On President Trump and Popular Mandates

President Trump, in his first week in office, appears to be concerned that he be perceived as having a popular mandate. This is my explanation for his doubling down on the unfounded claim that he would have won the popular vote if it hadn’t been for 3-5 million (!) illegal immigrants voting. Much has been written about how false this claim is, but I won’t waste time on that here.

Both Trump and Clinton failed to achieve 50% of the popular vote, at 62.99 million votes (45.94% of votes cast) and 65.85 million votes (48.03%) respectively. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, was third place, with 4.49 million votes (3.27%). Jill Stein, the Green candidate, was fourth with 1.46 million votes (1.06%). On top of that, Evan McMullin, an Independent from Utah, won 0.73 million votes (0.53%), and managed to win over 20% of Utah’s popular vote. Indeed, as I have shown in another post, if the states allocated their Electoral College votes fairly and efficiently, the final EC vote tally would have been 261 (Trump)-261 (Clinton)-14 (Johnson)-1 (Stein)-1 (McMullin). I find that interesting, but it doesn’t point to a mandate for anyone. Let us suppose that:

  1. Voters had been allowed to rank their choices.
  2. The actual 2016 results actually reflect the #1 choices that voters would have made.
  3. Since no candidate hit the 270 EC vote mark in the first tally, then there is an automatic runoff. In national rounds, states eliminate the bottom EC vote recipients one at a time, in order from least popular votes (in that state) to most. In each round, they re-allocate their EC votes adding in the lower ranked choices of the ballots where the higher ranked choices have been eliminated. This process iterates until there is a candidate with 270+ EC votes, or there are only 2 candidates with EC votes left. (If my explanation is confusing, watch this short video that explains how single-winner instant runoff elections work.)
  4. Voters who put Stein as their #1 choice may safely be assumed to mostly have put Clinton as their #2 choice.
  5. Voters who put McMullin at #1 may safely be assumed to mostly have put Trump or Johnson as their #2 choice.
  6. Enough voters who put Johnson as their #1 or #2 choice, put Trump as their next choice, which puts him over the top with 270+ EC votes. (A 269-269 draw is also possible, which would punt the choice to the House of Representatives. Here, though, I want to assume a Trump victory.)

In this ranked choice voting (a.k.a. instant runoff) scenario, the President would have both his Electoral victory and a popular vote victory of sorts. Indeed, I imagine much of the current rancor from the Left wouldn’t exist, because there would be more of a feeling that everyone had been represented in the choice. In fact, Trump could look at the instant runoff details, see for himself that up to 4% of his win came from voters who preferred Johnson or McMullin, and adjust his rhetoric to say that he understands his mandate also came from them.

Now, forget my fantasy scenario above, and look again at the actual popular results. Unfortunately, they are much less information rich about the will of the electorate. Even so, Presidents who don’t secure 50% of the popular vote will normally take a look at those “spoiler” votes. They then consider how they might also appeal to and be the president for those voters as well. Indeed, ideally, they should also consider how to have constructive dialog with their major opposition.

Or they could just do as the current President is doing, and blame any problems on certain foreign groups and illegal immigrants.


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