When he thought that his endorsed 2012 candidate, Mitt Romney, might hand Barack Obama a second term by losing the electoral vote but winning the popular vote, Donald Trump was livid.
“The electoral college,” he wrote on Twitter, “is a disaster for a democracy.”
Romney ended up losing both, and Trump dropped the subject. Until the aftermath of the 2016 election, in which Trump prevailed precisely under the scenario he had criticized four years prior.
“I was never a fan of the electoral college until now,” he told the New York Times in an interview a few weeks after his win. In an ensuing series of tweets, he insisted that his campaign had won the electoral college in a landslide but would have won the popular vote “more easily and convincingly” if he’d wanted to. [Also that he did win the popular vote, if you take away illegal votes (that didn’t exist.)]
Democrats looking to challenge him in 2020 have embraced the idea that the country should move to a popularly elected president, a function in part, certainly, of their party having come out on the losing end of 4-out-of-4 electoral/popular vote splits since 1860. That spurred a more detailed endorsement of the electoral college from Trump.
“Campaigning for the Popular Vote is much easier & different than campaigning for the Electoral College,” he wrote on Twitter. “It’s like training for the 100 yard dash vs. a marathon. The brilliance of the electoral college is that you must go to many States to win. With the Popular Vote, you go to just the large States — the Cities would end up running the Country. Smaller States & the entire Midwest would end up losing all power — & we can’t let that happen. I used to like the idea of the Popular Vote, but now realize the Electoral College is far better for the U.S.A.”
Most of that argument is obviously wrong.
For example, he claims that the “brilliance of the Electoral College is that you must go to many States to win.” Not really. According to data on nearly 400 candidate trips from July 1, 2016 until Election Day compiled by the National Journal, he himself visited 16 states more than once. He made no visits to 29 states. In the National Journal’s data, which didn’t capture every trip, twenty states got no visits from any of the major-party presidential or vice-presidential candidates.
More than half of those visits were to five states: Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The electoral college doesn’t ensure that candidates blanket the country, it just shifts the places of focus from states such as California, New York, Texas and Illinois — places with big, dense cities — to places that are more likely to be swing states. Even though fewer Americans live there.
Trump’s argument that “the Cities would end up running the Country” is belated, as well. More than three-quarters of Americans already live in urban areas, most of them in cities. It has been nearly a century since less than half the country did.
As for the idea that “Smaller States & the entire Midwest would end up losing all power,” Trump is forgetting two things. First, that smaller states would retain the disproportionate power allocated to them in the Senate, a not-insignificant bulwark. Second, that Midwestern states also have some big cities that would be appealing to candidates: Chicago, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Des Moines.
This idea that focusing on the popular vote means camping out in Los Angeles and New York is itself anachronistic. The 10 largest cities in the United States make up less of the country’s total population now than at any point in more than a century. The urbanization of America hasn’t meant packing people into four or five mega-metropolises; it has meant more cities across the country swelling in size.
Nearly half the states now have cities with a population of at least 500,000. Sure, the country itself is larger, too, but there’s no shortage of densely packed cities that a candidate could tour on his or her way to the White House. Those cities also have larger footprints when considering local media coverage that extends into suburban and rural areas.
It’s also worth remembering that we have existing popular-vote contests that cover a mix of urban and rural areas: governors’ races.
For example: In the last week of his campaign for California governor, Democratic candidate Gavin Newsom made a campaign stop in Merced, population 80,000. It was part of a statewide bus tour aimed, in part, at boosting energy for key House races before the midterms. (Jared Polis’s gubernatorial campaign in Colorado did something similar.) That’s another point: Candidates are not always campaigning for themselves alone. There are other races to win in other places that help determine candidate schedules.
It’s easy to cherry-pick examples (and tricky, after the fact, to cobble together entire itineraries), but there’s no evidence that gubernatorial campaigns simply sit in major cities and ignore voters elsewhere in a state.
Trump’s argument isn’t really about the electoral college. It’s about how (1) Democrats are bad and (2) he is a great politician and a winner. It’s a good thing, really, given how iffy his arguments in support of the electoral college are.
clarification: The article was updated to note that the National Journal's trip database is incomplete.