The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A remarkable GOP admission: Undermining the electoral college threatens our best path to the White House

It’s not necessarily wrong

Trump supporters on the Mall hang flags ahead of anticipated protests this week. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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The last two Republicans to win a majority of the popular vote in a presidential contest were father and son: George H.W. Bush in 1988 and George W. Bush in 2004. At no other point since the elder Bush’s first term came to a sudden end with the 1992 contest has a Republican won the popular vote at all, much less with a majority of votes cast. While Republicans have controlled the White House for 12 of the past 20 years, only four of those years have resulted from a Republican having gotten more votes than his Democratic opponent.

This is not a new observation. Particularly after President Trump won the White House in 2016 despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million, there’s been an enormous amount of attention paid to the role the electoral college plays in determining the winner of the presidential contest. What in 2000 was something of a fluke — George W. Bush narrowly won the electoral vote while narrowly losing the popular — 16 years later became an eyesore. Trump is president thanks to about 78,000 votes in three states, despite far more Americans having preferred Hillary Clinton.

An industry emerged in defense of that outcome, with various pundits offering rationales for why such a system was desirable. The most truncated were simple appeals to the structure of the Constitution. More elaborate ones included broad assertions that the states should necessarily be considered individual voting units, perhaps (one line of reasoning went) because that gave states like Wyoming a reason to be invested in what the country was doing.

What’s not common is to hear people explicitly articulate the actual reason so many Republicans think the electoral college is useful: It tips the scales in their favor in presidential elections.

Trump's allies in Congress will mount a final challenge to Biden’s win during a joint session on Jan. 6. But history shows it's destined to fail. (Video: The Washington Post)

In a statement expressing opposition to Trump’s efforts to block President-elect Joe Biden’s 2020 victory, though, a group of House Republicans did exactly that. Reps. Thomas Massie (Ky.), Kelly Armstrong (N.D.), Ken Buck (Colo.), Mike Gallagher (Wis.), Nancy Mace (S.C.), Tom McClintock (Calif.) and Chip Roy (Tex.) released a statement that included this paragraph:

“From a purely partisan perspective, Republican presidential candidates have won the national popular vote only once in the last 32 years. They have therefore depended on the electoral college for nearly all presidential victories in the last generation. If we perpetuate the notion that Congress may disregard certified electoral votes — based solely on its own assessment that one or more states mishandled the presidential election — we will be delegitimizing the very system that led Donald Trump to victory in 2016, and that could provide the only path to victory in 2024.”

This is pretty remarkable! Their concern is not simply that there is no constitutional basis for Trump’s efforts, which there isn’t. It is also that a somehow successful effort by Trump to eliminate the electoral college vote as the predicate for becoming president would put at risk the Republicans’ best route to future presidencies.

Again, the numbers presented aren’t wrong. Since Jimmy Carter won the White House in 1976, Republicans and Democrats have won the presidency six times each. Democrats have won the popular vote in two-thirds of those contests.

What’s bizarre about the assertion that the electoral college must be preserved as a vehicle for success is that it is not exactly the case that Democrats have run away with the popular vote in the past eight elections. In the past three elections, the Democratic candidate has won the popular vote by an average of 3.5 percentage points. This isn’t like the Franklin Roosevelt era, when FDR won by an average of 15 points over the span of four elections. It’s not even like the 1980-to-1988 stretch, when Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush averaged 12-point wins.

But then, national politics doesn’t look the way it did 40 years ago, either. The electorate is much more polarized, and partisans are much more likely than in years past to vote for their party’s candidate. What’s more, large, heavily Democratic states like New York and California are shifting the relationship between the popular and electoral votes, with Democratic candidates like Clinton in 2016 running up big margins in those states but not benefiting from any increase in electoral votes. In fact, the growing divide between large and small states means most of the people who voted for Trump in 2020 live in states won by Biden.

An interesting consideration stemming from the claim by those House Republicans is that they don’t seem to think there’s much use in trying to expand their base of support. Since the 2016 election, there’s been a lot of analysis focused on how Democrats could win back Trump voters, something that it seems Biden may have had some success doing. But the suggestion that Republicans might necessarily need the electoral college to swing the White House back to their party assumes that they won’t have a candidate who can successfully appeal to most American voters to win the popular vote.

Generally speaking, the gap in the electoral vote in a presidential contest grows wider the bigger the gap in the popular vote gets. That’s obvious from a comparison of the historical popular and electoral vote margins.

The current challenge for Democrats is that the midpoint has shifted. Before the 2020 election, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver predicted that Biden had only about 1 in 5 odds of winning the presidency if he prevailed in the national popular vote by only one or two points. If he won by four to five points — where he ended up — the odds climbed to 9 in 10. If his national margin had been a bit narrower, his odds would have been about even, which Clinton could have told him all about.

The country has spent four years debating whether such a scenario is fair. Not many of those debates, though, suggested that it was necessarily good that the electoral vote replace the popular will, even if only for partisan ends.

This has nonetheless become a staple in defending Republican power. The party continues to control the Senate (at least for another week or so) despite earning fewer Senate votes than Democrats nationally and despite Democratic senators representing more people than Republicans. Despite, too, Democrats holding a majority of House seats. Trump’s 2020 loss potentially came down to about 50,000 votes in a handful of states, despite his 7 million-vote national loss. This is not how majority rule works.

But then Republicans are not the majority. Only about a quarter of the country identifies as Republican, according to Gallup, and a majority identifies as either Democratic or Democratic-leaning independent. It’s not inconceivable that those numbers might shift back to the GOP, given how often they fluctuate. For Republican elected officials to simply assume that they won’t shift to a degree sufficient to win a national election, though, is a remarkable point of surrender.