Published May 20, 2018
The Electoral College has been in the news recently despite the fact that the presidential election is still over two years off. President Trump kicked this discussion off by saying that he supports eliminating the College and replacing it with a nationwide popular vote. This was quickly followed up by the Connecticut state legislature’s passage of a bill adding the Nutmeg State to a growing list of states who have joined the National Vote Compact. Once states that total 270 electoral votes have joined the compact, it commits those states to award all their electoral college votes to the winner of the national popular vote regardless of which candidate won the most votes in that state. For the first time in a while, talk of replacing the electoral college has become serious.
I do not want to revisit the shopworn arguments for and against the College. Rather, I want readers of American Greatness to think about the political reasons why change will increasingly be discussed and how proper political action now would pre-empt serious calls for change. The fact is that unless the composition of the Trump Coalition broadens and grows, presidential victories will only come through ever shrinking popular minorities leveraging their strength in the Electoral College to produce College majorities. This cannot be good for our nation’s health.
President Trump lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes. Despite many allegations, there is no serious evidence that illegal alien voting caused this to happen. He lost for two simple reasons: most Democrats stayed loyal to Hillary Clinton, and about three million people who voted for Mitt Romney switched sides. The corresponding switch of about five million Obama voters to Trump did not offset these facts.
Trump won the Electoral College because the current Clinton-Democratic coalition is heavily tilted toward large metropolitan areas. Thus, the millions of Romney-Clinton voters drove up the Democratic margin in California and cut the Republican margins in Arizona, Texas, and Georgia without moving a single state. The Obama-Trump voters, however, were concentrated in large Midwestern states and hence could move those places from blue to red.
These developments mean that unless Trump can become more popular with upper-income, educated, more moderate Romney-Clinton voters or find a way to win more working-class non-white Democrats, he can only win re-election by again losing the popular vote and winning the Electoral College. Should this happen, it would be first time in our history that two consecutive presidential elections went against the popular vote winner.
Demographic changes also make it more likely that Trump’s—or any Republican building a coalition like Trump’s—vote deficit is likely to grow. That’s because America’s younger citizens are much likelier to be non-white, and much less likely to vote Republican, than the older whites who will pass away in the coming decades. A state-level analysis of political trends and demographic change by the States of Change project demonstrates this clearly. If President Trump receives the same shares of the vote among different demographic groups in 2020 as he did in 2016, even the small changes that will have occurred would cost him the crucial Midwestern states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania and hence the election. If he increases his share of the vote among non-college educated whites, however, he and his successors could win the Electoral College through 2036 even as the GOP nominee loses the popular vote by ever increasing margins.
Should this arise, calls to change the Electoral College—or moves by Democrats to ratify the National Vote Compact—will surely increase. No one could dispute that these Republican victories would be unconstitutional, but modern democratic legitimacy rests on more than following legitimate practices. If a popular minority continues to rule for an extended period solely because of the Electoral College, calls to alter this anti-majoritarian institution will surely follow as night follows day.
This may not trouble you but consider what a frustrated minority could do. The constitution clearly gives states the sole discretion over how electors are selected. Should this situation arise, it would be constitutional for a Democratic-controlled legislature in a state to decide to award electoral votes proportionally or, in an extreme case, to simply award them via a vote in the legislature without any popular vote at all, as South Carolina did until the election of 1868. Purple states with voter-sponsored initiatives, like Florida, could via a popular vote proportionally award delegates even where Republicans control the state legislature. You might cry foul, but these maneuvers rest on as solid a constitutional ground as the College itself. And maneuvers like this will be attempted if a popular majority increasingly believes the College prevents it from winning.
This makes it even more important that President Trump and his allies seek to broaden their political support. Rather than rely on popular toleration of minority rule, Trump’s team should be inclusive in their search for new allies. That means trying to increase voter support among college-educated voters who may find Trump unseemly but find progressives unacceptable. That means broadening support among working-class voters of all races who don’t want progressive culture warriors in their churches, homes, and schools but do want the federal government to have their backs in the face of an uncertain economic future. Most of all, it means finding ways to unite all the non-progressive elements into one party unified by a positive vision for America rather than simply assembling a coalition of the besieged.
Ronald Reagan called this party “The New Republican Party”. For a host of reasons, his successors never built this party, which in turn leaves us where we are today. Demographic change means that Republicans and non-progressives must act now if they do not want to cede political control to the Left. The Electoral College has given us time to construct this party, but we cannot rely on the College forever. Rather, “it is for us to be here dedicated to the great task that remains before us . . . that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth”.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington D.C. He is also an editor at UnHerd.com where he writes about populism and politics around the world. He is the co-author, with Dante Scala, of The Four Faces of the Republican Party (Palgrave, 2015) and is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (HarperCollins, 2017).