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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

I Beg You To Remember That The Electoral College Exists

Biden can win the popular vote and lose the election. Please stop citing nationwide polls to draw conclusions about who is “ahead.”

This will be a quick point, but one I’d like to write down so that I don’t have to make it over and over again for the next 14 months: the Electoral College exists. This means that when we are electing a president, it does not matter which candidate the most people vote for. It matters who gets the most electoral college votes. You can, as in the cases of Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, win the popular vote and lose the election. 

I should hope that we’re all clear on this by now. In 2016, a lot of people seemed to forget it. So we saw headlines like “Poll: Hillary Clinton Holds National Lead Over Donald Trump” and “New poll shows Clinton over Trump by double-digits.” These headlines reassured a lot of Democrats who thought a Trump victory was highly unlikely. After Clinton lost, media mea culpas noted that much of the press seemed to have simply forgotten that the Electoral College exists. Here, for example, is Reuters

The media, including Reuters, pumped out two kinds of poll stories. Some were national surveys designed to estimate the entire country’s popular vote, but not the outcome in individual states, where the contest is actually decided. These polls actually got the big picture right: Clinton won more overall votes than President-elect Donald Trump—but not by as much as the polling averages predicted, and not where she needed to. News organizations also produced a blizzard of stories meant to calculate the probability of victory for the two candidates. These calculations were predicated on polls of individual states. In hindsight, though, the stories seem to have overstated Clinton’s chances for a win by failing to see that a shift in voting patterns in some states could show up in other, similar states. In part, this is because polling analysts got the central metaphor wrong. U.S. presidents are chosen not by the national popular vote, but in the individual Electoral College contests in the 50 states and Washington D.C.

Oops. Oh, right, it doesn’t matter who wins the popular vote, it matters who wins the election! How silly of us to have reported as if we lived in a country with an entirely different electoral system. Our bad. We’ll do better next time.

And yet: nationwide polls are still being used as an indicator of who is “ahead” in the presidential race. Consider this article from The Hill: “Biden, Trump virtually tied in hypothetical match-up: poll.” The article reports that “47 percent of respondents would support Biden and 46 percent would support Trump in a hypothetical general election match-up between the two” and “while [Quinnipiac’s] polling has generally shown a close race between Biden and Trump, this 1 point margin is the tightest one this year.” The article does not even mention the Electoral College! But without factoring in the Electoral College, these numbers can be highly misleading.

As Vox tells us, when you factor in the Electoral College, even being ahead (not tied) in the national polls can mean heading for a loss: 

Though Hillary Clinton won the 2016 national popular vote by 2.1 percentage points, Trump won the “tipping point” swing state by 0.7 percentage points. In 2020, Biden won the popular vote by 4.4 percentage points, and the tipping point swing state by just 0.6 points. So one way to think about this is that Clinton would have “needed” to win the popular vote by about 3 points to narrowly win the Electoral College. And Biden needed to win it by 4 points—which he only very barely did. If we assume that situation will repeat in 2024, national polls showing Trump about tied would seem to herald solid victories for him in swing states.

Consider that for a second. Biden won the popular vote by four percent but still nearly lost the election. Now he’s tied in the popular vote, and media organizations are reporting this as if it will translate into a tie on Election Day, when in fact it could easily mean a Trump victory even if Biden pulls ahead! 

I don’t think it’s responsible for pundits to report these numbers without noting how misleading they are. For instance, MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki recently reported on “trial heats” between Biden and other candidates in a CNN poll, showing Biden losing by 1 point to Trump (and losing by 6 points to Nikki Haley!). Kornacki didn’t mention the situation in swing states, which is crucial context for understanding how bad this could be for Biden. (That CNN poll has other concerning numbers for Biden. It shows 53 percent of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters answering negatively to the question of whether “has the stamina and sharpness to serve effectively as president.” 74 percent of voters overall say he lacks enough stamina and sharpness. It shows 72 percent of voters saying the description “inspires confidence” does not apply to Biden.  It shows people who didn’t go to college favoring Trump over Biden,  53 percent to39 percent.)

Oh, and another thing that often goes unmentioned: these “head to head” polls don’t factor in Cornel West, who has polled around 5 percent. So when you read sentences like “the RealClearPolitics polling average now shows Biden leading by a mere 0.4 percentage point margin—basically a pure toss-up” (from the Vox article), remember that we don’t actually know whether it’s a toss-up because these polls are set in an alternate universe where Biden and Trump are the only candidates in the race and the Electoral College doesn’t exist. Vox makes the case that the Republican advantage in the Electoral College might have diminished over time. But it’s still the case that, to the extent reliable election forecasting is even possible (the uncertainties between now and Nov. 2024 may make this exercise fairly meaningless), we have to look state by state. It’s hard to find many good polls of swing states. But if we want to make “horse race” statements about the election, there’s no choice.

Current Affairs got its start during the 2016 election cycle, and I learned a lot of important lessons in that election that will stay with me for life. One was the Democratic Party’s capacity for denial. Even as it became plainly obvious that Hillary Clinton was unpopular and out of touch, Democrats were not taking Trump seriously and were arrogantly explaining that Actually, The Economy Is Good And Things Are Going Well. They reassured themselves with national polls that conveniently forgot how American elections actually work. This time, there are no such reassuring polls. A majority of voters, even Democrats, say Biden should not be the party nominee. Biden comes across as uninspiring and feeble, and a lot of people suspect that given his advanced age, his second term might be even worse and he might end up like Mitch McConnell or Dianne Feinstein. And, as Branko Marcetic observes, “the ‘strong macroeconomy’ that Biden and his supporters keep pointing to—low unemployment, strong wage gains at the bottom, and now a slowing inflation rate—mask the very real pain and precarity that workers are still living in, in the midst of soaring evictions, a dysfunctional and deadly health care system, and extortionate prices for a swath of essentials ranging from housing and childcare to prescription drugs and groceries.” Having reported week by week on the 2016 election and watched the entire calamity unfold in slow motion, I have a disturbing sense of déjà vu. 

We cannot say how the 2024 election is going to go. But what we can and must do is discuss it honestly, which means not fudging the numbers. So repeat after me: the Electoral College determines the election result, not the national popular vote, meaning that “Biden is 1 point ahead of Trump” does not mean “Biden is on track to win.” 

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