Spirited Reasoners will recall the days of our childhood, when the notion of a U. S. President being selected by the Electoral College seemed quaint at best. Sure, there were a few instances during the 19th Century when a President was elected despite losing the popular vote count. John Quincy Adams (against Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and William H. Crawford), Rutherford B. Hayes (against Samuel J. Tilden), and Benjamin Harrison (against Grover Cleveland) all come to mind.
But I remember one of my history professors in college stating that such results were becoming increasingly unlikely. According to him, the growing population of our nation coupled with the strengthening of our two-party system meant the popular vote winner would almost always win the vote in the Electoral College as well.
In the three-way elections of 1992 (B. Clinton, H.W. Bush, R. Perot) and 1996 (B. Clinton, B. Dole, R. Perot), when candidate Ross Perot played an important role, Bill Clinton won each race with fewer than 50% of the popular votes.
And in the Presidential elections of 2000 (Bush v. Gore) and 2016 (Trump v. H. Clinton), the winner in the Electoral College was actually out-polled in the popular vote count.
Which brings us to the topic at hand. Can President Trump accomplish the same feat he accomplished in 2016—winning an Electoral College victory with or without a majority in the popular vote?
Early signs say that lightning will not strike twice. The following observations seem salient:
- Opinion polls at the beginning of President Trump’s term showed him with favorable ratings in 38 states. As of February of 2019, that number has dropped to only 17 states, and continues to decline.
- A recent poll in Michigan, a key state whose electoral votes helped clinch President Trump’s narrow victory, indicate that only 31 percent of voters are willing to express their support for a second Trump term.
- Similar polls in Pennsylvania and Florida show President Trump’s level of support against Democratic opponents at less than 40 percent. These are two states President Trump cannot afford to lose.
- President Trump’s approval ratings nationwide were at their peak right after the 2016 election. Since then, they have remained steady, at around 42%, while his disapproval rating has remained consistently above 50%.
Of course, much can happen over the coming months. For example, the Democratic Party could nominate a highly unpopular candidate, or a popular third-party candidate could siphon off Democratic votes in key states.
Still, according to the current mood of voters in the states with the highest electoral vote count, President Trump’s chances of being re-elected would appear to be slim.
Some Spirited Reasoners might argue that Mr. Trump’s chances also appeared slim in 2016, yet he prevailed. The difference in 2020 is that the Democratic Party is unlikely to be asleep at the switch this time.