The popular vote doesn’t win elections — nor does it grant legitimacy
If rules for electing the President were different, the popular vote would be different. But candidates competed to win the electoral college.
The loss of political legitimacy can be especially difficult if one group — say one-half of the American political world — expects to receive it because of certain “undeniable” facts about their demographic and moral destiny. I am, of course, referring to the Democratic faction of our nation, which certainly believed it would enjoy uncontested power in America for at least a generation.
Now that the Trump wave has drowned these hopes at virtually all levels of the federal government, some commentators on the left are seeking ways to delegitimize the Republican victory by noting that he is likely to receive less of the popular vote than Clinton will. The effect seems not so much to remove him from office, but to extract demands from him, or at least soothe the minds of despairing liberals — as if to say the outcome of this contest was not really so decisive as it seems. But this comes from a position of weakness and I doubt Republicans are in a particularly gracious mood after the supercilious disposition of progressives the last eight years.
Politicians, however, are far less interested in this vaguer side of legitimacy and far more interested in a practical one: that of winning elections. And they will follow the rules — written or unwritten — necessary to defeat their opponents and obtain power. Resources are finite: contenders build campaigns not to win the raw popular vote, but to win enough states to get to 270 in the electoral college. Clinton did not spend 95% of her resources in California and Illinois capping out the vote totals in San Francisco and Chicago. No, she spent a great deal of money in other less populous states — such as Pennsylvania and North Carolina — because even if you win 99% of the vote in California, it still only counts as 55 electoral votes.
So while some people are claiming Hillary has more legitimacy than Trump because she looks likely to beat him in the popular vote, we don’t know what popular vote totals would look like if candidates competed for raw votes alone.
For example, what would a national popular vote contest look like with these numbers in mind?
Based on self-identification, conservatives outnumber liberals 38% to 24%. If (and this is a big if) moderates decided to split their votes between the two groups, liberals would lose the national vote by a hefty margin.
I suspect an election without the electoral college would work out better for Democrats. For one, get-out-the-vote operations are significantly easier to implement when most of your potential voters live in densely packed cities rather than sparsely populated farmland. But who knows? Republicans running up the numbers in rural and suburban areas in deep red parts of the country could off-set margins Democrats make in urban strongholds. There are millions of right-leaning voters in California, Illinois, and New York, but they receive hardly any attention during Presidential cycles because it is easier for Republicans to win the electoral college by going through other, less popular states. There are also many Republicans in cities, even if we often act like urban areas are monolithic. What would tallies look like if these votes were actively sought?
The popular vote would confer a great deal of legitimacy if the law and most everyone in the country agreed that it was the means by which presidential contests are won. But it isn’t, and we can’t know how votes would be distributed until we run an election without the electoral college.
Besides, Democrats often argued for the inevitability of Hillary based on the electoral college. They said it would be nigh-impossible for a Republican to breakthrough (formerly?) blue states like PA, MI or WI. Yet they can’t rely on the legitimacy of the “blue wall” and then complain that they still won the popular vote after the wall crumbles. They knew the rules going in, and they played by them. They must accept the results.