When it comes to explaining why he lost the popular vote, President Trump has a simple explanation. He lost the popular vote because he wasn’t interested in winning the popular vote, focusing instead on the electoral college — and if he’d focused on the popular vote, he would have won that even more easily, and also he lost the popular vote because his opponents cheated in some of the deepest-blue states in the country.
Done and done.
In his first major interview since moving into the White House, Trump took ABC’s David Muir on a tour of the gilded, expansive recesses of both his new residence and his mind. Thanks to Trump’s tweets on the subject, Muir quickly turned the questioning to the subject of voter fraud, which Trump insists was a huge factor in November’s election and which reality suggests was not.
Trump used the subject to reiterate a defense of his popularity.
“I would’ve won the popular vote if I was campaigning for the popular vote,” he said. “I would’ve gone to California where I didn’t go at all. I would’ve gone to New York where I didn’t campaign at all. I would’ve gone to a couple of places that I didn’t go to.”
“And I would’ve won that much easier than winning the electoral college,” he added. “But as you know, the electoral college is all that matters. It doesn’t make any difference. So, I would’ve won very, very easily. But it’s a different form of winning. You would campaign much differently. You would have a totally different campaign.”
It’s true that the need to win the electoral college meant that Trump’s focus during the campaign was different from what it would have been had the contest come down to vote totals. But that’s not the same thing as saying that Trump would have won the popular vote, much less “much easier” than he won the electoral college. (To be fair, if he had won the popular vote by any margin, it would likely have been an easier victory than his skin-of-his-teeth electoral college win, which came down to about 78,000 votes in three states.)
Trump would have needed to do 10 percentage points better in California to close the 2.9-million vote deficit he faced nationally. His argument that he could have made progress to that end if he’d campaigned in the state has only one critical drawback: Hillary Clinton would have campaigned there, too. (Had Clinton campaigned more in the Midwest, many people have pointed out, Muir would have been sitting down with her.)
Trump says he didn’t go to either California or New York at all, which isn’t entirely true. Trump made four stops in New York after that state’s primary, according to the National Journal’s candidate travel tracker, excluding a debate and the announcement of his vice presidential pick. (He visited California only before that state’s primary.) Clinton had campaign events there even less frequently, though she did run ads in California over the last few weeks of the campaign. Trump’s team did campaign in both states, though not at any real scale.
That said, it’s not surprising that Trump did poorly in the two states (despite his assurances on the campaign trail that they would be in play). California and New York have given the Democrat at least 1 million more votes than the Republican in every election since 1992. In California, that figure has been creeping upward, with Barack Obama winning by a 3 million vote margin in 2008 and 2012, and Clinton by 4.3 million this year. In New York, the Democrat has won by at least 1.5 million votes in five of the past seven contests. Trump might have eaten into those margins had he campaigned harder — but Clinton might also have widened her lead in those friendly territories.
Which brings us to part two of Trump’s excuse-making to Muir.
“With that being said,” he said, “if you look at voter registration, you look at the dead people that are registered to vote who vote, you look at people that are registered in two states, you look at all of these different things that are happening with registration. … They don’t wanna talk about registration. You have people that are registered who are dead, who are illegals, who are in two states. You have people registered in two states. They’re registered in a New York and a New Jersey. They vote twice. There are millions of votes, in my opinion.”
The wonderful part of this exchange is the directness with which Trump tries to have his cake and eat it, too. He defends his claims that millions of people voted illegally by noting that there are problems with the voter registration system at that scale. That’s a fair defense, with some caveats. But then he immediately re-conflates registration with voting (“there are millions of votes”). That’s a neat trick: You criticize me for saying there are millions of illegal votes when I’m just noting that there are millions of questionable registrations. Just registrations! (And also votes.)
The now-infamous report from Pew Trusts in 2012 does point out that there were millions of outdated registrations at that point because our voting systems do a bad job of weeding out people who have died or moved. (Like Trump’s daughter.) Pew’s point was that the systems should be improved, not that fraud results from these problems; in fact, Pew’s researchers explicitly pointed out then and now that there was no rampant fraud. (This, Trump told Muir, was because the researchers wanted a positive response from the anti-Trump media — even way back in 2012, apparently.)
At a news conference on Thursday, Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer pointed to California and New York as potential epicenters of this nonexistent fraud. “I think there’s a lot of states that we didn’t compete in where that’s not necessarily the case,” Spicer said about the campaign’s admitting in a legal filing that there was no rampant fraud in the election. “You look at California and New York, I’m not sure that those statements were — we didn’t look at those two states, in particular.”
Our colleague Dave Weigel noted the sheer ridiculousness of this idea from a political standpoint: If you’re going to orchestrate a massive, illegal effort to cast millions of ballots for Hillary Clinton, why on Earth would you do it in two states you knew she was going to win easily anyway? Whether or not the Clinton team thought they’d win Michigan and Pennsylvania, why not stack the deck in those places regardless, since they were always going to be more competitive than the deepest-blue parts of the country?
For a lot of Trump supporters, this overlaps with perceptions of California as a haven of undocumented immigrants, people encouraged by some all-powerful Democratic machine to commit a federal crime by illegally giving their names and contact information to the state government. We looked at the number of newly registered voters who were born outside the country; only 148,000 people fit that description from Latin American countries. There’s no indication at all that any significant number of them were voting illegally.
This has been another 1,000 words or so on Trump’s ongoing insecurity about having lost the popular vote. His arguments for why the popular vote results don’t suggest that he’s unpopular haven’t gotten any more effective, but they have gotten more numerous. It will be simpler moving forward, I suppose, to simply note that Trump continues to claim that he could have and did win the popular vote even though he didn’t and probably wouldn’t have. And to note that what Trump says on this subject, if not others, should not necessarily be taken at face value.