Losing the Popular Vote Doesn’t Make Trump Illegitimate. It’s Irrelevant.

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.

3 responses to “Losing the Popular Vote Doesn’t Make Trump Illegitimate. It’s Irrelevant.

  1. Regardless of the strategy involved, it is scary to have a president that has divided the country in two and lost the popular vote. Regardless of which candidate won, I think it will be hard for either of them to lead. Trump and his surrogates haven’t done enough to fix the divide. I guess we’ll see if he can do it.

  2. Your comment gave me insight into campaign strategies of last election and
    that my reluctance to acknowledge Trump’s election legitimacy is a denial of my belief in the constitution. Useful.

  3. I don’t think anyone is using these arguments. Yes, Trump won the electoral college, that makes him the president. I would argue that the electoral college is a system that was used to uphold the institution of slavery, and so it should be replaced with a popular vote, however that is irrelevant, as it would require an amendment process, that would be almost impossible to pass. Instead, we might need to find a more fair means to distribute the electoral vote, because the GOP has now won two elections out of the three they have won this century, while losing the popular vote. Democrats point this out, not to delegitimize the president, only to point out that Trump does not have what would be considered a mandate. There is also the other point, when trump tries to question the polls, it is far more statistically probable that it was the electoral college that is in error, than the popular vote. Many swing states were decided by a very small number of votes. A few thousand votes in Pennsylvania and Florida, and other swing states would have led to a drastically different outcome, as opposed to the 2 million votes in California.

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