Did Hillary Clinton Win the Popular Vote? – Why Hillary Clinton Won the Popular Vote, but Lost the Election Anyway
Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote, but Donald Trump won the 2016 election by electoral vote due to the way the electoral college works.
- Electoral vote: Clinton 232 vs. Trump 306 (270 to win)
- Popular Vote: Clinton 65,853,516 (48.5%) votes vs. Trump
As you can see, Clinton lost the election even though she won the national popular vote by almost 3 million votes.
This may seem unfair, or fair, depending on your politics, but fairness of winner-take-all is secondary to the fact that “it is the way it is.”
Below we discuss how the system works to help offer some insight into its “fairness.”
How Does the Electoral College Work? – Basics
In the United States of America the President is elected by the electoral college, not the popular vote, and the popular vote in the general election is an advisory vote (the U.S. is a Republic and not a direct democracy).
Although specific dates change every 4 years, nothing is official in terms of Presidential elections until the electors’ votes are cast and counted.
With the above said, for 2016, after the electoral votes were counted it was confirmed by Congress that Donald J. Trump and not Hillary R. Clinton won the electoral vote. Thus Donald J. Trump became the 45th President of the United States after being sworn into office.
The Bottomline on the 2016 Election: Trump won the Electoral College and Hillary won the National Popular Vote. Meanwhile, the Electoral Vote wins the Presidency, and thus Trump became President and Hillary Lost the Election.
Why Does the Electoral Vote Win Elections? Is that Fair?
In a race with a clear win, where the popular vote and electoral vote both went to the winner, we wouldn’t generally need to discuss the electoral college. However, that was not what happened in 2016, and thus it is important to understand exactly how the system works.
The Electoral College + Winner-take-all system is meant to give extra weight to the less populous states, this helps to ensure one part of the country (such as a very populous region) doesn’t decide elections alone.
Meanwhile, to counter that, states with smaller populations are generally given less electoral votes.
The idea is democratic in spirit, although it has some notable issues of state-based majority win drowning out state-based minorities (just like gerrymandered districts do).
However, again, that isn’t the point here. Even if it was, the system isn’t likely to change any time soon.
In America, the less populous states have tended to vote Republican in recent elections (they used to vote Democrat in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, but that changed), thus, as you can imagine, after yet another win by electoral vote where Republicans lost the majority (this happened with Bush vs. Gore too), the chances of them wanting to change the system are zero-to-none (they didn’t just win the Presidency, they won the House and Senate, so vast rule changes are unlikely).
That said, the official end tally is clear, Trump is President due to his electoral college win, and despite Hillary winning the national popular vote, she lost the election.
MAJORITY VS. PLURALITY: One reader took issue of the use of the word “majority” in the article. That is valid as the term can mean different things depending on context. In voting jargon, when speaking of the number of votes a specific candidate gets, “majority” can mean “winning more than 50% of the vote” and plurality can mean “winning more than any other candidate.” In these specific terms, Hillary won a “plurality” but no candidate won a “majority.” If electoral votes were tied and neither candidate won a “majority” then the vote would have gone to Congress (as explained below). With that said, the word majority can be used in voting to describe a simple majority (meaning “more”) as well, so please pay careful attention to context when reading, in most cases majority = more and not “more than 50% of the vote specifically.”
WHAT ABOUT VOTER FRUAD?: Voter fraud is real and every American should care about both voter fraud and voter suppression (like strict voter ID, gerrymandering, and limited voting hours). However, there was no proof of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election (despite many rhetorical charges, there is no actual evidence). Charging that Clinton or Trump only won because of voter fraud without evidence is not a claim that can or should be taken seriously. Unless an investigation concludes that voter fraud has occurred, we must concede it has not. The same goes for the claims of in-person voter fraud that are used to create strict laws that hurt minorities (like gerrymandering in the Black Belt). We know legal and illegal voter fraud occurs on both sides of the aisle, but we have no evidence of widespread voter fraud on either side. Learn more about voting fraud and the history of voter fraud accusations, the mud slinging is older than George Washington.
DID TRUMP WIN THE POPULAR VOTE?: Donald Trump did not win the popular vote, he lost by nearly 3 million votes. However, these votes come mostly from California and New York… which is why Republicans will likely not agree to follow a national majority any time soon. The College was meant to protect minorities, but in America 2016 we didn’t get a minority candidate, just two candidates of whom neither got 50% of the vote. This is why people suggest things like run-off voting and no confidence voting! See: Snopes Final Vote Count 2016 if need be, of course any source that tallies the election can show you a clear lead for Clinton.
