Thursday, December 1, 2016

Hillary is ahead by 2.5 million votes - so what

Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. Hillary Clinton lost.  Many who are dissatisfied with the outcome are latching on to immaterial and irrelevant efforts and discussions that will not or cannot change that fact.

One theme says it is unfair or even immoral that Clinton won the national popular vote yet Trump won the election.   Memes appear on social media as Clinton’s national popular vote tally increases to near 2.5 million.   The disgruntled anxiously await the next tally announcement.  The press continues to report the count in daily headlines as if it means something to the election.  It does not.

The United States of America was founded as a representative republic under a federalist system - NOT A DEMOCRACY.  The sovereign states joined in a federation under specific rules embodied in the Constitution.

The Constitution was by necessity a negotiated agreement that accommodated many competing interests in order to obtain the consent of 9 of the then 13 original states for its ratification. The Tenth Amendment defines federalism very clearly in its one sentence "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

The states defined and conveyed to the federal government certain specific powers and reserved all others to themselves. Each state having two senators regardless of population was another related accommodation. Compromise was necessary to reach an agreed document that could be ratified.

The method for selecting the president and vice president underwent significant debate during the Constitutional Convention.  Proposals for electing the president included the Congress making the choice, another sought to have the Governors of the states make the selection, and yet another proposed the popular vote of the people. In the end a compromise was struck that we call the Electoral College.

Alexander Hamilton wrote of this compromise in Federalist #68, “It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any preestablished body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose.”

Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution states, “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.”  Hence, the President and Vice President are determined by separate and distinct elections in the fifty states and the District of Columbia.  It is not a national election.

There are 538 electors in the Electoral College.   Each of the 50 states has two senators totaling 100 electors.  There are 435 members of the House of Representatives apportioned throughout the states based on population.  The Twenty-Third Amendment to the constitution established the right of residents of the District of Columbia to vote in presidential elections and allocated three electoral votes to the District.

A Constitutional Amendment is the only way to change the manner in which we elect the President and Vice President.   Four times previously in our national history the winner of the presidential election did not win the popular vote and supporters of the loser proposed changing the system to one of a direct national popular vote. No proposal to amend the Constitution in this regard has ever made it through even the first step in the amendment process.

To my disappointed friends I say – let it go.


  1. Dan, not unlike Trump's aides who, we now see, dismiss legitimate concerns not by refutation but by strategically deeming them irrelevant, you suggest that the significant advantage in the popular vote for Hillary Clinton is unimportant. Your explanation of the legalities of the Electoral College process simply doesn't serve your question: "So, what? "

    Here's one answer: Only about half of eligible Americans voted at all. Significantly less than half of those who voted chose Trump (because of the nearly 3 million vote difference in the popular vote). Many of those folks opted for Trump's nebulous promise of change rather than any stated policy positions, which were less than nebulous. Some, no doubt, chose him from an obligation to ideology but overall, despite Trump's claims to a landslide, his mandate is very limited and wholly dependent on his ability to deliver on promises from which he's already back-pedaling. His failure to establish a clear mandate is what makes the popular vote relevant, even if it makes no difference in the electoral process. Brother Jim

  2. Thanks for your comment Jim. As always, I appreciate folks taking the time to think about the issues I post and provide their feedback.

    I deem any arguments about national popular vote tallies as irrelevant in the election for the same reason I would deem it irrelevant to argue that a football team would have won a game if they had applied the rules of baseball. The rules of the game were the Electoral College system. The candidates ran their campaigns under that system. If the rules of the game had been national popular vote the campaigns would have had a completely different approach. What that would have been or the outcome is completely unknowable at this time.

    Some not happy with the election outcome have been trying to cast Trump's victory as illegitimate or even immoral because he did not win the national popular vote. That is completely illogical and irrelevant to the facts and context of the election. That was my argument.

    Your comment is that the degree of victory in the national popular vote is an indicator of the level of support for a mandate for the winner. That is another issue entirely and I would have to give that some thought.

  3. Thanks again for the comment Jim. Got me to thinking about the question you pose: Does Trump’s failure to win the national popular vote mean he has failed to establish a clear mandate?

    The first question one must ask is “what is a mandate?” One definition states “the authority to carry out a policy or course of action, regarded as given by the electorate to a candidate or party that is victorious in an election.”

    The definition includes two types of mandate: “policy” or “course of action.”

    A policy mandate empowers an elected official to carry through on a specific policy commitment they may have made during the election campaign that is well known and thoroughly described to the electorate. For example, Richard Nixon proposed to end the Vietnam War in 1968 in his “peace with honor” theme.

