To avert a flurry of trolling, it seems I am obliged to preface my observations with a self evident nod to the fact Donald Trump won the presidential election fair and square. Whatever one thinks of the Electoral College, it is a constitutional fact of life; one of many difficult compromises that made the creation of the United States possible. I am not one who casually calls for its abolition, even if I were in a position to do so.
With that out of the way, now to my point: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by thumping three million votes. But whenever I point this out, the following argument comes my way: “ah yes, but Trump would have performed much better in the popular vote haven't been a nationwide election, not one conducted state-by-state as required by the Electoral College model”. This hypothesis stems directly from a tweet from the president elect himself. And yet it is a patently absurd claim.
Let me explain why.
If US elections were conducted like New Zealand's, whereby each party aims to maximise its share of the party vote, their campaigns would be unrecognisable from how they operate today.
As it stands, Republican and Democrats understandably focus the efforts on swing states like Florida, Ohio and Michigan. Most other states are decisively in one column or the other; for example, California is outside the GOP’s reach, as is Alabama for the Democrats. Therefore campaigns invest minimal resources into states they are either sure to win, or certain to lose.
In a nationwide popular vote election, this strategy would turn on its head. Instead, both parties would invest heavily in their respective strongholds. And the critical difference between Republicans and Democrats is that the former's strongholds and greatly more populous than the latter's.
The most obvious example is California, the largest state in the union, which voted for Hillary Clinton by a margin of almost two to one. By contrast, Trump won his most populous state, Texas, by a relatively modest 9 percent. Imagine if both campaigns, targeting the popular vote, invested significantly more resources in California and Texas, and that this resulted in an increase in turnout of five percent. In California, Clinton would have increased her margin over Trump by a net 219,000 votes.
If the same turnout increase were replicated in Texas, Trump’s net gain would be a mere 40,000 votes.
On the same basis, Trump would have netted 10,000 extra votes in his second most populous state, Georgia, whereas Clinton would have added 87,000 new votes to her tally in New York state. She would have picked up 20,000 more votes in New Jersey, while Trump would have gained only 15,000 in the deep red state of South Carolina. And so it goes. Clinton won the popular vote because she racked up huge margins on the coasts; but there is no reason to expect this would not merely have been amplified in a scenario whereby both campaigns were forced to compete there.
There is another consideration, of course: money. If Trump and Clinton were to campaign nationwide in popular vote election, both would face stupendous additional costs to advertise in the most densely populated media markets: the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut) and California. On that basis too, Hillary was far better placed. She maintained a fundraising advantage of close to half a billion dollars over Trump, even more so during the critical scene-setting stage of the campaign.
The fallacy that Trump could have won a counterfactual popular vote election is one of many myths to emanate from the endlessly self-glorifying Twitter account of the President-Elect. It seems to me one worth suffocating before it becomes just another “fact” in this Post-Truth world of his — and ours.