Many Americans were shocked and outraged in 2016 when Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton bested Republican Donald Trump by nearly 2.9 million votes only to lose the Electoral College and therefore the White House.
A new study released this month found such an outcome is likely to happen again in 2020 — and beyond — if the popular vote is as close as it was in that race, thanks in large part to America’s unusual electoral system.
The findings, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in partnership with the University of Texas at Austin, are dramatic. In presidential elections in which a candidate wins the popular vote by less than 2 percentage points, or about 2.6 million votes (based on 2016 turnout), there’s about a 32% chance they will still lose the Electoral College. These mismatches, called electoral inversions, become more frequent when the race is even tighter: There’s a 45% probability when the race is decided by less than 1 percentage point, or 1.3 million votes.
“What is fundamental to the Electoral College is that an inversion is very likely in a close election,” Dean Spears, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin and a co-author of the findings, said in an interview.
The study, co-written by Spears, Michael Geruso and Ishaana Talesara, both of UT-Austin, is the first time researchers have analyzed the four inversions since 1836, when a presidential candidate has lost the popular vote but then won the presidency: Rutherford Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016. The likelihood of an inversion remained high even as America changed dramatically during that nearly 200-year span: Old political parties dissolved, large segments of society, including women and Black Americans, gained the right to vote, more states were added to the union.
“Even as more people are given access, and even as the set of political parties have changed, and even as Democrats have moved from being a party of the South, it’s always been true during all of those changes,” Geruso, an assistant professor of economics at UT-Austin, told HuffPost. “In a close election, there’s just a very high probability of an inversion.”
The pair noted that as the political landscape in America becomes increasingly divisive, presidential elections could very well become tighter in coming years to the point where young people voting for the first time in 2020 have a 90% chance of seeing an inversion in their voting lifetime.
“Voting in an election where the winner loses the popular vote is a fact of political life for American voters,” the authors wrote in the paper.
The divide between the Electoral College and the popular vote has frustrated presidential candidates for decades. Clinton said shortly after her defeat that she’d like to see the Electoral College system abolished and have America “move past” it. But Trump, who won the electoral map in 2016, has praised the system as “genius” while at the same time moving to delegitimize the popular vote from that race, claiming, without evidence, that millions voted illegally and that Google influenced the results.
Geruso said that there wasn’t much recourse for frustrated voters to alter the probability of an inversion even with the dramatic changes to the Electoral College that are proposed now and then: The only way to guarantee a popular vote win would lead to the White House would be to get rid of the mechanism altogether.
“The only change that would cause the Electoral College to always elect the winner of the national popular vote would be to change the system to have a national popular vote,” he said, noting that inversions are linked to a multitude of factors, from small states having an outsized number of electors to issues with the census. “There isn’t just one cause of inversions.”
The only change that would cause the Electoral College to always elect the winner of the national popular vote would be to change the system to have a national popular vote. Michael Geruso, assistant professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin
Several Democrats running for the 2020 presidential nomination have proposed abolishing the Electoral College, and public sentiment to get rid of the system has grown, with critics saying it unfairly benefits Republicans and ignores the will of the people. Republicans have defended its merits, saying the Electoral College protects the influence of smaller states that could be bowled over by much more populous, and often left-leaning, behemoths like California.
But Geruso and Spears note in their research that, although all four of the documented inversions have benefited Republicans, Democrats could still gain from an electoral mismatch.
“Right now, in this moment in history, Republicans have the advantage,” Spears said. “But that could change. Some of these potential policy changes wouldn’t so much as reverse the probability of the inversions as shift it around.”
He noted that, although some analysts have pointed to Trump’s Trump-iness as an unusual outlier that led to a dramatic upset in 2016, statistically an inversion was far more likely simply due to the tightness of the race, not the president’s brash personality.
“I think a lot of people think that there was something special or improbable about the 2016 election,” Spears said. “That with the politics of these times, 2016 was somehow a fluke. One of the important things that we learned is that that’s not true. … Not because it was unlikely, it was an inversion because an inversion is likely in a close election.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified the winner of the 1888 presidential election as William Harrison, who won the 1840 election and died shortly after his inauguration in 1841.