Trump’s victory another example of how Electoral College wins are bigger than popular vote ones
For the fifth time in U.S. history, and the second time this century, a presidential candidate has won the White House while (apparently) losing the popular vote.
Donald Trump won at least 279 electoral votes (306 if you include Arizona and Michigan, where he was leading as of Wednesday afternoon) to Hillary Clinton’s 228 (232 including New Hampshire, where she was ahead by a hair). But the popular vote is a near-tie, according to our tally of unofficial and, in some cases, partial returns. As of Wednesday afternoon, Clinton was slightly ahead of Trump, 59.6 million votes (47.66%) to 59.4 million (47.5%).
This mismatch between the electoral and popular votes came about because Trump won several large states (such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) by very narrow margins, gaining all their electoral votes in the process, even as Clinton claimed other large states (such as California, Illinois and New York) by much wider margins.
In fact, the very nature of the way the U.S. picks its presidents tends to create a disconnect between the outcome in the Electoral College and the popular vote. The last time a popular-vote loser won the presidency in the Electoral College was, of course, in 2000, when George W. Bush edged out Al Gore 271-266 despite Gore winning some 537,000 more popular votes nationwide. The other electoral-popular vote mismatches came in 1876 and 1888; in all four instances the Democratic nominee ended up the loser. (In the 1824 election, which was contested between rival factions of the same party, Andrew Jackson won a plurality of the popular and electoral vote, but because he was short of an Electoral College majority the election was thrown to the House of Representatives, which chose runner-up John Quincy Adams.)
Even in the vast majority of U.S. elections, in which the same candidate won both the popular and the electoral vote, the system usually makes the winner’s victory margin in the former a lot wider than in the latter. In 2012, for example, Barack Obama won 51% of the nationwide popular vote but nearly 62% of the electoral votes, or 332 out of 538. Looking back at all presidential elections since 1828 (when presidential campaigns began to resemble those of today), the winner’s electoral vote share has, on average, been 1.36 times his popular vote share – what we’ll call the electoral vote (EV) inflation factor.
Assuming the popular-vote split stays about where it is now and that Trump eventually wins Arizona and Michigan and Clinton ultimately takes New Hampshire, Trump’s EV inflation factor would be 1.20 – about what Obama’s was in 2012 (1.21).
A quick Electoral College refresher: The 538 electors allocated (mainly by population) among the 50 states and the District of Columbia actually choose the president and vice president, with a majority of electoral votes (i.e., 270) needed for an outright win. All but two states use a plurality winner-take-all system to pick their presidential electors – whoever receives the most votes in a state wins all of its electoral votes, even if he or she got less than a majority of the popular vote. (Maine and Nebraska award some of their electoral votes by congressional district rather than statewide, though that didn’t come into play this time around.)
The biggest disparity between the winning electoral and popular votes, with an EV inflation factor of 1.96, came in 1912 in the four-way slugfest between Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Republican incumbent William Howard Taft, Progressive Theodore Roosevelt (who had bolted from the Republicans) and Socialist Eugene V. Debs. Wilson won a whopping 82% of the electoral votes – 435 out of 531 – with less than 42% of the overall popular vote. (In fact, Wilson won popular vote majorities in only 11 of the 40 states he carried – all in what was then the solidly Democratic South.)
The next biggest gap was the 1980 “Reagan landslide.” In that three-way contest, Ronald Reagan took just under 51% of the popular vote, to Jimmy Carter’s 41% and independent John Anderson’s 6.6%. But Reagan soared past Carter in the Electoral College: 489 electoral votes (91% of the total) to 49, for an EV inflation factor of 1.79.
Many of the elections with the most-inflated electoral votes featured prominent third-party candidates, who served to hold down the winners’ popular vote share without being significant Electoral College players themselves. On the other hand, when the two major-party nominees ran fairly evenly and there were no notable independents or third parties, the Electoral College vote has tended to be much closer to the popular tally. In 2004, for instance, incumbent Bush won a second term with just under 51% of the popular vote and 53% of the electoral votes (286 out of 538).
Note: This is an update of a post originally published Nov. 3, 2016.
Drew DeSilver is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.