On today, Election Day in the United States of America, it seems fitting to post about the Presidential Election. Because of how our Electoral System works, it is possible for the president to be elected with less than half the popular vote; indeed, it is possible for a president to be elected even if another candidate received more of the popular vote. This has happened several times:
- In 1876 Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won the presidency (in a complicated procedure) although his Democratic opponent, Samuel J. Tilden, received more than half of the popular vote. (51.0% to 47.9%)
- In 1888 Republican Benjamin Harrison won 20 states, but only barely, while the Democrat Grover Cleveland won the remaining 18 states, several by a landslide; Harrison won the presidency even though Cleveland had more popular votes (48.6% to 47.8%)
- As recently as 2000, Democrat Al Gore received more of the popular vote but Republican George W. Bush received most of the electoral vote (50,996,582 people voted for Gore and 50,456,062 people for Bush, making it 48.4% to 47.9%; however Bush received 271 electoral votes while Gore only received 266).
So that leads to the question: if there were only two candidates running, and every eligible voter voted for one of them, what is the smallest percentage of a popular vote that a candidate could receive and yet still be elected to the Presidency?
The answer is just under 25%. Isn’t that amazing? The reasoning is that to win, a candidate has to win more than half the electoral votes for the states. But to win the electoral votes in a state, the candidate only needs to get a majority of the popular voe. So if a candidate were to barely win in the states they won, and to lose by a landslide in the states they lost, they’d only need just over half the votes in just over half the states (roughly speaking) to win the election. This would be just over 25% of the popular votes.
But in fact it’s less than that because electoral votes aren’t distributed evenly. The electoral votes for each state are the number of representatives that state has (which is distributed by population) and the number of senators (2). This means that the 2 senators carry more weight (proportionally) in states with a small population, so if the just-over-half states that the candidate wins are the ones with the smallest populations, it turns out that the candidate can get less than 25% of the popular vote (compared to the opponent’s just over 75%) and yet still win the presidency.
The thought makes presidential elections THAT much more exciting to watch!