Was the 2016 Election the Most Out of Whack in U.S. History?


Did 2016 represent the biggest gulf between the popular vote results and the electoral college verdict in history?

The answer to this doesn’t affect the outcome. Either way, Democrats will claim that their popular vote victory should be considered when assessing Trump’s mandate. Trump will say he would have won the popular vote too if he’d tried.

But for those who are trivia buffs — or think it’s important that the election results reflect the will of the people as closely as possible — here’s where things stand (as of 11/20/2016).

In all but four elections, the popular vote winner also won the electoral college. So the contenders for most out-of-whack election are those election where the person who won the popular vote lost the electoral college:

pop vote chart v 2

The goal is to find the election where the popular vote verdict diverged most from the electoral college verdict.

We can start by eliminating Bush v. Gore from the running. Gore won the popular vote narrowly and lost the electoral college narrowly.

The case for 1876 is that it was the biggest popular vote margin (in percentage terms) by an electoral college loser. But Samuel Tilden lost the electoral college by the narrowest of margins (and probably did so via corrupt deal making).

The case for 1888 is that it was the biggest electoral college margin by a popular vote loser. But Benjamin Harrison’s popular vote victory margin was narrow, considerably less than Hillary Clinton’s.

The case for 2016 is that it had both a big popular vote victory by one side and big electoral college victory by the other side. It’s the only election where someone won the popular vote by more than 1 percent and lost the electoral college by more than 10 percent.

So as of now, I’d cast my popular vote for 2016.

But in discussions like this, popular vote doesn’t always matter.


Related: The Great Skewing: how the distribution of votes is out of alignment with the distribution of power

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Steven Waldman is founder of LifePosts.com, a platform for online memorials and life milestones. He's a Washington Monthly contributing editor, journalist and author.