaly allowed slaves in the South to be treated as livestock economically and socially, but partially human for political purposes.

Richard L. Leffler, Professor Emeritus of History at the Univeristy of Wisconsin, writes that "using electors based on representation in Congress obviously gave the South the benefit of their slaves whereas direct election did not. It's likely that if slaves were not counted in apportioning electors, Adams would have defeated Jefferson in 1800, which is the argument Garry Wills make in 'Negro President'."

But the Electoral College envisioned by our Founding Fathers bears little resemblance to the Electoral College that will convene on December 19, 2016 to select Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. Where Hamilton envisioned an Electoral College comprising trustees exercising independent judgment, the College has become a group of party loyalists who automatically ratify their state results.

Hamilton proposed the Electoral College in his June 18, 1787 "plan of governement" before the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Later, in Federalist 68 Hamilton defended a construct for Presidential Electors that he believed would preclude a presidential candidate with "Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity."

Hamid Khan, Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina, quotes Hamilton as writing that Electors were to be "the most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice." Electors were to "possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigation as to...afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder." Hamilton even added that Electors were to prevent "the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils." Hamilton's genius, so delightfully captured on Broadway, also apparently extended to clairvoyance.

There are currently 538 votes in the Electoral College - 435 votes reflecting the House and roughly correlating with each state's population. The 100 Electoral College votes reflecting the Senate do not. (The District of Columbia has three Electoral College votes.)

Wyoming has the smallest state population in the U.S. - 582,000 people and three Electoral College votes. The state with the largest population is California with 39,145,000 citizens and 55 Electoral College votes. A vote for President in Wyoming is thus almost 400 percent of that of a vote in California.

Despite periodic calls for the elimination of the Electoral College, (especially after the electoral inversions of 2000 and 2016), it is highly improbable, most likley impossible, that smaller states would agree to a constitutional amendment to provide for the direct election of President. It seems that for better or worse, we are stuck with this sytem.

The Electoral College system has inherent problems for both the Democratic and Republican Parties, albeit for totally different reasons. The blue state map of the results of the 2016 election shows a Democratic Party primariy of the East Coast and the West Coast and some big cities in between. That geography includes a majority of US citizens and voters, but not a majority of the Electoral College. If Democrats cannot win back the support of working class whites who shifted Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin to Trump the inversion would likely repeat.

At this time, when the full counting is completed, Hillary Clinton is expected to have received approximately 64 million votes and
Donald Trump approximately 62 million. She will have won California by about five million votes, New York by about two million. Trump won Michigan by about 11,000 votes, Wisconsin by 23,000, and Pennsylvania by 76,000. These data alone explain the lack of correlaton between Secretary Clinton's clear popular vote margin and Donald Trump's substantial Electoral College margin.

The PEW Foundation recently released a political survey that suggests that the demographic advantage of the Democratic Party will continue to grow and accelerate. But I believe it will make blue states much bluer without substantially impacting the demography and political orientation of red states. PEW indicates that on election day demographically 48 percent of the country was Democratic and 44 percent Republican.

But the groups that are predicted to grow in the American electorate are clearly Democratic leaning (Hispanics, Asians, non-white mixed race). PEW predicts that the black percentage of the electorate will remain stable. But there will be dramatic decreases in groups that comprise the Republican base including white Evangelicals, white Catholics, whites with no college. This is a trend that is consistent over decades. In 1992 the voting electorate was 88 percent white, in 2000 80 percent, in 2004 79 percent, in 2008 76 percent, in 2012 73 percent and in the 2016 exit poll 70 percent.

There is no reason to think that Democrats will not continue to do very well in the popular vote. In fact all evidence points to Democrats increasing their national party identification margin. But - given the composition of the industrial midwest - there is also no evidence that this will consistently translate into an Electoral College majority.

So there is good news and bad news for both the Democratic and Republican parties. For the Democrats, demography does indeed seem to be destiny. But the most direct effect is for blue states on the coasts to become bluer and bluer, thus promising little short-term impact on the Electoral College result. Democrats need to address the real concerns of their historical base (workers) while continuing to maintain their new base (minorities and the highly educated).

For the Republicans, the Electoral College Democratic "blue wall" has been breached, but only barely. If Republicans can consolidate their new white working class voters in the industrial midwest, they may be able to sustain an Electoral College advantage.

But the clock is ticking. Demography is not on their side. Only 55,000 votes switched from Trump to Clinton in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin would have given Clinton the Electoral College as well as the popular vote. And continued Republican success in places like North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Arizona and Texas may elude them as these electorates become more dominated by minorities. Even deep-red Texas is expected to become "minority majority" within eight years.

It remains to be seen if Electoral College/popular vote dichotomies will become the new normal. But it is safe to believe that unless the system is changed or the demographic composition of our parties is reversed, we will see more, not fewer 2000 and 2016 outcomes.