Donald Trump is no electoral phenom. He’s more like Michael Dukakis than Ronald Reagan.
Last week at the White House, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders unwittingly reminded Americans of just how badly the Electoral College distorts how we think about the popular support our president has. Sanders told reporters that the president “got elected by an overwhelming majority of 63 million Americans who came out and supported him and wanted to see his policies enacted.”
Except, that’s not right. The president was actually elected by a minority of 63 million Americans, or 46.1 percent of the vote. That total, though, was filtered through the unfortunate winner-take-all system that 48 states use to allocate Electoral College votes, and it became enough to win despite the 66 million votes, or 48.2 percent, that Hillary Clinton received.
Perhaps Sanders meant to say the president won a majority of votes in the Electoral College, which is true — but that doesn’t mean that an “overwhelming majority of 63 millions Americans” voted for him.
Historically, Trump’s victory wasn’t remarkable
What’s remarkable is how common it is to overstate the president’s electoral support. Books have been written to catalog the “Trump phenomenon” and declared that Donald Trump “conquered America.” Scientific American has tried to explain Trump’s appeal through psychological analysis of the citizenry. And, of course, some online have even started speculating about who the next Donald Trump might be — that is, what CEO, billionaire, or celebrity could make a run that could match Trump’s supposedly remarkable electoral support.
Except, let’s wait a second before we dub President Trump an electoral “phenomenon.” In 2012, Mitt Romney was considered a failure — not a phenomenon — but he got a meaningfully greater percentage of the vote (47.2 percent) than Trump did in 2016 (46.1 percent). Other notable losers like John Kerry in 2004 (48.3 percent) and Al Gore in 2000 (48.4 percent) were supported by a substantially larger percentage of voters than Trump was.
In fact, on a percentage basis, Trump barely ekes out a victory over supposed blowout loser Michael Dukakis, who lost in 1988 by more than 300 electoral votes to George H.W. Bush. But if you take a look at the numbers, Dukakis’ percent of the vote in that blowout loss (45.6 percent) was only half a percentage point less than Trump’s (46.1 percent) in his supposed “overwhelming majority” victory.
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Winning in the Electoral College, of course, makes all the difference in our perception of these candidates. I wouldn’t expect any historian to go back and seriously study the “Dukakis phenomenon.” Nor would I hold your breath for a detailed analysis of the psychological impact that Kerry had on voters — except perhaps as an example of what went wrong in 2004. Yet the way Trump governs and the way some in the news media portray him, you might think he garnered multiples of the electoral support of these losing candidates. Actually, the opposite is true.
Give credit where it’s due: Trump won according to the rules of the game that were in place in 2016, and that’s beyond dispute. The popular vote is only the input to the one election that really matters, which occurs in the Electoral College. But that doesn’t mean we ought to blind ourselves to the distortions that the Electoral College causes.
The Electoral College is a distorted view of voters
For instance, Trump has repeatedly claimed he won in a “landslide” in the Electoral College, where he won 56.5 percent of the vote, and this gives the impression that he enjoys widespread electoral support. But that’s an illusion.
The final tally in the Electoral College distorts what actually goes on at the polls, because Trump won a few key states narrowly and lost overwhelmingly elsewhere. The percent he won in the Electoral College is thus not a true window on our democracy but is instead more like a fun house mirror: Sure, it partly reflects back what goes in, but the output is a distorted version of reality, not reality itself.
There is real danger in ignoring, as the Trump administration has, the distortions of the Electoral College. You start to think maybe some votes really should count more than others. You start to justify your disconnect with the popular will by telling yourself that you have more support than you actually do. And then — like Sarah Huckabee Sanders — you might even start thinking that, wait a minute, maybe we did win a majority of votes. And then you say that out loud at the podium for all the world to hear.
At the carnival, once the illusion gets too real, you exit the fun house and the illusion fades. Unfortunately, it won’t be so easy for us to rid our system of the gross and unfair distortions caused by the Electoral College. Until we do, though, we ought to at least acknowledge that we are living in the fun house world of the Electoral College and not the real world where the president won majority support.
Sadly, too many people recently seem to be stuck in the fun house, unable to find the exit.
Jason Harrow is chief counsel of EqualCitizens.US.
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