It's been more than a month since the 2016 election. We're nearly as close to Donald Trump's inauguration as we are to Election Day, in fact. Yet some still can't let it go.
And it's not just Russia's apparent meddling in the election; supporters of Hillary Clinton can't help but keep reciting selective statistics to make themselves feel better about what just happened — almost as if she hadn't actually lost!
The problem is that many of these stats mean far less than those using them would prefer.
Let's recap a few of them.
1) Clinton got more votes than any presidential candidate except President Obama
This got more than 8,000 retweets late last week:
Hillary Clinton has now won more votes total than Obama did in 2012. She's won more votes than any American candidate except Obama 2008.
— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) December 8, 2016
The first problem is that this tweet is not true. Clinton is currently shy of 65.8 million votes votes, according to David Wasserman, while Obama in 2012 got more than 65.9 million. And there don't appear to be enough votes left for her to pass him.
But even if we were to allow that the argument is really she got more votes than anybody but Obama (in both '08 and '12), it still doesn't mean much.
The stat would mean something if our population didn't have that pesky habit of growing — and doing so rather quickly. Yes, Clinton will apparently have won the third-most votes of any presidential candidate ever. But that's because there were millions more eligible voters in 2016 than there were in 2012, when there were millions more eligible voters than there were in 2008, when there were millions more eligible voters than in 2004, etc., etc.
So basically every time we have a presidential election, there's a good chance one or both candidates will set a record — or come close. Back in 2012, Mitt Romney lost, but he could take heart in knowing he took fewer votes than only two candidates before him: Obama 2008 and George W. Bush in 2004. John McCain could say the same in 2008; he lost, but he took more votes than any previous candidate except Bush. In 2004, John Kerry lost but took more votes than anybody but the man he lost to that year. And Al Gore set a record for votes in 2000, winning the popular vote but losing the election.
In other words: This kind of thing happens a lot.
If you compare Clinton's vote total to the voting-eligible population, in fact, she won about 29 percent of people who could have voted for her. Relative to other candidates who won the popular vote over the last century, that actually puts her in the bottom half. So it's not like she did remarkably well but just happened to lose because of the electoral college, as this tweet seems to posit.
2) Green Party nominee Jill Stein exceeded Trump's margin in the states that mattered
The argument here is basically that if Stein hadn't run, her left-leaning voters might have put Clinton over the top. And it makes sense, in theory.
- In Michigan, Trump won by 10,700 votes, while Stein got more than 51,000 votes
- In Wisconsin, Trump won by 22,000 votes, while Stein got about 31,000
- In Pennsylvania, Trump won by about 44,000 votes, while Stein got nearly 50,000.
These were the three closest states that Trump won — all by less than 1 percent — and if they flipped Clinton would be president. Those pointing out this stat have included Salon, Vox, CNN, and the Hill.
But again, this means less than it seems. It would seem plausible that Clinton might have won Michigan if not for Stein being in the race, given Stein took about five times as many votes as Trump's margin. But in the other two states, it would be far less likely.
Exit polls showed 60 percent of Stein backers said they would have stayed home if she weren't on the ballot. Among the rest, Clinton led by about a 2-to-1 margin — 27-13, to be specific — but Trump took a fair amount of voters.
Applying those numbers to the totals above means Clinton would have gained about 4,300 votes in Wisconsin and about 6,400 in Pennsylvania — not nearly enough to change the results.
And even if you are very charitable to Clinton and allow that those 60 percent of folks who said they would have stayed home would actually have voted for Clinton, she still doesn't win the presidency. Even then, with Clinton winning Stein supporters 87-13 in Pennsylvania instead of 27-13, Clinton would still lose the state by about 800 votes. And without any of the three states above, she still loses the presidential race.
In order for Stein to truly have spoiled the election for Clinton, it would have required basically all of her voters to instead vote for Clinton. There is very little reason to believe that this would have happened — even if many who say they would have stayed home would actually have been Clinton voters.
3) Democrats won the Senate popular vote
Hard to read this and still call US the world's greatest democracy. Dems won popular vote for president and Senate. But still lost both https://t.co/vTn6vouqXE
— Gideon Rachman (@gideonrachman) December 8, 2016
Basically, the problem is that 16 to 17 states don't vote in any one cycle, which means the popular vote is very reliant on the 33-34 states who do. The biggest blue states (California and New York) both voted in 2016, but the biggest red one (Texas) didn't. And in this election cycle, there was a fluke-y situation in California that made the popular vote look like a landslide for Democrats in a highly deceptive way.
California's top-two primary system advances the top two candidates to the general election regardless of party. This year, that just happened to be two Democrats: Now-Sen.-elect Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez. That means the 12.2 million ballots counted so far in that race have all been for Democrats. In a regular election, Republicans might have won about 5 million or 4.5 million of those votes, reducing Democrats' margin to 2.2 million or 3.2 million voters, respectively — 9 million or 10 million less.
And that basically, by itself, explains why they won the Senate popular vote.
(The rest is here, in case you want more.)
BONUS: Hillary Clinton would have won a popular-vote election
Okay, so this isn't a bad statistic, per se, but it's overused.
Clinton won the popular vote, yes — and by the third-largest margin from someone who lost the election, which is significant. But that's not the same as saying she would have won a popular-vote election — as I wrote a while back.
It's worth resurfacing given Clinton's popular vote margin recently surpassed 2 percent and the "But the popular vote!" chorus returns:
The fact is that just because Trump lost the popular vote last week doesn't mean he would have lost a popular-vote election.
What do I mean by that? Basically, losing the popular vote in an electoral-college election isn't the same as losing the popular vote in a popular-vote election. The former involves a very specific strategy that may cost you when it comes to winning the nationwide popular vote. But you pursue that strategy because the latter doesn't matter. You need to get to 270 electoral votes, not a majority or plurality of all votes.
An electoral-college election involves making explicit appeals to and advertising in around 10 or 12 out of the 50 states. It means Trump didn't campaign or advertise in California or Massachusetts or Washington state and that Clinton didn't campaign in Oklahoma or even Texas (despite polling within single digits there). They knew it would be wasted effort to try to turn a 30-point loss in those states into a 22-point loss, or a 14-point loss into an eight-point loss.
It also means they tailored their messages specifically to voters in key states, which happen to be disproportionately Midwestern and on the East Coast. It meant Trump had little incentive to appeal to Western voters — outside Nevada, at least. And he pursued a very specific strategy that appealed to the key Rust Belt states that wound up delivering him the presidency.
It's also worth noting that No. 3 above ties into this one. The Senate race in California featured two Democrats, and there wasn't another statewide race featuring a Republican, except for president (which was a foregone conclusion). In other words, there perhaps wasn't as much reason for Republicans to turn out to vote.
Did this depress GOP turnout? Maybe. In 2012, exit polls showed Republicans were 27 percent of the state's electorate; this year, they were 23 percent. And while President Obama won the state by 3 million votes in 2012, Clinton is winning it by 4.3 million as of right now. That difference accounts for a big chunk of her 2.8-million popular-vote edge, and it's in a state that has no bearing on the presidential race.
Could this also be because Californians just don't like Trump? Sure. But it's worth noting that a big chunk of Clinton's popular-vote edge came in one state that neither candidate even tried to compete in, because our system doesn't reward them for it.