    Donald Trump’s most explicitly described policy in the 2016 election was his appointments to the federal courts. Trump made several explicit statements to appoint originalists in the mold of Justice Antonin Scalia and even produced a list of 20 potential candidates as a pool from which he would select for Supreme Court nominees.

    One Supreme Court vacancy exists now. In addition, Justices Ginsberg, Breyer, and Kennedy may leave the bench during a Trump Administration due to age or health. Beyond that there are over 100 vacancies in District, Appeals, and other courts (of about 1200 positions) to which Trump will seat new judges in his first year. President Obama appointed 329 in his eight years and President Bush appointed 261.

    But how confident can one be that any specific issue a candidate addresses during the campaign is the one that voters supported and thus blessed with a mandate? Voters rarely if ever completely agree with every stance of a candidate. Assessing post-election which policy positions received a mandate is nearly impossible.

    If a candidate did not advocate or thoroughly describe a policy during the campaign is he then powerless to advance a policy? For example, Nixon did not propose an opening to China in 1968, yet in 1972 he was shaking hands with Mao Tse Deng.

    A course of action mandate appears more common in our presidential election history rather than specific policy mandates. Early in our history the general debate of federalist vs anti-federalist went on for nearly four decades. Franklin Roosevelt’s election was another prominent course of action mandate that called for a fundamental change of economic direction in the nation. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 was another course of action mandate that though less profound than FDR’s for economic change was broader in scope than FDRs to address cultural, foreign policy, law and order, and economic direction.

    Trump’s election is a course of action mandate. It is broad like Reagan’s in that it will address culture, foreign policy, law and order, and economics, but less profound than that of FDR’s mandate for domestic economic change. His mandate may hark back to that of our early historical debate between federalists and anti-federalists as he is clearly going to challenge the size and role of the federal government, its bureaucracy, and its regulatory actions.

    The remaining questions are the degree of authority to act that is entrusted to a president through the election mandate and whether or not the margin of Electoral College or national popular vote or some combination thereof is an indicator of the intensity of the mandate.


  4. Cont. from previous comment.

    In looking historically at presidential elections there seems no correlation between Electoral College or national popular vote margins and the mandate perceived by the incoming administration. Voter turnout may actually be a better indicator of popular mood.

    As an exercise I built a spreadsheet that shows various statistics related to all of our presidential elections. In examining those statistics I decided that a combination of the Electoral College, national popular vote, and voter turnout percentage may be a better indicator of national support for an elected president.

    Using that statistic as the measure Donald Trump is in the bottom five, but Jimmy Carter and Harry Truman were even lower than Trump. Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, and Barrack Obama (2012) are 10th, 11th, and 12th from the bottom.

    The top 10 using this combined measure include some names we might expect like Lincoln, FDR, Ronald Reagan, Ulysses Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower.

    After reading about this and studying the statistics I concluded that the combination of voter turnout, Electoral College, and national popular vote margins may indicate somewhat the enthusiasm of the citizenry for the candidate and once in office may affect the political strength of that president to successfully advance a change agenda.

    Another indicator of some import is the election year party that controls Congress. FDR had a Democratic Congress for 12 years. His political strength was enormous and he was extremely successful in advancing change. But his political wits also cautioned him. Despite the many changes FDR implemented, he stayed away from the war in Europe because he knew the country had not stomach for another world war and advancing policies contrary to that mood could in fact derail all of his domestic agenda.

    Barrack Obama entered office with a Democratic Congress as well, but he made a fatal mistake in advancing as his primary congressional agenda a healthcare bill that was not a priority for the American people, but rather, was an ideological goal. He paid the price in 2010 when he lost the House of Representatives and further lost the Senate in 2012. The loss of both houses paralleled a decline in voter turnout, Electoral College, and national popular vote margins in his 2012 reelection result.

    Donald Trump has a course of action mandate to change direction across a broad spectrum, but the intensity of that mandate is low given the voter turnout, Electoral College, and national popular vote margins. His political strength is, however, amplified by the nation retaining a Republican controlled Congress.

    Trump would be wise to look to the examples of FDR and Ronald Reagan as he advances his agenda. FDR advanced a major change agenda and is considered one of our most successful presidents. Reagan, despite not controlling Congress, was able to turn his mandate into major legislative success and is also regarded as one of our best presidents. Both focused on issues of concern to the American people generally, beyond their supporters, and both focused on legislation.


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