Trump didn’t win the popular vote, but he ended up in the White House anyway. Call it luck for him, and, well, the opposite for everyone else, because the odds were in his favor. According to a new working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Republican presidential candidates are expected to win 65 percent of close races in which they lose the popular vote. This phenomenon is a result of the Electoral College and blue-state concentration of Democrats.
Salon reports that researchers from the University of Texas at Austin looked at the probability of “inversions” in presidential elections, inversions being where the popular-vote winner loses the electoral vote. The most recent and consequential inversion being Hillary Clinton v. Donald Trump in 2016. Previous inversions date back to 2000 (Bush v. Gore) and then stretching further back to two instances in the 1800s. The findings were that the candidate with the most votes has lost 8 percent of the time in the last 200 years.
The researchers employed statistical models to find that the probability of the popular vote winner losing the electoral vote is about 40 percent in races decided by 1 percent (about 1.3 million votes. That number is 30 percent in races decided by 2 percent (2.6 million votes) or less.
These probabilities are not balanced evenly between red and blue candidates. Over the past 30 to 60 years, the statistic—and the Electoral College—has leaned right.
The researchers found the following in the case of inversion elections:
..the probability that it will be won by a Republican ranges from 69 percent to 93 percent… but conditional on a narrow popular vote loss for Democrats, modern Democratic candidates have had about a 35% chance winning the Presidency via inversion.
This means that Republicans have a 65 percent chance of winning all future photo-finish elections.
Democrats’ tendency to either win large states by large margins or lose them by small ones are a contributing factor to their bitterly close losses. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won California by roughly 3.5 million votes but lost Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by just 80,000 votes combined.
Changes to the Electoral College could shift the system. If each state’s Electoral College ballots were proportionate between parties, rather than a winner-takes-all dynamic as it is now, this could reduce inversion probabilities, the researchers concluded. With the exception of close elections, which is what we have been seeing more recently as of late, and likely what looms in the future with the 2020 election as well. Overall, awarding the presidency to the winner national popular vote is the only way to accurately reflect the ballots of Americans.
Dean Spears, a researcher on the project, bleakly predicted that the chances of a repeat of 2016 are increasing, as no steps have been made to abolish the Electoral College. Spears stated:
I think a lot of people think that there was something special or improbable about the 2016 election. That with the politics of these times, 2016 was somehow a fluke. One of the important things that we learned is that that’s not true…Not because it was unlikely, it was an inversion because an inversion is likely in a close election.
After Trump’s win, Hillary Clinton called for abolishing the Electoral College, and she’s not alone in this demand. Many consider the system archaic, and the majority of 2020 Democratic candidates (with the exception of Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris) have called for abolishing the Electoral College. Senator Elizabeth Warren stated earlier this year:
Every vote matters, and the way we can make that happen is that we can have national voting. And that means getting rid of the Electoral College.
Abolishing the Electoral College would require a constitutional amendment. This would have to be approved by three-fourths of Congress and three-fourths of the states. We have statistics to understand the faults of the Electoral College, but since they favor Republicans, it’s doubtful change will be made until those Republicans are out of power.