The Fallacy of Claiming a Popular Vote “Win” when Playing the Electoral College Game

Why saying you won the popular vote after an Electoral College loss is like saying you won a baseball game when you got the most hits, but came up short in runs scored…

Another rare election where an Electoral College victory goes to a candidate with the lower popular vote has once again led to discussions about (a) the validity of the Electoral College within a democratic society, and (b) the legitimacy (and mandate) of the winner and now President-Elect candidate.

Election results, by CNN.COM

We will not address (a) re: the more complex arguments in defense of the Electoral College. For a rundown, I recommend working through George Will’s circa 2000 column.

Here, we will deal with (b), the legitimacy thing and claims thereof. Namely, does the popular vote total mean what those reluctant to accept the 2016 winner think it means? As it turns out, only if the election had taken place in a system where the popular vote decides the winner. But it didn’t. And that means that the structure and dynamics of the Electoral College itself drove the apparent anomaly of a loser whose popular vote tally exceeds the winner’s.

“Huh?” you say?

Well… Did you notice how many times the winner campaigned in those heavy blue states and cities with large populations (New York and that long thing butting against the Pacific Ocean)? He chose to bypass them because he knew no matter how close he made the popular vote there, the likelihood of carrying those states and hence, collecting their winner-take-all electoral votes, stood at a number not much better than zero. His ceding of the terrain, in turn, allowed his opponent to run up the vote. Many of the winner’s would-be supporters in those locales likely stayed home, or registered a “protest” vote for a third party or none-of-the-above candidate in those states, knowing their vote mattered little either way.

Take that long thing (California). By the numbers, the losing candidate gathered about 2.8 million more votes than the winner. As the national vote count stands now, that total accounts for more than twice her advantage in the national popular vote tally. One could make a reasonable case that she won the popular vote because of one and only one state! If that fans your skepticism, do the math in New York, where the losing candidate received 1.5 million more popular votes.

Did those two states decide the national popular vote “win”? More to the point, would this large imbalance have transpired under a system where the popular vote defines the winner? Or would the winner have (instead of chasing after “battleground” states) entrenched himself in those popular vote rich states (perhaps at the detriment of smaller, less populous states) in order to prevent his opponent from running the table as decisively in unfriendly (to him) populous locales?

The point here is that the popular vote under an Electoral College system is stilted by the campaign strategy an Electoral College competitor follows. Therefore, the popular vote does not represent the winner we would have gotten under a popular vote election. The popular vote count would have differed under a straight-up popular vote election.

Now, we can’t say how much that vote tally would have differed or who would have won in that alternative reality. But we should see how what happened in our reality does not necessarily match how things might turn out in the absence of the Electoral College. In other words, those pointing to the latest popular vote total as evidence for legitimacy or lack thereof are committing the non sequitur (does not follow) fallacy.

If that doesn’t satisfy you, consider this illustration. In baseball, the winning team is not the one that gets the most hits. One wins by scoring more runs than the opponent. If, after the final out, the losing team refuses to accept the game’s outcome on the grounds that they achieved the highest hit total (the popular vote, in case the analogy is failing you), would we consider that claim logical and reasonable? Or would we realize that we would play the game differently — and thus affect its result — if the point were to get the most hits?