Clinton “winning” the popular vote doesn’t tell us much.

According to Snopes, as of yesterday (November 13) Clinton is currently ahead of Trump by about 630,000 votes, and it looks likely that number will increase as the ballots continue to be counted. This situation has lead to familiar calls to end the electoral college, and already I’ve seen plenty of angry posts from HRC supporters feeling they’ve been robbed. So a few points here:

1. At least as of now, statistically Trump and Clinton are actually tied.

So far, about 121M people voted for either Trump or Clinton. Previous research has suggested the error rate for uncounted votes in a presidential election is roughly between 1.1% – 2.0% (here’s the study and its tables). If those numbers hold, one of the candidates would need to beat the other by somewhere between 1.3M – 2.4M votes for it to be statistically significant. At least as of now, Clinton falls short of that, meaning the difference between them is in the margin of error. They’re tied.

2. Even if Clinton ends up above the margin of error, it doesn’t mean the electoral college has robbed anyone.

Politicians campaign and people vote with the electoral college in mind. Think of how many times you heard people discuss how everyone in swing states ought to vote, whereas if you were in a solid red or blue state, people didn’t care as much. Why? Because they knew how the electoral college works. Party hardliners were relatively forgiving of third party votes in the states already decided. I live in California, and no one seemed very worried about third party votes here. We all assumed (correctly) that Clinton would get all of California’s electoral votes either way. But if you went third party in Florida this year? Apparently the end of the world might be a bit your fault.

If the electoral college hadn’t existed, you don’t know how people would’ve voted differently. How many more conservatives would have bothered to vote in California? How many more liberals would have showed up in Alabama?

The same goes for the way the politicians campaign. They choose which states to pour their ads into, to get people on the ground, to hit hard, based on their knowledge of the electoral college–and those processes greatly influence people’s votes.

If the electoral college didn’t exist, campaigning and voting would have looked different, and we don’t know how different. We don’t know how the landscape would have changed, and so we don’t know which candidate would have received the “mandate” from the American people.


So it’s possible HRC will end up above the margin of error. And it’s possible if she does that would happen to represent what Americans would have wanted if they had voting absent an electoral college. It’s also possible it would have looked completely different. Especially when considering how unprecedented this election was and how surprised so many of us were by the results, it’s pretty hard to predict. It’s certainly not clear that the electoral college foiled the (overall) will of the people.

9 thoughts on “Clinton “winning” the popular vote doesn’t tell us much.”

  1. Yup.

    Saying that Clinton in some sense deserved to win because she got more popular votes is like complaining that your team should have won a football game because they got more first downs. First downs are good. Often as not, the team that gets the most first downs wins the game. But getting first downs isn’t how we keep track of score in football, teams don’t design their strategies (exclusively) around getting more first- downs, and at the end of day if you have more first downs and fewer points on the scoreboard… you still lost.

    The “game” Trump and Clinton were playing was the “win the most EC votes” game, and arguing that she won at a different game that nobody was playing doesn’t really mean anything.

  2. “It’s certainly not clear that the electoral college foiled the (overall) will of the people.”

    I’ll point out something obvious–the will of the people is not the same as what would have been the will of the people if we didn’t have the Electoral College. That’s part of the problem with the EC–exactly as you suggest, it gives politicians an incentive to campaign primarily in swing states and to neglect the popular vote. So it’s not just that the EC and popular vote can diverge, cannier campaigns will deliberately exaggerate this tendency so that it’s more common than a random distribution of votes would suggest. But the will of the people is what they in fact want, not what they would have wanted if they’d seen lots more ads or had more visits from the candidates.

    And, despite Nathaniel’s claim that it doesn’t really mean anything, in a democratic republic, the legitimacy of the government is largely reliant on the ability of the government to represent the will of the people. I think that’s a big deal, and it’s worth reconsidering a system with a built-in incentive to undermine its own legitimacy.

    A bonus question: can anyone characterize for me at an abstract level what principle the EC is intended to serve? I’m told the idea is to correct for an imbalance caused by the easy accessibility of city voters, the idea being that it would be so easy to reach lots of city voters and so hard to reach widely-spread rural voters that a pure popular vote would leave city voters well-represented and rural voters poorly represented even if their numbers were identical. That argument implicitly appeals to the principle of equality of representation, and uses the EC as a means to achieve it, yet none of the people who’ve advanced that argument to me have been willing to commit to the idea that it’s reasonable for the structure of the electoral process to serve the goal of equality of representation (presumably because of the fairly obvious rejoinder that there are far better ways than the EC). I’d be interested in anyone’s thoughts on this question.

