How Trump won the Presidency despite not winning the most votes

9 Nov 2016

So that sure was an election.  Whatever happened in the US presidential election it was always going to be a historic moment. On Tuesday I pointed out that Donald Trump could win the Presidency even if he did not win the most votes.

Trump decisively won the electoral college, and therefore the Presidency. But Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. Clinton won the popular vote by 48.20% - 46.10%. 

How did this happen?

It's because 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 (so if a state has 6 electoral votes and a candidate wins 48% and their opponent wins 47% in that state the first candidate gets all 6 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 – as if you lose by 1% you get nothing, but if you win by 1% you get all the electoral votes.

In key battleground states Trump won small victories – 4% in North Carolina, 1% in Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin while Clinton has stacked up huge margins in safe Democratic states – a 30% lead in California, 22% in New York, 27% in Massachusetts, 32% in Hawaii, 15% in Washington. Meanwhile in states traditionally considered to be strongly Republican she has won numbers of votes that would otherwise be unusually strong. Trump only won Georgia by 5%, Texas by 9%. 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% 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 exit poll suggests that 65% of Hispanic voters voted for Clinton and turnout amongst 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.

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.


This blog has been updated with the final results


23 Responses to How Trump won the Presidency despite not winning the most votes

Chris SNUGGS 9 Nov 2016

Many things are uncertain, but one that IS certain is that the losers will endlessly whinge about the unfairness of it all:

And what is fair about allowing MILLIONS of immigrants into your country and relying on them to win the Presidency?

REAL Americans voted overwhelmingly for Trump.

Daniel L 10 Nov 2016

Stop talking about REAL Americans - unless you're talking about the indigenous, native population, you're all immigrants!

sonia sutcliffe 10 Nov 2016

Talking about fairness.   How about bombing people out of their homes then whining because they expect those made who and dropped the bombs to give them a safe haven.   Refugees are the results of  Imperialism.

Paul Dann 10 Nov 2016

How do you define "REAL AMERICANS"? You understand that only American citizens were allowed to vote anyway, right?

D Smith 10 Nov 2016

Mr Trump noted that the system was rigged before the voting was over and the result went in his favour.

Mat 10 Nov 2016

Did you actually get the point? No one talked about illegal immigrants voting here. The point was that overall more people voted for clinton and yet she lost. It is about the system which avoid such situations. The entire idea behind a fair voting system is that these artifacts should not exists. This is I support electoral reform: whether it is the candidate I like or not, the one with more votes should win. 

alex 9 Nov 2016

In a single, homogenous(ish) nation your plan might work but the United States is not really a single nation, it is a Union of disparate States... What you suggest would mean drowning out the will of every voter in the less populous States. California had about 8,500,000 voters, Hillary's share amounted to roughly 10% of her total... should that really outweigh the combined voting power of several other states combined?

D Smith 10 Nov 2016

Read up on the ideas that the electoral reform society put foward as alternatives. Proportional representation does indeed very much take into account the densely populated voting areas. In the UK we have constituencies which are divided by population numbers, however we still have enormous disparity in the overall result comapred to total votes cast for each candidate.

Martin Wilke 9 Nov 2016

47.7 % isn't a majority either. No candidate has more than 50 % of the votes. A Run-off election (or ranked voting in the first place) would solve that problem.

Anonymous 11 Nov 2016

47.7 vs. 47.5 is a majority. The balance went to the other 2 independent candidates. It's a slim majority but the definition is pretty clear

David Drane 10 Nov 2016

has anyone done the maths on a possible system where the college votes are devided proportionality by State rather than winner takes all, then the winner being the candidate with the most college votes, save me bothering myself Lol

Steve Comer 10 Nov 2016

I believe the state of Maine divides it electoral college votes according to how the candidates polled in the 3 congressional districts.  It shouold be possible to do a mathematical analysis of what would have happened in recent elections if every state did the same.

Kasey Silva 10 Nov 2016

Yes, but actually the only state that they do that in is Ohio where the votes are divided by precincts. So it is 1 vote per precinct. So because of this, Ohio has 5 electoral votes. Trump won 3 of them this time.

Ron Medlow 11 Nov 2016

David Crane has probably the best answer to the Electoral College problem. It would certainly make the result acceptable.

Ken Bell 10 Nov 2016

Only the House was ever intended to represent the people, with the Senate being chosen originally by the state legislatures and the POTUS via an electoral college. How the states choose their electors is up to them, with many having a legislative franchise until quite late in the 19C. South Carolina was the last state to use that form of voting in 1860, by the way, but there is nothing to stop any state reverting to it if they wish.
The president is not and never has been a directly elected office holder. He owes his legitimacy to the fact that he is elected by the Electoral College, whose members are selected according to the laws of each state.

Quentin 10 Nov 2016

How Americans organise their elections is their own business, not yours. You do the ERS a disservice by posting this embarrassing rubbish. Next time, think before posting.
And Trump would probably have won Utah under Approval Voting.

sonia sutcliffe 10 Nov 2016

Refugees are the result of Imperialism.  If you don't want refugees don't bomb them out of their homes.

Tony 10 Nov 2016

The electoral college is an accidental reflection of what the republicans have done deliberately with the house of representatives.  They've changed the districts to ensure that it is almost impossible for them to lose control of the house however much they lose the overall popular vote by.
Given that the republicans have deliberately gerrymandered the house of representatives we can guess how willing they'd be to even discuss improvements to the voting system.

Chris Norris 10 Nov 2016

Who could contrive a system where the person who comes second wins? It happened with Bush and now it's happened with Trump. The USA is as much in need of democratic reform as we are in the UK.

Steve Foulger 10 Nov 2016

Well here are the figures --

231,556,622 eligible voters
25.6% voted Clinton
25.5% voted Trump
46.9% didn't vote
Trump 59,046,660
Clinton 59,186,057
One reason given for the use of the electoral college is that as America is actually the United States of America it would be unfair to the less populous states if the result was decided on the popular vote alone - which is seen as giving undue power to the major big states. However they are electing the President of the whole USA, and the electoral college system violates the radical idea driving democracy that every voter, every vote should be of equal value. The main problem here is that in most States the winner takes all the college votes irrespective of the percentage of votes won. Surely it would be better if the college votes were allotted proportionally which would better reflect the actual position.

John Boylan 10 Nov 2016

You fairly desscribe the flaws of the Electoral College. 
Please note the following:
a) In 2000, Al Gore polled more votes than George W Bush but lost teh election. The Obama Administration did not even try to reform or scrap the Electoral College. Having decided to stick with the Electoral College, the Democrats should have targetted the swing sates rather better.
b) Ideally there would be a Popular Vote Ballot. If no candidate secured 50%, like this year, then a second ballot  - just liek they do in France.

shey 10 Nov 2016

I do believe if you look at the archives of the New York ship passenger lists you will find 4 Snuggs emigrated from Englad to the US. Electoral systems that exclude the voice any part of the electorate create opportunity for extreme views to grow. Without immigrants countries loose an opportunity to people to create new futures and in so doing contribute to the wealth of that nation. 

William Gordon 11 Nov 2016

It's a shame to see something well done only to find it ruined due to lack of observation. The election was held in the United States OF America. The confusion of the 'US' with 'America' shows up a psychological defect in the mentality of the US citizenship.

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