The electoral college has at least indirectly done its work by helping to assure that a successful presidential candidate would have broad support throughout the country, as opposed to simply being the overwhelming choice of only a section/slice of the country.
The 2016 election of Donald Trump put many things in motion. The 2020 election might do the same thing—especially if President Trump is re-elected in a manner similar to his 2016 victory. That’s because his election led to ongoing attacks on an invention of our constitutional founding fathers. That invention, of course, is the electoral college.
For the fourth time in our history a Democrat presidential candidate who won the popular vote was denied the presidency by failing to win a majority in the electoral college. Would-be presidents Samuel Tilden, Al Gore, and Hillary Clinton all won the popular vote only to be defeated by a creation of the founders.
The same thing happened to an actual Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, who was defeated for re-election in 1888. Once again, the culprit was, you guessed it, the electoral college.
Does that mean that Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump have all been illegitimate because they lost the popular vote? Not at all. Each had broader support in the country at large than did his opponent. And each demonstrated that support at the ballot box.
So let’s keep this curious invention of the founders. It really does do its job. This is the case even though that job doesn’t entirely square with the full intention of the founders.
To be sure, those who drafted the Constitution did want to assure that another of their creations, namely the presidency, would have general appeal throughout the country. As one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, John Jay, put it, the office of the presidency should be occupied by those of the “most diffuse and established character.”
But the creators of the electoral college had something else in mind as well. They sought to put in place a kind of filtering system. What does the Constitution say? If no candidate wins a majority in the electoral college, the final arbiter will be the House of Representatives, where each state will cast a single vote.
So what went wrong? Why have so few presidential elections wound up in the House? What interfered with this piece of the plan to assure that presidential power would always wind up in the hands of those of the “most diffuse and established character”? The answer is political parties. More specifically, the answer is a two-party system.
In short order that very system was established—and still prevails. First it was Federalists v. Democratic-Republicans (Jeffersonians). Then it was Democrats v. Whigs. And since the 1850s it has been Democrats v. Republicans.
Of course, there have occasionally been third parties of consequence. Think of Theodore Roosevelt and his 1912 Progressive party or George Wallace in 1968. But our venerable two-party system has repeatedly foiled the founders. Not since 1824 and the collapse of the first two-party system has a presidential election been decided by a vote in the House of Representatives.
Still, the electoral college has at least indirectly done its work by helping to assure that a successful presidential candidate would have broad support throughout the country, as opposed to simply being the overwhelming choice of only a section/slice of the country.
Think of Grover Cleveland in 1888 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. In 1888 President Cleveland carried the eleven states of the Old Confederacy by nearly a two-one margin. The gap was nearly 39%. In 2016 Ms. Clinton’s popular vote margin was just under three million votes. She carried California by more than 4.2 million or better than a 30% margin. In each case the vote of the Old Confederacy in 1988 and the California vote in 2016 amounted to just over 10% of the total vote.
In the case of Trump v. Clinton an irony of sorts intrudes. The goal of the founders was to keep two types of presidential pretenders from gaining this office: 1) those with powerful, even overwhelming support in only a small portion of the country; 2) complete outsiders/upstarts.
In that regard, a case could be made that either a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton victory in 2016 would have foiled the intent of the founders. Ms. Clinton had overwhelming support in only a small portion of the country. And Mr. Trump, while well known, was the ultimate outsider/upstart.
Might the same thing happen in 2020? It’s entirely possible. But this time around Mr. Trump is neither an outsider nor an upstart. And Mr. Biden? He is the ultimate insider. Still, at this point both qualify as men of “diffuse and established character,” even if neither would ever be mistaken for, say, either Thomas Jefferson or John Adams. (Of course, some may say that both are simply characters, but that’s another matter.)
In 2016 candidate Trump used the electoral college to subvert at once the founders’ intention—and to confirm it. In 2020 he may well use it to his advantage again. But this time he is a known quantity, if not to everyone’s taste. As such, if he repeats his 2016 success, he would confirm the founders’ goal of assuring that the office would be occupied by someone who has broadly-based support and, at least, established presidential character.
Where does this leave Mr. Biden and the Democrats? A President Biden would be a match for his rival in the John Jay sweepstakes. But if he loses, he likely would also prove to be a match for Cleveland and Clinton in that his support had proved to be too limited because it was too concentrated.
And what will the Democrats likely do then? No doubt they will pursue their continuing campaign against the infernal electoral college, rather than work to accomplish what the founders required, namely building a broadly based national coalition advanced by the sorts of candidates John Jay had in mind.
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