How Trump won the presidency despite getting fewer votes than Clinton

America's electoral college system is dangerous and out of date


Donald Trump decisively won the electoral college, and therefore the presidency. But Clinton won the popular vote by more than 230,000 votes. That means nearly a quarter of a million more people backed her than Trump.

As the New York Times projected, Clinton won the popular vote by 47.7 to 47.5 per cent. How did this happen?


Electoral College 

The winner of the presidency is the winner of the electoral college, where ‘electoral votes’ are awarded by states on the basis of who wins the most votes in that state.

This means if a state has six electoral votes and a candidate wins 48 per cent against their opponent’s 47, in that state the first candidate gets all six electoral votes).

Much like with our First Past the Post electoral system, the best strategy for presidential candidates is to ‘win small, lose big’ in individual states, since if you lose by one per cent you get nothing, but if you win by one per cent you get all the electoral votes.

How did this play out?

In key battleground states Trump won small victories – three per cent in North Carolina, one per cent in Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin.

Clinton stacked up huge margins in safe Democratic states – a 29 per cent lead in California, 21 per cent in New York, 28  per cent in Massachusetts, 32 per cent in Hawaii, 28 per cent in Washington.

Meanwhile, in states traditionally considered to be strongly Republican, she pulled unusually big numbers. Trump only won Georgia by six per cent and Texas by nine per cent. In Utah (a unique case) the Republicans lost thirty percentage points.

There are states where Trump won big blow-out victories, for instance Oklahoma where he led by 36 per cent victory, but these states are typically less populous and hence the overall map advantages Trump.

This is because the distribution of voters is not uniform. Fox News’s exit poll suggests that 65 per cent of Hispanic voters voted for Clinton, and turnout among this group also seems to be slightly up from 2012.

But while Florida has a large Hispanic population and went for Trump, and the battleground of Nevada went for Clinton due to a sizeable Hispanic turnout, many of the other battleground states have lower than average Latino populations.

Instead many live in safely Democratic California or safely Republican Texas where they stacked up large numbers of votes for Clinton which were wasted in America’s electoral college system.

What now?

There’s been a lot of talk the past few years of an America that is becoming deeply polarised.

An electoral system which has just delivered one side victory without winning the most votes can only entrench divisions and drive Americans further apart due to the sense among some voters that the winner lacks legitimacy.

This is dangerous for America and a product of an electoral system that is sorely out of date and in need of modernisation. Margins may be small; a difference of one or two percentage points, but the principle matters.

The solution? States agreeing to guarantee the presidency goes to the candidate who wins the most popular votes in all 50 States and the District of Columbia.

It isn’t much to ask that the candidate with majority support should be president – not the runner up.

Chris Terry is research officer at the Electoral Reform Society, and blogs for its website, where this article first appeared. 

See: Only one racial sub-group voted for Trump – White Americans must do some soul searching

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