  3. “A bonus question: can anyone characterize for me at an abstract level what principle the EC is intended to serve? ”

    It’s quite simple. The president is elected by the states, not the people. The Electoral College is the mechanism by which the states do their voting.

  4. Eric, that’s a good step, but it’s just a first step, because it’s certainly not an egalitarian system between states regarded as equals. So what justifies California having more votes than Hawai’i?

    Perhaps you think that the EC represents a compromise between two different ideals: egalitarian representation of people and egalitarian representation of states. If so, that’s fine, we can just set parameters telling us how valuable each of those goals is and add them up. Say you think that half of the votes cast should be from states, equally, and half should be from individuals, equally. Maybe it’s some other proportion; perhaps you think states should have three quarters of the votes. Whatever the relative weighting of the values is, just let me know and we can design a system to do it.

    Alternatively, maybe you think the system isn’t intended to serve egalitarian representation at all. That’s fine, too–in your ideal, what people or states should be over-represented? Perhaps you think the wise or prudent, if given greater representation, will bring better results than if we allow them to have only as much representation as the unwise and frivolous.

  5. Kelsey-

    I like Eric’s statement that “The president is elected by the states, not the people,” and I think you went astray by characterizing that as being about “egalitarian representation of states.” The reason we would like to have states (and not the American people generally) elect the President isn’t about egalitarianism at all. It’s about federalism.

    This principle is implicit in the name of our country: the United States of America. The plural emphasizes that the country is formed out of an agglomeration of autonomous political entities. In principle and in historical origin, the various states are not supposed to be merely convenient territorial divisions of a centralized federal government. They came together as independent entities to form the United States in the first place and–although centuries of union (and a bloody civil war) have dramatically increased the power of the federal government relative to that of the states, there are folks who still think the fundamental idea of federalism is a good one.

    I’m one of those folks.

    I certainly don’t want to turn the clock back to the 18th century when Americans may very well have identified by state first (e.g. Virginian or Pennsylvanian) because I think the blood-drenched union of the Civil War is worth holding onto (philosophically) and because I accept that a lot of the growth in the size of the state is inevitable and beneficial and–if the state has a larger role to play in day-to-day-life–I think it makes sense to try and capture some economies of scale where it makes sense to do so.

    However, I think we’ve already gone too far away from federalism and towards a single, unified, federal government at the expense of state power. If I could wave a magic wand and repeal the 17th Amendment (which made Senators electable by the general public instead of by respective state legislatures), I would.

    It’s a very complex issue because in the last century the use of federal power has so often been about overruling bigotry and discrimination at the local level, as with the forced desegregation of schools and the Voting Rights Act, and for this reason “states rights” and “racism” have become linked. That’s a serious issue, and something any states’ right advocate has to be concerned with (and I am). But I think at a minimal level, we should be able to agree that we don’t need to even further erode the already weakened concept of federalism by removing the EC.

  6. Certainly the larger states have an advantage during a normal election. But when elections have to be decided by the House, each Congressional delegation has to vote as a state, with each state’s vote having equal weight. It’s been a long time since the House has had to decide an election, but the mechanism is there should the need arise.

    So there’s a balance built in, with larger states having the advantage in one situation, and the smaller states having the advantage when the larger ones can’t force a decision.

  7. Nathaniel, I understand that you think states elect the President. I don’t yet have any sense of why you think the votes of the states are apportioned as they are. The UN is similar, in that it does not aim for egalitarian representation of people. But my understanding is that its principle deviation from equal representation of nations is permanent membership on the Security Council–in the general assembly, each nation gets one vote. What principle do you think justifies our states having unequal numbers of votes?

    Eric,similarly, I’m not sure why you think the larger states should have an advantage during a normal election. What is the reason that this is good? And why would we ever choose as a balancing mechanism something which so rarely comes into play, but is then decisive? Wouldn’t a more natural way of striking that balance be to simply apportion votes proportionally to the various concerns you’re trying to balance?

  8. It’s not the electoral college I object to so much as the winner take all nature of the beast that has my stomach in knots. The first downs vs touch downs analogy is apt as fat as winners and losers, but the idea that there was effectively a tie as you say and the tie results in almost no voice in government for the “loser” seems a little unhinged to me.

    I’m worried about a government that disincentiveshe cooperation, but that has more to do with the structure of congress than the electoral college.

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