“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide . . .”
— Donald Trump, in a tweet, Nov. 27, 2016
The Donald Trump campaign is justifiably proud of how it upended the conventional wisdom and won an election that virtually the entire political class said was in the bag for Hillary Clinton. It was a true “Dewey Defeats Truman” moment, leaving Clinton partisans in shock.
Trump even won about as many electoral college votes (306) as Truman (303) did in 1948. Truman won the popular vote by 4.5 percentage points, or 2.2 million votes, but Trump will have the distinction of being one of a handful of presidents who won the electoral college while losing the popular vote. At last count, he lagged Clinton by 2.1 percentage points, or more than 2.8 million votes.
Yet in recent days, Trump or his aides have tweeted that he won the electoral college in a landslide. (Note, we dealt with the false claim that millions voted illegally in a previous fact check.)
Did Trump have a landslide?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a landslide as “a great majority of votes for one side” and “an overwhelming victory.”
In terms of popular vote, Trump actually qualifies as a minority president, meaning he received less than 50 percent of the vote. (He currently has 46.4 percent of the vote, compared with 48.2 percent for Clinton and 5.4 percent for others.)
The electoral college, however, complicates matters because in virtually every state, the winner of the state earns every electoral college vote. Thus in the 2000 election, George W. Bush won Florida by just 537 votes, out of 6 million cast, and earned all of Florida’s 25 electoral votes (and thus a razor-sharp 271-267 victory).
In the 2016 election, Trump had narrow victories in three key states (and narrow losses in two others). He won Michigan by 10,704 votes, Wisconsin by 22,177 votes and Pennsylvania by 46,435 votes. (Note: updated Pennsylvania numbers as of Dec. 1) So if 39,659 voters in those states had switched their votes, 46 electoral votes would have flipped to Clinton — and she would have won 278-260. Just about every political analyst had said these states were a lock for Clinton, making Trump’s triumph even more surprising.
You couldn’t even fill half of the University of Michigan stadium (capacity 107,601) with 39,659 people.
Trump lost Minnesota and New Hampshire by a total of 47,492 votes, so a change of 23,747 votes would have given him an additional 14 electoral votes. So, in total, 60 electoral votes were in the hands of people who would not even fill that stadium.
In other words, an electoral college victory can magnify the results of an election, even if it constitutes a narrow popular-vote victory.
In 2008, for instance, Barack Obama won 52.8 percent of the popular vote, compared with 45.7 percent for John McCain. But his electoral college tally was 365, or nearly 69 percent. By a dictionary definition, that might qualify as a landslide, even if the popular-vote margin did not.
In terms of recent elections, Trump’s electoral college victory is larger than the wins recorded by Bush in 2000 and 2004 and Jimmy Carter in 1976 but much smaller than Obama in 2008 and 2012 or Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. Overall, according to a tally by John Pitney of Claremont McKenna College, Trump ranks 46th out of 58 electoral college results.
According to Pitney’s list, Ronald Reagan is the real landslide-holder. He won 97.58 percent of the electoral vote in 1984 and 90.89 percent in 1980, making him the only president to twice earn more than 90 percent of the electoral college. (George Washington won 100 percent twice, but that was before the rise of political parties.)
“The use of ‘landslide’ suggest a certain insecurity in the Trump camp,” Pitney said. (Pitney also ranked the losers in the electoral college. Clinton earned eighth place.)
Nate Silver, who runs FiveThiryEight.com, calculated that “the average electoral college winner claimed 70.9 percent of the available electoral votes, which would equate to 381 electoral votes given today’s total of 538 electors.” So Trump’s 56.9 percent “is decidedly below-average,” he concluded.
One reason the Trump folks might be eager to push the notion of a “landslide” is to foster the idea that Trump actually has a mandate for making bold changes, even if he lost the popular vote. But political parties have a tendency to view any victory, no matter how narrow, as a mandate — an attitude that could ultimately backfire.
Conway, during an interview with Lou Dobbs on Fox News after Obama’s reelection in 2012, warned that the Democrats are “reading into this election last month, Lou, a mandate that I simply don’t see.” Given how many of Obama’s initiatives were stymied, despite winning 62 percent of the electoral college that year, her warning may have been on target.
Trump spokesman Jason Miller did not respond to a request for an explanation of how Trump earned a “landslide” in the electoral college. In an email, Conway said her tweet was referring to how Trump did “compared to what was predicted. By everyone including WaPo.”
The Pinocchio Test
“Landslide” is perhaps a bit in the eye of the beholder. But by any objective measure, Trump did not win one, let alone a “blowout.” Trump will be a minority president who lost the popular vote and only won the electoral college through narrow victories in three states. On top of that, his margin of victory, even in the electoral college, is so low that he ranks 46th out of 58 elections.
We wavered between Three and Four Pinocchios. We do not give 1/2 Pinocchios. As we noted, the Trump campaign can be justifiably proud of an unexpected victory that shook the political establishment. In that sense, his election is certainly historic. But the narrowness of the margins in the three states that sealed his victory certainly undercuts any claims of a landslide, and thus tipped us to Four.
Dictionary definitions simply cannot be changed in the interest of political spin. Simply saying something over and over does not make it so.
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