Given the unusually high noise-to-signal ratio in the President’s voluminous tweets and erratic actions, it is often hard to determine with any certainty whether Donald Trump is on a random walk through history or actually has some plan in mind. Even those who perceive method in Trump’s chaos believe that his goals are largely tactical, not strategic. Trump, they assure us, is really just trying to keep the press off guard and to distract people from dwelling too much on Republican legislative failures to date.
There is another possibility. Trump is acting in manner that suggests that he hopes to repeat his 2016 feat of winning the Electoral College but not the popular vote. What he has said and done to date is consistent with that strategic premise. The key elements of Trump’s agenda: stoke the populist base, split white from nonwhite Democrats and Independents, and take advantage of a favorable political geography. Since the President’s popularity hovers at or just under 40 percent, a purely Electoral College strategy may at this point be his only option.
Electoral College victories are all about political geography. Today, Democrats tend to be highly concentrated in urban areas where disadvantaged nonwhites can find affordable housing and the liberal educated class can find Uber, new economy jobs, and nice coffee shops. Affluent Republicans are more efficiently distributed across suburban and rural areas. Consequently, running up Democratic vote margins in outraged liberal enclaves like New York and California may drive up the total vote, but it will not necessarily result in an Electoral College victory for the next Democratic presidential candidate. No matter the vote margin in California, the state will still only have 55 electors to give.
The other part of Trump’s strategy, to which he is well suited by temperament, is to divide and conquer potential opponents. Step one: arouse the loyal white base by taking on NFL athletes over whether they kneel or stand during the national anthem, or by pursuing tough policies on immigration and trade. Keep the reluctant establishment Republicans in line with promises of tax reform, regulatory relief, and more Gorsuchs in their future. Meanwhile, divide the Democrats by inflaming the far Left and shifting public attention away from the indefensible (for example, a neo-Nazi march) and toward issues that might peel a few voters from their ranks (for example, the destruction of public monuments honoring controversial past leaders).
Political scientists have been tracking the various distortions of the Electoral College for some time. We know, for instance, that swing states get more visits by Presidential candidates and more campaign activity generally than the rest of the country. We know that Presidential candidates ignore loyal red or blue states except when they need to hold fundraising events. There is even evidence that swing states get more policy benefits from their pivotal positions.
In the past, however, Presidents believed they needed to win the popular vote as well. The odds of getting to the White House by losing the popular vote and winning the Electoral College seemed long. But now two Republicans have accomplished this feat in the past 16 years.
Moreover, Sam Wang of Princeton University has recently estimated that under current conditions, there is a one-in-three chance of an Electoral College victory by the loser of the popular vote, so long as the margin is less than 5 percent. The odds are even better as the popular-vote tally approaches a tie. And since the odds of winning this way favor Republican over Democratic candidates, they have no small advantage in highly competitive races.
All of this highlights what we have known for some time: the Electoral College is a serious problem for American democracy. It seemed like a harmless legacy for most of the 20th century, as memories of the minority presidencies of the 19th century dimmed. But with two occurrences in 16 years, and the hold it has taken on President Trump’s political worldview, the harm to democracy is neither remote nor small.
Putting the person who lost the popular vote in the most powerful elected office in the country undermines the legitimacy of and trust in the presidency. The problem is worse when one party is more likely than the other to benefit from this anti-democratic feature. It is far worse when it favors one racial group over the others.
In the immediate post-World War II period, race, ideology, and party affiliation did not perfectly align. The Democratic party maintained a heterogeneous coalition of Northern liberal whites and nonwhites, and conservative Southern Democrats. The Republicans had a substantial contingent of moderates. As the result of coalition shifts due to the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, the racial, ideological, and party divisions came into closer alignment, creating greater polarization.
This means that the democratic costs of a minority party standing a better chance of gaining the presidency despite losing the popular vote are compounded by the racial injustice of a white minority maintaining its power at the expense of racial and ethnic minorities. This starts to look like the situation in Rhodesia and South Africa in the post-colonial period. President Bush at least defused the racial divide with his genuine concern and admiration for Mexico. President Trump inflames the racial divide as a tactic of political survival.
It is clearer than ever before that the Electoral College should be replaced with the popular vote, but that is perhaps harder than ever to do. According to Gallup, support for amending the Constitution to fix this problem hovered around 60 percent between 2002 and 2012, and then dropped to 49 percent in 2016. It should surprise no one that a change of heart among Republicans and Trump supporters explains this shift. This illustrates a fundamental political axiom: people in power favor the rules that keep them in power.
But even if mainstream Republicans come to their senses as they watch President Trump wreak havoc on their party, the road to a constitutional amendment is incredibly difficult. It requires supermajority votes at the state and Federal level, a prospect that seems highly unlikely given the level of political polarization in the United States.
There are, however, potentially easier paths. One is for all states to abandon the winner-take-all allocation of electors to the winners of the states’ presidential votes. This does not guarantee that the popular vote winner will become President. In fact, Trump would have prevailed by a narrow margin in 2016. But it does decrease the odds while leaving the basic process in place—possibly an easier political lift.
Because this option requires every state to take separate action, there are severe first-mover problems. The Democrats count on receiving all the electors from blue states like California and New York. Giving the Republicans a share of those electors without a firm assurance that the red states will do the same is akin to unilateral disarmament.
Another alternative, the “National Popular Vote,” solves this problem via a compact in which states pledge to give all their electors to the winner of the popular vote. It only works if enough states join in—their combined votes must number 270 in total. States that participate are forbidden to back out after a certain deadline during election season, though we should never underestimate the willingness of political actors to game the system when the stakes are high. Still, the NPV is the best option on the table.
At the moment, ten states have signed on, amounting to 165 electors. Appeals to the democratic principles persuade some, but not enough. It would no doubt help if the Republicans were to lose a presidential election while winning the popular vote. But perhaps by shamelessly pursuing the Electoral College strategy, Trump will unintentionally make the most convincing case for change. If so, maybe we will salvage some permanent good from this contemporary nightmare.