As more returns come in from California, it looks like Trump is going to lose the popular vote despite having secured a majority of electoral votes. In the coming days, if the 2000 election was any indication, I suspect we will see Democrats arguing that this somehow makes Clinton the “rightful” president and that Trump wouldn’t be president if we had a “more sensible” electoral system.
These arguments are silly: the popular vote tells us virtually nothing about what an election would have looked like if the popular vote mattered.
The basic idea is that elections are strategic; campaigns adopt particular tactics given the rules of the game. Consequently, we cannot judge whether Clinton would have won in a popular vote contest given the results of an electoral vote contest.
Here’s an analogy to make the idea more concrete. Baseball games are decided by runs. Teams strategize accordingly, sometimes sacrificing outs to get a man across the plate. This occasionally results in games where the winner gets fewer hits than the loser.
If you change the rules of the game, you change the strategic incentives. Award wins based on hits, and suddenly those sacrifice strategies would never happen. As such, we can’t retroactively award wins based on hits for games where the teams were strategizing for runs.
Similarly, if only the popular vote mattered, campaign incentives change. Candidates choose which policies they support based on the pivotal voter in the election. With an electoral vote, this is the median of the median voters of each state. With a popular vote, this is simply the median voter of the country.
Individual level incentives change as well. With an electoral vote, people in California have fewer incentives to go to the polls than someone in Pennsylvania; the result in California is a foregone conclusion, whereas the result in Pennsylvania is in doubt and could sway the electoral college. With a popular vote, each individual’s incentives are identical.
Thus, we don’t know how the election would have turned out under a different electoral system. Given the high concentrations of Latinos in otherwise uncompetitive states (California, Texas), it’s extremely unlikely that Trump would been as ardent in his anti-immigration policy if the popular vote mattered. And that alone means that we can’t use Tuesday’s returns to judge how a popular vote would have played out.
Bottom line: Trump won with the system we are playing with, and that’s all that matters.