Those who critique disappointed Hillary Clinton fans for focusing on her popular vote win -- 2.6 million votes and counting -- rightly point out that this doesn't matter. What matters is the tally in the electoral college, and Donald Trump won that tally thanks to narrow victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. That's the score that counts. Clinton had more passing yards, the common analogy goes, but it's points that wins you a Super Bowl.

Vice president-elect Mike Pence has repeatedly cited yet another metric from the election, as he did at an event on Tuesday night.

"Thirty of fifty states, more counties won than since Ronald Reagan was a Republican candidate," Pence said at a Heritage Foundation event held -- where else! -- at Trump's D.C. hotel. "This is a historic victory."

AD

If the popular vote is passing yards, counties won is how many hot dogs the concession stands sold. It's almost certainly the most useless metric for evaluating a democratic election possible, unless you could somehow tally what color socks all the voters were wearing.

AD

Let's compare a few of these metrics: Electoral votes, popular vote, states won and counties won. We'll go back a century for the first three and to 1972 for counties (since that's the data I have at my disposal).

First of all, here are the real counts for the major-party candidates in each cycle.

In broader context, Pence's claims about the historic nature of the election lose a bit of their luster. The faded bars are those where the candidate did worse than Trump. The darker bars are those where the candidate did better than the president-elect.

AD

Of 51 non-Trump candidates running in 26 elections since 1916, 21 candidates won more states than Trump and 18 won more electoral votes. Only three won more votes -- which is, of course, a function of the fact that the population has increased dramatically over the last 100 years.

AD

It's sort of surprising, though, that Trump isn't constantly pointing out that no Republican has ever received more votes for president than he did (which is true). After all, the results of the general were the same as the primary, with Trump winning less than 50 percent of the vote but still setting a new record in terms of vote total. And Trump mentioned the fact that he received the most votes in a Republican primary about a billion times.

Of the 24 candidates in 12 elections since 1972, only two have won more counties than Trump. We'll come back to that.

If you consider margins, Trump fares even worse.

Of 26 elections since 1916, Trump had the 22nd-, 26th- and 21st-ranked margins in the electoral vote, total vote and states won. Those are bad numbers. But, again, he came in third in the number of counties won.

AD
AD

A critical factor here is the long-term trend of growth in America's urban areas. The counties that saw the most population growth since 2012 were also those most likely to vote more Democratic; those counties also tended to be more urban. More Democrats concentrating in cities -- which are usually only one or two counties -- means fewer Democrats in all the rest of the counties in the country. Meaning it's easier for Republicans to win those counties even without gaining votes.

Imagine a scenario in which two-thirds of Americans decide to vote Democratic, but all of them have moved to Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. That's seven counties (since New York has five) that would cast two-thirds of the votes. The Republican candidate would win more than 3,000 counties to the Democrat's seven, and that would mean just as little as this metric does for Pence.

Pence and Trump are making this and similar arguments for a simple reason: They want to be able to argue that they have a mandate to do what they want post-inauguration. They are certainly empowered to do whatever they want, but there's nothing particularly historic about the victory that they can claim.

Except that no incoming president in history has ever lost the popular vote quite so badly. But passing yards aren't how we keep score.

AD
AD