FACT: If California’s votes didn’t count, then Trump would have won the popular vote. While this is an interesting factoid, it is not relevant in the United States. We are a Union of 50 states in the U.S., without the States there is nothing to Unite. Without the states, the electoral college is no longer a justifiable system. It may sound good on paper to point out that progressive California swung the popular vote to Clinton… but it also insinuates that California’s 38.8 million (1/10th of the entire country) is somehow not relevant in a conversation about voting on the direction of the country. The bottom line is Clinton won the popular, Trump won the EC, and the race was generally close like it was in the 2000 election (where Gore won the popular and Bush won the EC).
How Does the Electoral College Work?
To clarify, our Republican, not Democratic, electoral system works like this (dates subject to change, dates below use 2016 as an example):
- The people vote on November 8th as an advisory vote.
- On December 19th electors meet in their state and vote for the President and Vice President on separate ballots. This is a direct vote. At this step it is theoretically possible for “faithless electors” to upset the popular vote by voting against the state majority in states that don’t ban this completely.
- Lastly, on January 6th, Congress meets to count the votes.
- Whoever gets a 270 vote majority out of the 538 electoral votes on January 6th, not November 8th, wins. If there is no 270-vote majority, the House of Representatives decides the next President.
Since the popular vote is an advisory vote, nothing was set in stone until the electors cast their vote until December 19th, 2016 and then the Senate and President signed off on it.
State-based electors could have changed their pledged votes in 29 states per state-based rules, and technically all could have changed their vote per the Constitution (as the Constitution doesn’t say how electors should vote).
These odd truisms of our Republic could have resulted in a win for Clinton or even a third party candidate via the House (although it obviously didn’t, it is useful to know this).
However, to be clear, the chances of the electors going “faithless” and not voting with the winner-takes-all system is unlikely from a historic standpoint in any election.
What is likely is that in any Presidential election the electors will follow tradition and custom and officially elect the winner of the winner-take-all system, putting aside the technicalities of Constitutional provisions or the sentiment of the popular vote.
TIP: There have been two compromises in American history which completely changed politics. Both were called “corrupt bargains“, in both cases the person who lost the electoral vote one. In both cases a nativist populist who had strong support in the south ended up not becoming President. I don’t want to get too off topic, but if you know history, you know how many parallels we are drawing to 1824 and 1877 here.
TIP: Dates are subject to change each election, for example electors vote “On the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December” which in 2016 is December 19th. Likewise, the general election is statutorily set as “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November” where the earliest possible date is November 2, and the latest possible date is November 8 (as it was for the 2016 election). See a timeline of the 2016 election for 2016’s dates. See Presidential Election Laws and The 2016 Presidential Election for more details.
Could Hillary Clinton Still Win the Electoral College? Faithless Electors Explained.
TIP: There are multiple movements underway to change the electoral college (including a petition on MoveOn.Org to abolish it) or to lobby the electors to change their votes before December 19th (including a petition on Change.Org). Learn how to change the electoral college, and why we should or should not.
TIP: Our founders purposely set up this Republican form of government. They wanted to protect against special interests and majority interest and provide a few extra lines of defense ready in case the public was about to vote in a despot or tyrant. Literally, this is what the Federalist #10 is about, it isn’t just about special interest factions… its about safeguarding the Republic from any sort of political faction be it minority, monied, or majority interest. To be clear, this doesn’t suggest what the right thing to do in 2016 would be, but that is what we have electors for, they make the final call, as the founders intended… The founder’s thinking was not flawed, but the system as it stands today is questionable given recent close-call elections and the very divisive two party system we have.
FACT: The majority of Americans voted for a candidate who didn’t win. The race was very close. The results, if anything show that the country remains divided by left-right politics politically, despite being United on a deeper level.
Past Elections in Which a Presidential Candidate Won the Popular Vote, but Lost the Election
There have been four other times in U.S. history where the candidate who won the popular vote didn’t win the election.
- In 1824, during the election between Democratic-Republican and future Whig John Quincy Adams and Democratic-Republican and future Democratic Party father Andrew Jackson, Jackson won the popular but lost the election. The vote went to the House and Adams won in the first “corrupt bargain” only to be beaten by Jackson four years later.
- In 1876 Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won by one electoral vote, while losing the popular vote to Samuel J. Tilden. With that said, he didn’t really even win the electoral! Instead, things were so crazy post-Civil War that a few southern states reported both Hayes and Tilden winners. A deal was struck to ensure the south didn’t gain power and the result was the compromise of 1877 (the second “corrupt bargain”) that ended Reconstruction (which was actually not a good thing for ending segregation politics, just for ending the occupation of the south by the North).
- In 1888 Republican Benjamin Harrison won by a large majority of electoral votes, while losing the popular vote to Grover Cleveland a “reformed” Bourbon liberal. There was no bargain struck.
- In 2000 George W. Bush Vs. Al Gore, Gore won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote during “the Florida recount”. There was no bargain struck.
Hillary Clinton may have lost, but she will go down in history for winning the popular vote and being the first female Presidential nominee of a major U.S. party. Meanwhile, Trump inherited a somewhat politically polarized nation.