Jimmy Fallon's late-night show this week featured a sketch more cathartic than funny. In it, his female writers penned heartfelt thank-you notes to Hillary Clinton. The result harks back to Kate McKinnon-as-Clinton singing Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah” after Clinton lost the election. It was a little . . . weird.
But even when the thank-you notes went for humor, it was kind of predictable. The one “joke” that stuck with me involved a writer who lauded Clinton for taking bold stances: “You showed girls everywhere that politics isn't a popularity contest, because if it were, you would have won by about 3 million votes.”
Apparently the popular vote will never stop being Democrats' 2016 comfort blanket. And it's completely understandable that they'd cling to it for years and years, just like they did when Al Gore won it but lost the presidency in 2000.
But it's time to stop.
First off, while Clinton won the popular vote, it's impossible to say whether she would have won a popular-vote election. And secondly, this idea that Clinton actually won even as she lost risks totally obscuring the disastrous position her party is in right now — and may continue to be if they don't get hold of reality.
As I've written before, it's totally unknowable whether Clinton actually would have won if our system went by the popular vote. That's because the campaigns were run according to the system we have — the electoral college — and were focused heavily on the handful of states where those votes were actually at-stake. If we had the popular vote, both sides would have campaigned in and tailored their messages to the three-fourths of the country that they barely acknowledged:
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.
For example, if Trump shaved 10 points off his 30-point loss in California, turned his 22-point loss in New York into a 15-point loss, and added just six points to his nine-point win in Texas, he'd have won the popular vote. And that's just three really populous states out of the many in which neither side really tried.
Does it seem unlikely Trump would have won a popular-vote race? Perhaps. But it's impossible to know, because the campaign would have been run completely differently. We simply don't even know that Clinton would have won if our system was the popular vote, because it's a massive hypothetical.
The most important thing for Democrats, though, is not to believe that all is well and that they were simply robbed by a bad system or a fluke. That's because they are currently in their worst position since the Great Depression in state legislatures and governor's seats. There are more than twice as many Republican governors as Democratic ones, and there are more than four times as many states with total GOP control (26) as total Democratic control (6).
The maps for regaining House and Senate majorities are also both pretty daunting — in the Senate because 30 out of 50 states are red, and in the House because of natural sorting and GOP-controlled gerrymandering. All the GOP has to do in each chamber is hold states and districts that clearly favor them.
If Democrats don't win back state legislatures or some key governor's mansions in 2018, they'll again be shut out of the redistricting process after the 2020 election, and they'll face another decade of really tough state legislative and congressional maps. And even if they do get a seat at the table, the country has sorted itself in a way that's more conducive to Republican control.
Democrats are two election cycles away from another potential post-census disaster, but the popular vote is telling them that they really, actually won in 2016 — that they're really, actually the majority party in the United States. That's highly deceptive at best, and dangerously comforting at worst.
But hey, at least it's an easy punchline.