Quora Question: Does the Electoral College Favor Republicans?

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The Electoral College will put Donald Trump in the White House, even though he got swamped in the popular vote. Rex/AP

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Answer from William Murphy, professor of American history:

The electoral college slightly favors the Republican Party right now.

There is a tendency after every election to believe that this election has established a new normal, that every election which follows will look just like this one. But things change a lot more from election to election, and even more than that over more extended periods of time, than most people realize.

For example, today California is a solidly Democratic state; Republican candidates have no real chance there. But Republican candidates won California in 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984 and 1988. This includes elections in which Republicans won the presidency (68, 72, 80, 84, 88) and elections they lost (76). Since then, however, Democrats have won California in 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012. The point is, what is true in politics is only true until it is not, and support for the two major political parties tends to shift over time. There’s no guarantee that 2020 will look anything at all like 2016.

That being said, it’s notable that twice in the last 16 years a Democrat has won the popular vote and lost the electoral vote. This does suggest the electoral vote is currently advantaging the Republican Party. That’s very mildly true, but it’s easy to overstate the importance of it. It’s actually not easy to win the popular vote and lose the electoral vote; you need to really run up the score in a handful of really populous states (like California, New York, Illinois) and then lose very narrowly in a bunch of other states (about 80,000 total votes in three states — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, cost Clinton the electoral vote. There were about 130,000,000 votes cast overall across the country.)

Right now, there are somewhat more Democratic voters overall. This has actually been true for a long time, and while the numbers of self-identified Republicans and Democrats have both been falling, Democrats still have a numerical edge, which is slightly larger when independents who “lean” toward one party or another are factored in: Democratic, Republican Identification Near Historical Lows.

But increasingly, Democratic voters live in large urban areas, and are concentrated in several parts of the country. There are more of them, somewhat, but they live in relatively compact geographic areas. This gives Republicans a mild advantage in the electoral college; Republican voters are more spread out, and the Electoral College system potentially over-represents them slightly as a part of the overall population. This is, as I said, slight; it does not mean that Democrats cannot win the electoral college, or that Republicans are always more likely to do so. All it means is this: in the event that circumstances line up just right so there is a split between the popular and electoral votes, the split is, for the moment, likely to favor Republicans.

But that’s a far cry from having a decisive advantage in the electoral college, because the electoral college is still mostly weighted by population. States have a total number of electoral votes equal to their total representation in the two houses of Congress; seats in the House are apportioned according to population, but every state has two senators. Aside from a handful of states with overwhelmingly large populations (chiefly California, New York, Florida and Texas), there is not enough difference in population among most of the rest of the states to balance out the effect of those two votes every state gets regardless of population, from their two senators. So in a very close election, the possibility of a popular vote/electoral vote split becomes a reality, and if it happens, it is somewhat more likely that it will favor the Republicans. Right now.

But here’s another way to look at things. Let’s look at the electoral vote totals for the last seven elections (looking at the winners’ totals only):

  • 1992: Bill Clinton (D), 370 electoral votes
  • 1996: Bill Clinton (D), 379 electoral votes
  • 2000: George W. Bush (R), 271 electoral votes
  • 2004: George W. Bush (R), 286 electoral votes
  • 2008: Barack Obama (D), 365 electoral votes
  • 2012: Barack Obama (D), 332 electoral votes
  • 2016: Donald Trump (R), 306 electoral votes

Or, let’s look at it another way: what is the average number of electoral votes received by each party over the same period of seven elections dating back to 1992, regardless of whether they won or lost the election?

Democrats have received an average of 313.85 electoral votes in all elections dating back to 1992. Republicans have averaged 224.14 electoral votes over the same period.

Now, if I were to extend this back to, say, 1988, or 1984, or 1980, the Republican numbers would improve a lot. But that’s part of the point. Over the past seven elections, Republicans have actually won far fewer electoral votes than Democrats have. From that point of view, Democrats overall have had an advantage in the electoral college. But if you looked at the six elections before that (1968 through 1988) the exact opposite would be true, and Republicans would have a huge advantage.

Just because something is true right now, doesn’t mean it will always be true. And just because something happened in one election does not mean that it is the start of a new and permanently different pattern. Trump’s victory does not seem that far out of line with Bush’s two victories (he received a total of 20 more electoral votes than Bush did in 2004, for example) while Obama’s totals were not all that different from Bill Clinton’s. While the pattern of states won by Trump is slightly different than the states won by Bush in 2004 (Bush won Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, all of which Clinton won, and he lost Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, all of which Trump won.) But sometimes screwy things happen in a single election. Obama won Indiana and North Carolina very narrowly in 2008, but lost them both in 2012 and Clinton lost them again this time around. You could easily see any or all of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin do the same thing in 2020.

So, in very close elections it is possible for the popular vote and electoral vote to diverge, though it is relatively unlikely. Nevertheless, when it does happen, it tends to favor Republicans because their supporters are more widely dispersed than Democrats’. At the same time, every recent Democratic president to win an election did so by a larger margin in the electoral college than every recent Republican to win election, and over the last 24 years Democrats have averaged 313.85 electoral votes across all elections, while Republicans have averaged 224.14.

So the degree to which Republicans have an advantage in the electoral college is, at best, very modest, and it’s important not to read too much into any one election.

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