Electoral college: how Trump could lose the popular vote and win again

Ed Pilkington in New York
<span>Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Donald Trump has the dubious distinction of being the only US president since Gallup began tracking presidential approval ratings in 1938 to have been permanently “under water” – he has never been viewed favorably by half or more of the American electorate.

Trump should, by historical precedent, be looking at a thumping defeat in the 2020 presidential election. But political scientists and strategists have told the Guardian that he could be thrown a re-election lifeline thanks to the country’s quirky approach to democracy in the form of the electoral college.

Related: The media missed the rise of Trump in 2016. Are they ready this time?

The political analyst Larry Sabato has calculated that the 3 November election could see Trump being outgunned by his Democratic challenger in the popular vote – the total number of votes cast nationwide – by twice the amount that Hillary Clinton surpassed him in 2016, yet still return to the White House for a second term.

“It is entirely possible that in 2020 we will once again see Republicans losing the popular vote and winning the electoral college, this time potentially by even greater margins,” he said.

The electoral college was the compromise system for choosing US presidents devised by the founding fathers. Its aim was to balance the direct votes of qualified citizens with a vote in Congress.

The result is that the occupant of the Oval Office is not elected directly by the American people but indirectly by state-based “electors”. There are 538 electors in total, which means that to win the White House the successful candidate must attract the votes of 270 of them.

In most election cycles the electoral college results have been in sync with the popular vote. But in 2016 a dramatic gulf opened up.

In the electoral college Trump won handsomely – by 306 electoral votes to Clinton’s 232. But in the popular vote Clinton was the clear winner with 65.9m votes to Trump’s 63.0m votes – a difference of two percentage points (48% to 46%).

By Sabato’s reckoning, that rift between the electoral college and the popular vote could be stretched further in November and see Trump win again. “The 2020 Democratic nominee could easily double Clinton’s lead in the popular vote to at least three or four percentage points, and still lose, depending on where those votes came from,” Sabato said.

Donald Trump arrives to speak during an event in Hershey, Pennsylvania, on 15 December 2016 following his election win.
Donald Trump arrives to speak during an event in Hershey, Pennsylvania, on 15 December 2016 following his election win. Photograph: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

The fear that the electoral college could give Trump four more years to transform America in his image has rippled through the Democrats competing to challenge him in the election. Several of the Democratic candidates have called for overhaul of the current system, including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg.

The solution they propose in common is quite simple – replace the convoluted electoral college with a direct national popular vote that would hand the presidency to whichever candidate garners most votes across the country. That may look straightforward on paper, but the practicalities of switching to a new system are daunting.

To change would require an amendment to the US constitution which is much easier said than done. Not only would both the House and Senate in Congress need to approve the change by a two-thirds majority, but three-quarters of the individual state assemblies would have to ratify it (38 out of 50 states) .

A constitutional amendment is out of the question,” said Alan Abramowitz, professor of political science at Emory University. “There’s no way to get two-thirds of the House and the Senate to support an amendment of any kind.”

The Democratic nominee could easily double Clinton’s lead in the popular vote and still lose

Larry Sabato

Advocates of reform have devised clever ways around this roadblock that would essentially keep the electoral college in place but shift its method of counting to the popular vote without requiring a constitutional amendment. The most prominent of these attempts is the National Vote Interstate Compact, which seeks to persuade individual states to sign up to a collective agreement – the compact – which would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who garners the most popular votes.

The compact would kick in only when enough states had joined to collectively pass the 270 electoral college votes needed to secure the presidency. Once that line had been crossed, the participating states would deliver the White House to the winner of the popular vote.

The problem with this inventive scheme is that a mountain has yet to be climbed before the magic line of 270 is passed. So far the compact has been enacted into law in 15 states and Washington DC, which between them muster only 196 electoral votes – a deficit of 74.

None of those jurisdictions are Republican-controlled, which is unsurprising given the electoral college has tended to be to the advantage of Republican presidential candidates.

The last time the winner of a US presidential election lost the popular vote the discrepancy also helped a Republican – George W Bush, who in 2000 received 544,000 fewer votes than his vanquished Democratic rival ,Al Gore. You then have to go back to 1888 to find the phenomenon reoccurring.

So rare was the anomaly of 2016, 2000 and 1888 that some experts think that a repeat “misfire”, as the disparity is known, is unlikely in November. Abramowitz has studied all 11 presidential elections since the end of the second world war in which an incumbent was running for re-election – the last being Barack Obama in 2012 – and noted there were no misfires.

“If the Trump campaign is counting on the electoral college gifting them the election again, that’s a very high-risk strategy,” he said.

On the other hand, as the demography of America changes, the distorting influence of the electoral college appears to be growing. The US population is becoming more diverse, and more heavily concentrated in major cities that lean strongly Democratic.

That in turn is creating a tendency for Democratic votes to be “wasted” – with vastly more being cast in states like California, New York and Illinois than are needed to win the electoral votes.

By contrast, Republican voters – who tend to be less diverse – are spread out more sparsely in low-density rural states in a way that is more efficient under the electoral college.

David Frum, George W Bush’s former speechwriter, said the electoral college is just one of several factors that he calls “anti-majoritarian influences” in play in the US today. “It is a pervasive fact up and down, from local elections to the presidency, that electoral outcomes track voter intent poorly,” he said.

Other factors include low levels of voter registration, hurdles to voting and the skewed voting system for the US Senate that apportions Wyoming’s population of 579,000 the same number of senators (two) as California’s 40 million.

“The anti-majoritarian features favor rural America over urban America, light-populated over heavily-populated states,” Frum said. “That’s an issue that goes back deep into American history, but Trump is its latest benefactor.”

He added: “Trump is an unpopular president. In a purely majoritarian system the election would probably not even be that close. But run his support through the American electoral system and yes, sure, it’s possible he could win.”