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The popular vote loser has won the U.S. presidency five times

There are various proposals to modify the system for electing presidents, including some that would not require constitutional amendments, such  as the “National Popular Vote” compact.

MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

Fun facts about the Electoral College, especially if you are a Republican.

So far in U.S. history, there have been five elections in which the popular vote loser has won the presidency via the Electoral College, two of them very recently. 

The first of the five, in 1824, occurred before the emergence of the national two-party system. 

Since 1824, all four were Republicans

Since then, and since the emergence of the Republicans in 1856 as one of those two parties, in all four cases it was the Republican who gained the presidency while losing the national popular vote.

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They were: 

1876: Democrat Samuel Tilden got 51 percent of the national popular vote, compared to 48 percent for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. This one, involving enormous voter fraud and theft, had to be decided by a special commission and involved a secret deal in which Republicans agreed, in exchange for allowing Hayes to be inaugurated, to remove federal troops from the post-Civil War south, which allowed white southerners to establish the post-slavery, post-Reconstruction system of Jim Crow laws and traditions that perpetuated “slavery by another name.”

1888: Incumbent President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat, narrowly won the popular vote but narrowly lost the electoral vote to Republican Benjamin Harrison.  That election is not as famous for corruption as some others, but at least one key state was almost certainly stolen by Republican fraud. Four years later, Cleveland, a famous reformer, became  the only president to come back from a defeat to win a second term four years later.

2000: This is the famous Bush v. Gore election in which Republican George W. Bush lost the national popular vote but narrowly won the Electoral College over Democrat Al Gore. As you may recall, this one came down to Florida, where enormous problems and irregularities led to an endless recount supervised by a corrupt Republican secretary of state and was finally decided by the Supreme Court on a 5-4 vote with no Democratic appointee to the Supreme Court voting with the majority.

2016: And then, of course, 2016, when Republican nominee Donald John Trump was chosen by a 77-electoral vote margin, which he likes to refer to as a “landslide,” despite having lost the popular vote by a 48-46 percent margin. There were many irregularities, plus foreign interference in this election, but it’s so recent and so controversial I won’t go into further details.

Proposals for change

There are various proposals to modify the system for electing presidents, including some that would not require constitutional amendments, such  as the “National Popular Vote” compact that would guarantee that the candidate receiving the most votes wins the election. Aside from the obvious benefit of having the president actually be the popular vote winner, this would have several other benefits for our system, such as removing the incentive for presidential campaigns to focus on a few swing states while virtually ignoring the majority of the country.

The Brennan Center has a good explainer of “National Popular Vote” here.

Obviously, given the history I’ve described above, there are partisan reasons for Democrats to favor a change in the Electoral College system and Republicans to oppose it. And that’s the case. But the fact that there are partisan reasons to be for or against it doesn’t remove the basic fact that the idea of “democracy” relies fairly heavily on the assumption that whoever gets the most votes wins the election.

Pew Research Center has asked the question several times of whether the Constitution should be amended to guarantee that the popular vote winner should be president. In the three most recent such polls, in 2018 Democrats were more favorable to such an amendment to elect the president by popular vote than Republicans by 74 percent to 27 percent. The partisan gap favoring such a change was 75-32 in 2019 and 81-32 this year. (Results viewable here.)

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One can view that as predictable considering partisan advantage, but also shameful in terms of respecting the most fundamental principle of a democracy, that the person who gets the most votes should win the election.

Reasoning for resistance

When I discuss this with Republican friends, they generally defend the Electoral College system with arguments that (according to me) make no sense. For example, they say such a system would incentivize campaigns to focus on the big population states. True. But why is that any worse than having them focus on whichever states are considered “swing states”? 

Why is it better, in recent history, to have Ohio and Florida pick our presidents for us, or, in 2020, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania? I’d be interested in hearing someone make that argument and hereby explicitly ask anyone who wants to explain that to do so in the comment section under this post.

And anyway, in the age of the internet, twitter and even just national TV audiences, campaign messages reach the whole country pretty efficiently.

To me, the obvious real reason is that Republicans understand that Democrats have won the plurality of the popular vote in four of the last six elections, but won the presidency in only two of those elections. And perhaps, if they are history buffs, they know that the record of popular vote losers winning the presidency via the Electoral College is Republican 4, Democrats 0.