For all the talk over the past week about President Trump turning his re-election campaign around with the relentless fire-breathing message of the Republican National Convention, there is no evidence yet of it happening. Democratic nominee Joe Biden is ahead in all but one of the top battleground states and his national polling lead is larger and more consistent than Hillary Clinton’s was in 2016. That’s why Trump-boosters have begun resorting to fanciful thinking about “shy” Trump voters who will mysteriously emerge from the shadows on Election Day to deliver a victory to the president no reputable poll shows him close to earning outright.
Yet the fact remains that in most (though not all) of the battleground states Trump is significantly closer than he is nationally. We all know that his coalition is distributed across states with uncanny efficiency, just as the Democratic coalition is distributed with uncanny inefficiency. (Clinton won California in 2016 by more than four million votes. Had just 80,000 of them been distributed across Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, she would have won the presidency.) This means that, although no one seriously believes Trump will win more votes overall on Nov. 3, there is a decent chance that he could prevail, yet again, in the Electoral College — and that this could happen despite him losing the nationwide popular vote by an even larger margin than he did the last time.
If Trump wins again thanks to the Electoral College, leading members of both parties will follow obvious scripts. Democrats will rail against the structural unfairness of the process, while Republicans will repeat the mantra that the U.S. is a “republic and not a democracy.” Both reactions will be civically poisonous and terribly shortsighted. And it’s important to understand why.
Republicans who would smugly shrug their shoulders at the consternation of Democrats complaining about the injustice of losing the presidency after winning the popular vote for the third time in 20 years would be displaying an almost comical incapacity to place themselves in the shoes of their political opponents. It is simply inconceivable that Republicans would respond so insouciantly if the outcomes were reversed. (Just try to imagine without laughing Tucker Carlson uttering these words on Nov. 4: “Last night Joe Biden beat Donald Trump despite losing the popular vote by three million. Oh well, that sometimes happens when you’re a republic and not a democracy.”)
The fact is that the Electoral College was not designed to work this way. (In fact, it has never functioned as it was designed to, but that’s a matter for another time.) For most of American history it has served mainly to amplify the legitimacy of the popular vote winner — creating the illusion that the victor won a greater national mandate than the popular vote would justify. But in the present period, the Electoral College is increasingly functioning in the opposite way, countermanding and thwarting plurality sentiment in the country at large.
That’s a formula for the rapid undermining of the legitimacy of our institutions — and understandably so, as any and all outside observers instantly recognize. Where else in the free world does the party that wins fewer votes consistently prevail in national elections? It’s absurd, it’s galling, it’s civically corrosive, and it could easily serve as a spark that leads to a revolutionary conflagration in the name of simple justice, especially when (as in the case of Trump) the minoritarian victor governs in a way that displays no modesty or humility about his lack of a popular mandate.
Republicans who genuinely care about the future of the party and the country should be deeply troubled by the fact that they no longer seem capable of winning plurality support of the American people, let alone the strong majority support they inspired under Ronald Reagan. Instead, they increasingly depend on a counter-majoritarian quirk of the electoral system to win and hold national power — and seem appallingly indifferent to making a broader and more appealing pitch to a wider swath of the electorate. That is unlikely to end well for anyone concerned.
But this doesn’t mean that in the event of a Trump victory in the Electoral College the Democrats would be justified in portraying themselves entirely as victims of systematically unfair institutions. After all, Democrats have won plenty of presidential elections, often by wide margins, including in the very recent past, while playing by these very same rules. That points to a change in how these institutions — the rules of the game — have begun to interact with the shape of the party’s electoral coalition.
If, for the second time in a row, the Democrats lose to Donald Trump while winning the popular vote, many will rail against the Electoral College and call for its abolition in favor of a nationwide popular vote to elect the president. But this will be pointless, since scrapping the country’s electoral system would require a constitutional amendment, and it’s far more difficult to pass one of those than it is to prevail in a presidential election. That’s especially true when many of the states that would be required to pass such an amendment benefit handsomely from the institution the amendment would do away with.
A second Electoral College loss to Trump would have to be laid at least in part at the feet of the Democratic Party itself. Its leaders and candidates knew the implications of the rules going in — that winning decisively in the Midwestern “rust belt” swing states depends on staking out more culturally conservative positions. A big reason the party made so much headway in 2018 is that the candidates it ran in the midterm elections did exactly that. If the Democrats lose these crucial states in 2020, it will largely be because they resisted doing the same this cycle in favor of affirming more progressive positions preferred by other factions in the party in other regions of the country.
It’s been clear for some time that the rules of the game make that approach extremely risky, greatly raising the likelihood that progressives will end up locked out of power altogether. The simple fact is that Democrats can afford to lose up to four million votes in deep-blue, super-progressive California, but they can’t afford to lose any votes at all in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
A rational, disciplined party would realize this and change course accordingly. That it’s unclear whether the Democrats will do so is a sign that the GOP may not be the only party in our political system too stubborn to do what it takes to win the vote with a degree of decisiveness that would demonstrate its legitimacy to all.