How the Vote Broke, in Historical Perspective

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
The projected count for the electoral college in 2016 via Wikimedia

From the inbox, an engineer who is directly involved in the technology for tabulating votes in a number of states sends this report on the historically unusual gap between Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote lead and Donald Trump’s electoral college margin. (Andrew McGill has been covering this issue for us since the election.) The engineer wrote over the weekend with this summary:

It looks as if Hillary Clinton will top the popular-vote margin in percentage points of President Carter in 1976, also JFK in 1960, three elections in the 1880s and James Knox Polk in 1844. And I should include the 2000 election as well.

That is, he said, a total of seven people will have taken the presidency with a winning margin that is smaller, as a proportion of the popular vote, than Hillary Clinton will probably end up having over Donald Trump, in defeat.

Now, the background, in a note from this same reader a few days earlier:

I work in the election industry—on the counting side, not the political side. When I went to sleep on election night, Trump’s lead was a million votes and climbing. This was not my preferred outcome, but I accepted the selection of the people—only it wasn’t, as it turns out.

My calculation today gives Clinton a 2.5 million vote margin when everything is counted. (Vote-by-mail states count slowly—more paper handling for mail-ins. California has three million uncounted ballots, one million in LA County (3 to 1 for Clinton) and another half-million in San Diego County (3 to 2 for Clinton).) She may also pick up more votes in other vote-by-mail states out west—think Oregon, Washington, Colorado.

The narrative on election night was all how Clinton turned victory to defeat, her campaign overconfident, her voters staying home, and her herself unable to best perhaps the least capable candidate ever nominated by a major party.

The numbers in Florida and California just do not support that evaluation. In both places, turnout was up over 8 percent. She pulled a 930K vote lead in counties covering 58 percent of the state’s voters, counties where Obama ran up a 770K margin that enabled him to win a 70K victory in 2012. Her lead failed because Trump himself ran up a million vote margin in the remaining rural counties, beating Romney’s numbers by 350K. Hilary lost Florida, but she and Trump engaged the voters.

In California, she will nearly double Trump's tally, and out-poll Obama (the 2008 and 2012 version) by about three percentage points. She will receive nine million plus votes in California. These are the votes pushing her national total two million and more votes past that of the President-elect.

She will not be inaugurated two months hence, not in virtue of a pitiful campaign. She wasn’t perfect, and sometimes not very good, but she received support from enough of the republic to win the office in any universe not governed by an 18th century compromise with the slave-owning aristocrats of the Carolinas and Virginia.

She has 2.5 million more votes than the person who will be inaugurated. That is not a close margin.

This is what a democratic crisis looks like.


We all know that the electoral college is the established system for choosing presidents. (Though the National Popular Vote compact is a way better idea for a modern nation—and is what we would expect and recommend for any other nation.) We all know that if there were no electoral college, the campaign dynamics would have been different and the popular vote total might have been different too. We know as well that this is different from the 2000 election, in which a change in the outcome in even one state would have changed the electoral college result, in favor of the popular vote winner, Al Gore. The dynamics now are different.

But as the reader says, this is quite a disproportion. On the one hand, we have a result swung by a tens of thousands of votes in three crucial states. On the other hand, we have enormous impending changes in international and domestic policy. Americans would not regard the result as normal or proportional if they observed it anywhere else.