Why Trump Does Not Need the Popular Vote to Retain the White House in 2020

Why Trump Does Not Need the Popular Vote to Retain the White House in 2020

By Dr. Christopher Zambakari

It has been said that all politics is local. Nowhere is this more so than with presidential elections in the United States. The 2020 presidential election is (already) in full swing, and a record number of Democrats are running to unseat President Donald Trump. Trump’s opponents—those who are appalled by his policies, rhetoric and polarizing campaigns, in Washington, the media, and academia—find it inconceivable that Trump could win a second term. Nate Cohn noted that Trump’s Electoral College margin could be even larger than it was in 2016. Trump does not need the popular vote to retain control of the White House. Moreover, Trump appears better prepared and a far more formidable candidate than in 2016—notably when compared to many of his current rivals.

The reason behind Trump’s Electoral College chances in 2020 is found in the structure and make-up of the U.S. Electoral College, politics at the national level and the impact of local elections on the general presidential election. All Trump needs to win a second term is to carry the Electoral College votes, which is a function of local politics.

Cohn recently noted that the president’s rating in the 2018 election surveys stood at 45.5 percent among midterm voters. In the 2016 tipping-point state of Wisconsin, it was 47.1 percent, and Florida—where the president won by 1.2 percentage points—has moved further to the right, giving the president a positive standing; his rating in the Sun Belt battlegrounds is higher than in the Rust Belt. In the case of a high turnout, it is possible that the Democrats could mobilize nonwhite and young voters, while Republicans could focus on bringing more educated white voters and those who didn’t participate in 2016 to the ballot, helping them in white, working-class areas. Cohn concludes that the president can retain the White House even if he were to lose the popular vote by as much as five percent.

There have been five times when a presidential candidate has won the popular vote but still lost the election, the most recent being the 2016 presidential election. Each time, it was the votes gained in the Electoral College that decided the outcome of the election.

The Electoral College was established in Article 2, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution as a compromise by the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. The debate at the time was how to pick the president: through a congressional vote or a democratic popular vote. The Electoral College’s main function is to choose, through the electors, the President and Vice President. Each state gets a number of electors equal to the total of the state’s Senate and House of Representatives delegations. Currently, 270 out of 538 electoral votes is required to elect the president. If there is no decisive victory in the Electoral College, then the executive is elected by the House of Representatives.

Unlike in 1787, today’s electors vote for the party’s candidate, meaning that while state elections are won locally, national level politics will determine the next U.S. president. Given the Republican Party’s control of most state apparatus, and the recent Supreme Court 5-4 decision that gerrymandering is beyond the reach of Federal Courts, all the Republican party needs to do is win at the state level, which then shapes the Electoral College’s votes.

Two determinants of U.S. presidential and congressional elections are total campaign spending and party control of state legislatures and governors’ mansions. With less than fourteen months to the next general election but some two years away from the next redrawing of new electoral districts, the party that controls congress and the levels of state government, and raises the most campaign money, stands to determine the course of the electoral outcomes for the next decade. The composition on a partisan basis shows that Republicans control the following: legislators (52% to 47%), chambers (62% to 38%), legislatures, (61% to 37%), and State control (45% to 29%).

Furthermore, the Republican Party caters to its core constituencies, Christian evangelicals and religious right groups; corporate power and private wealth. In 2016, economic distress drove Trump’s win. To the economic and financial elites, he has granted massive tax breaks and overseen robust U.S. economic growth, posting the lowest unemployment rate in five decades, dropping to 3.6%, and increasing average hourly pay by 3.2% in the last 12 months. While talks of a recession remains speculative, a report by The International Monetary Fund noted that the U.S. economy remained robust heading into 2020. A strong economy could further strengthen Trump’s position heading into 2020.

Smaller states also tend to be more rural, so Trump’s subsidies for farmers give him an edge in rural areas that favor Republicans. In 2016, Trump’s performance with states’ blue-collar and rural voters was key to his victory and could be key to his re-election. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has long neglected rural counties and this has allowed Republicans to dominate rural America. Once again, the Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan will prove pivotal in the upcoming campaign.

In a context where all politics is local, the 2020 election imposes an urgency for a focus on politics within each state and a prioritization of issues that matter to the electorate instead of a bombardment of the population with imaginary threats. There is some hope. Presidential historian Jon Meacham has noted that the current climate of partisanship, with harsh rhetoric and seeming doom and gloom on both sides of the aisle, is not new. America has time and again been sustained by a belief in progress even in the gloomiest of times: Lincoln’s better angels have mostly prevailed.


Christopher Zambakari is a Doctor of Law and Policy, the Chief Executive Officer of The Zambakari Advisory, L.L.C, Hartley B. and Ruth B. Barker Endowed Rotary Peace Fellow, and the Assistant Editor of The Bulletin of the Sudan Studies Association. His area of research and expertise is international law and security, political reform and economic development, governance and democracy, conflict management and prevention, nation and state-building processes in Africa and in the Middle East. His work has been published in law, economic, and public policy journals.

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