State electoral numbers are fun to watch, but don't matter in the end
What would it take for Donald Trump to win the presidency? Pundits trying to answer that question turn to the patchwork of red and blue on the electoral vote map, looking for possible paths to the 270 electoral votes required to become president. Their answers range from somewhat complicated to ABC News' 700-word, four-step analysis and beyond. So let me simplify things for you.
For Trump to be nearly certain of victory, it is both necessary and sufficient that he close his current deficit of about five points in the national popular vote, as measured by an average of polls.
That's because American history tells us that the candidate who wins the national popular vote will almost always win a majority of the electoral votes and become president. A state-by-state analysis of electoral votes is interesting and, for many, even addictive. But it adds very little information about which presidential candidate will win.
A meaningful comparison between the national popular vote and electoral vote can go back to at least the 1832 presidential election, the first in which all states but one (South Carolina) chose their electors by popular vote. In every presidential election since 1832, the winner of the popular vote has also won a majority of votes in the Electoral College, save for a couple of narrow exceptions.
One exception can occur when there is but a sliver of a difference — less than one percent — between the popular vote totals of the top two vote-getters. In cases like these where the popular vote is virtually tied, an electoral vote majority is up for grabs.
Twice, the electoral majority went to the presidential candidate who trailed by a fraction of a percent in the nationwide popular vote, resulting in the election of Benjamin Harrison in 1888 and George W. Bush in 2000.
The link between winning the popular and electoral vote is so strong that, short of a virtual tie in the popular vote, only election irregularities have ever broken the link. The one time that happened was 1876, when Democrat Samuel Tilden beat Republican Rutherford B. Hayes by three percent in the popular vote and initially led Hayes by 19 electoral votes.
No exception to the rule there. However, the two parties disputed the legitimacy of 20 additional electors from four different states. The dispute was resolved by the Compromise of 1877, in which Hayes, the popular vote loser, was awarded the 20 disputed electoral votes and thus the presidency in return for Republican promises, including an end to Reconstruction.
In sum, history tells us that the winner of the national popular vote will be the next president, with the possible exception of a popular vote margin too narrow to be meaningful or an election decided by irregular means. The former exception is a once-in-a-hundred-years occurrence that is unlikely to happen again in our lifetimes. The latter exception has not been repeated in the last 140 years ago and hopefully never will be.
In addition to adding very little information, an electoral vote analysis involves separate polls and predictions for each state, making it more complicated and error-prone than focusing on a single metric, the nationwide popular vote. So why do the pundits and news media put so much time and energy into pouring over color-coded electoral vote maps and dissecting the peculiar political dynamics of every swing state?
It probably has more to do with filling 24 hours a day of cable news and guaranteeing full employment for reporters, pollsters, and pundits than it does with concern that, for the first time since 1876, a meaningful popular vote margin will fail to bring electoral victory.
The news media's focus on state-by-state analysis is not just unnecessary. It also does a disservice to the public by exaggerating the steepness of the hill facing the candidate who trails in electoral vote projections.
Because the state races are covered as if they were statistically independent contests, the public is left thinking "Perhaps Trump can overcome a 5-point deficit in the national polls, but overcoming deficits in more than a half dozen different battleground states is a much taller order."
In reality, the latter is no more difficult because, as a candidate rises or falls in the national polls, he tends to rise or fall by a similar amount in the state polls, much as the water levels in flooded towns rise and fall together as a flood of the Mississippi River advances or recedes.
There is no denying the allure of watching the shifting electoral maps on your television screen, debating the possible paths to 270 electoral votes, and getting the latest updates from reporters on the ground in each of the battleground states.
But remember this: the surest path to 270 is winning the national popular vote, and there's little chance you will live to see another presidential race in which the state-by-state analyses mattered.