5 Flaws in 'Popular-Vote-Repudiates-Trump' Argument
After Hillary Clinton lost the White House to a political novice despite winning more overall votes, Democrats and their media allies used the popular vote margin to try to delegitimize Donald Trump’s stunning victory. Two years later, after failing to take back the Senate in a promised “blue-lash" against Trump, they're again pointing to the statistic to undermine the president and his agenda.
Akin to 2016, they’re building the narrative that Trumpism isn’t popular because Democrats still won the popularity contest in the Senate, as well as the House, earlier this month. “[The] popular vote gives Democrats something to brag about,” MSNBC crowed in a Nov. 7 story on its website, adding that it spelled an “epic rebuke” of Trump and his agenda.
Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight pointed out Democrats won the House popular vote "by a lot" this year. “It was a rebuke!” an elections analyst for the political blog added. Some are even reading last rites over the Trump presidency based on this metric, projecting that his chances for re-election are doomed in 2020.
While it’s true Democratic candidates received millions more votes than Republicans, the reason for the gap has little to do with Trump’s popularity or even the popularity of Democrats. Here are five mitigating factors Trump’s critics are ignoring:
1. Normally, midterms feature a fairly equal number of uncontested seats on both the Democratic and Republican sides. But this year, Democrats ran unchallenged by a GOP opponent in no fewer than 40 House races. Only three Republican candidates could say the same. In other words, there wasn’t a House Republican even listed on 40 ballots, which skewed the popular vote in Democrats’ favor.
Hans von Spakovsky, who heads the Heritage Foundation’s Election Law Reform Initiative in Washington, also noted that Democrats garnered a large portion of their vote margin from districts that demographically are overwhelmingly blue, such as Florida’s 20th District (dominated by Rep. Alcee Hastings) and California’s 13th District (commanded by Rep. Barbara Lee).
“Given how gerrymandered so many congressional districts are -- particularly those favoring Democratic minority voters due to the Voting Rights Act -- you can’t use turnout in those races to gauge support for the president,” von Spakovsky said.
2. Democrats also got more votes in Senate races than Republicans did, but that too is misleading, since far more Democratic seats were up for re-election this year — 26 versus nine for the GOP. With more Democratic incumbents running, it’s no surprise Democrats secured more votes.
Further skewing the popular vote, most of the Senate races held this year were in highly populated blue states, including California and New York.
In California, moreover, two Democrats — Dianne Feinstein and Kevin de Leon — fought for the same Senate seat in that state's unique electoral system. California's primary allows the top two finishers – including members of the same party -- to face off in a general election, and Republicans fielded no serious candidates. That meant virtually all 6.5 million votes went to the Democrats, substantially padding the overall vote margin for the party in the Senate.
(California's large liberal voter pool also explains why Clinton picked up more votes than Trump in 2016. Her popular vote margin came entirely from the Golden State, where she got a whopping 4.3 million more votes than Trump.)
3. By historical standards, Democrats' popular vote edge was nothing to brag about anyway.
In the House, they won it by a margin of seven percentage points, which is not that large compared with past elections. It trails Democrats’ vote margins in 2006 and 2008. And Republicans won by larger differences in 1994 and 2010.
4. Contrary to liberal beliefs, Democrats’ popular vote edge does not mean voters rejected Trump and his policies.
“It’s impossible to look at the enormous popular vote majority for both Senate and House seats and not interpret last night’s results as anything but another rejection of Donald Trump and the GOP by the majority of Americans,” tweeted Justin Hendrix, former executive at The Economist, the day after the election.
In fact, most voters did not vote to oppose Trump’s presidency. Almost 60 percent told exit pollsters they voted to support Trump or didn’t care one way or the other -- Trump was not a factor in their voting.
Far from turning off voters, data show Trump attracted them for the candidates he stumped for at stadium and other large rallies. Fifty-eight percent of the candidates he actively campaigned for won their races.
What’s more, Trump’s approval rating jumped ahead of President Obama’s midterm approval rating in 2010, 47 percent vs. 45 percent, according to an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll taken just prior to the election.
While his numbers are still low, “Trump’s unpopularity cannot be equated with unpopularity of his agenda,” said Ernest Istook, a former congressman who is now a political science professor at Utah Valley University. “His policies still appeal to his base."
5. Despite the prognostications of liberal commentators, midterm results don’t foretell the results of the next presidential election.
“Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about two points in 2016, while House Democratic candidates won by more than seven in 2018. That five-point swing in Democrats’ direction should be the starting point for all analysis,” Vox’s Matthew Yglesias said. “If Democrats win the popular vote by seven, they are going to beat Trump. Geography doesn’t matter in the face of a landslide that big.”
"Meet the Press’” host Chuck Todd even estimated Democrats could win key battleground states and the Electoral College in 2020 based on the 2018 midterm results. “We went ahead and extrapolated it out as if it were [the] electoral map,” he said last Sunday. “Democrats could get to 284 [electoral votes]” — a majority needed to win back the White House.
But the historic record shows the danger of such extrapolations. Fact is, the president’s party typically loses the midterms and then wins re-election regardless. Democrats lost 63 House seats in 2010, leading to a GOP takeover of Congress, yet Barack Obama won re-election in 2012, carrying nearly every swing state on the Electoral College map.
That doesn’t mean Trump is assured of re-election. Democrats’ strength in suburbs in every part of the country was not imaginary, with Republicans losing votes most markedly among women: Exit polls found that 59 percent of white women with college degrees voted Democratic on Nov. 6.
“Trump’s rhetoric turns many people against him,” Istook said, which suggests he will have to tone it down to win back suburban moms. But Istook believes that the problem “is the manner, not the message.”
“Trump appeals to the widespread public disgust at the political correctness that muddles clear speech,” Istook explained. “But he uses sledgehammer comments in place of surgical precision."
Analysts say Trump has a solid shot at winning in 2020 if the economic boom continues and he remains popular in the heartland. Conversely, Democrats' chances in the Electoral College are slim if they can’t win the Midwest. In other words, there’s no reason based on the 2018 election returns that Trump couldn’t lose the national popular vote in 2020, while again carrying the electoral vote.
“If you look at the House votes and project that on to a presidential election next time, Donald Trump could lose the popular vote by 8 or 9 million and still win the Electoral College,” Norm Ornstein, political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said recently. “Popular will is declining as a force in American politics."
In other words, in spite of the Democrats’ obsession, the number of votes matters less today than where those votes are cast.