The 2016 election of President Donald Trump stirred many passions, not least heightened hostility to the Electoral College. A similar Trump win in 2020 would of course intensify that attack.
Such a victory would mark the fifth time in our history that a Democratic Party candidate was denied the presidency despite winning the popular vote. Would-be presidents Samuel Tilden (1876), Al Gore (2000) and Hillary Clinton (2016) all won the popular vote only to be defeated by failing to win a majority in this creation of our constitutional founders. The same fate befell incumbent President Grover Cleveland in 1888.
Does this mean that the founders had it in for Democrats right from the get-go? Not at all. There were no political parties when the Constitution was being drafted. And therein lies an important tale.
Democrats have in each case been tempted to declare Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, George W. Bush and Donald Trump illegitimate, because each lost the popular vote. And yet each Electoral College victory confirmed a piece of the founders’ wisdom.
The Electoral College was created for essentially two reasons. The first was to assure that the presidency would be occupied with someone who had general appeal throughout the country. As one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, John Jay, put it, the office of the presidency was designed to be occupied by leaders of the “most diffuse and established character.” A presidential candidate who won the popular vote merely by carrying an overwhelming margin in a particular portion of the country was not what Jay had in mind.
But the creators of the Electoral College had another purpose as well, to put in place a kind of filtering system. The Constitution provides that if no candidate wins a majority in the Electoral College the final arbiter is the House, where each state delegation will cast a single vote.
That outcome did not seem unlikely to the founders. So why were they wrong? Why have so few presidential elections wound up in the House? What interfered with this piece of the plan to assure that presidential power would always wind up in the hands of those of the “most diffuse and established character”?
The answer is political parties — specifically, a two-party system.
That system was established in short order after the Constitution took effect — and still prevails. First it was Federalists vs. Democratic-Republicans (Jeffersonians). Then it was Democrats vs. Whigs. And since the 1850s it has been Democrats vs. Republicans.
There have occasionally been third parties of some consequence. (Think Theodore Roosevelt and his 1912 Progressive party or George Wallace in 1968). But our venerable two-party system has consistently kept presidential elections out of the House. Not since 1824 and the collapse of the first two-party system has a presidential election been decided there.
Nonetheless, the Electoral College has indirectly helped to assure that successful presidential candidates have had relatively broad support throughout the country, as opposed to simply being the overwhelming choice of a section or faction.
For example, in 1888, President Grover Cleveland lost in the Electoral College despite carrying the 11 states of the old Confederacy by a nearly 2:1 popular vote margin. In 2016, Hillary Clinton defeated Trump by 4.2 million votes within the state of California, which was more than enough to account for her entire “nationwide” popular vote margin of just under 3 million votes.
In 2016, there was a further irony. The goal of the founders was to prevent two types of presidential pretenders from gaining this office: 1) those with powerful, even overwhelming support in only a small portion of the country and 2) complete outsiders/upstarts.
A case could be made that a victory either for Donald Trump or for Hillary Clinton would have foiled the intent of the founders. Clinton had overwhelming support in only a small portion of the country. And Trump, while well known, was the ultimate outsider/upstart.
In electing Trump, the Electoral College at once subverted the founders’ intention — and confirmed it. The outsider/upstart demonstrated that he had widespread general support, while the establishment insider’s support was highly concentrated.
In 2020, Trump is a known quantity, not to everyone’s taste. As such, if he repeats his 2016 success, he would confirm the founders’ goal of assuring that the office would be occupied by someone who has broadly based support and at least established political identity.
Where does this leave Biden and the Democrats? An outsider Biden surely is not. If he loses via the Electoral College, it likely would only be because, like Cleveland and Clinton, his support had proved to be too concentrated in certain segments of the electorate.
And what would the Democrats do then? Likely they would redouble their continuing crusade against their nemesis, the infernal Electoral College. A better course might be to work on building a broadly based national coalition of the sort John Jay had in mind.
John C. “Chuck” Chalberg writes from Bloomington.