Over the past week, this writer has focused on the Electoral College and has spent hours doing calculations. After reviewing the options, it seems that the current system worked pretty well over most of our history. Out of the first 50 presidential elections, only three candidates won the popular vote and lost in the Electoral College. That’s six percent. However, in the past five elections, two have gone that way. That’s 40%. That’s bad. It’s also bad that 100% of the losing popular candidates have been Democrats, including a sitting president, Grover Cleveland.

The problem stems from the Founding. Individual states had their own governments. In order to get them to join the Union, they had to feel that they would have a voice in the new Federal Government. The compromise was to give every State two Senators—and since the Electoral College was based on the number of Senators and Representatives, the small States received more voice, per capita, than the large states. That gives us the current situation in which States with fewer than a million people have as much say as those with tens of millions. The City of Washington, DC, has as much a say as the entire State of Texas in the Electoral College.

For most of our history, it was an anomaly for the popular choice to lose. Lately, it has happened almost half of the time. Why is that? Certainly, technology has helped candidates to determine where they need to focus. And bad decisions can be a fatal blow. In 2016, Hillary Clinton thought the Obama coalition would hold for her, so she took her “Blue Wall” for granted, and spent a lot of time in places like Texas and Utah, hoping to get a historical landslide. In doing so, she totally neglected Michigan and Wisconsin—which ended up determining the Electoral victor.

But that is just about strategy. If both sides had equal strategic competence, the party with more voters should win, and Democrats have had a plurality of registered voters since FDR. But people don’t always vote the party line.

The Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson was originally the liberal party, with the Federalist as the conservatives. Jefferson’s party elected seven presidents in a row. Then the Whig Party won four out of five elections but ran out of steam. Jefferson’s party was renamed the Democratic Party with the election of Andrew Jackson, of Tennessee, in 1828. In 1854, the new “Republican” Party supplanted the failing Whig Party, and elected Abraham Lincoln in 1860, with a liberal goal of ending slavery. After the Civil War, Republicans elected the next four president—and 11 of the next 13. As a reaction, the South became solidly Democratic.—and conservative.

The Great Depression changed that. Having ruled for so many years, Republicans got the blame for the Depression, and FDR was seen, by even many Republicans, as the savior of the nation. That led to Democratic hegemony from 1932 until 1968 (except for the election of war hero Dwight Eisenhower). Even today, there are more registered Democrats than Republicans.

Eisenhower, in the Lincoln tradition, sent national troops to desegregate schools. But instead of backing off the issue of desegregation when they were elected, JFK and the Democrats pushed for more racial equality. That led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When he signed it, Lyndon Johnson said that he was handing over the Solid South to the Republicans for generations—and he was right. The Democratic Party flipped to become the liberal party, starting in 1960, with Republicans becoming the conservative party of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. That was the last major realignment. This is all a little superficial, of course, but how many hours do you have to read this?

We went through this to point out that the parties realigned, with Democrats being primarily the liberal party, from the beginning to the Civil War. Republicans were the more liberal party from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, when they flipped after Eisenhower, to become the conservative party.

Of course, through these years, there were liberal Republicans and conservative Republicans, as well as conservative Democrats and liberal Democrats. It was not odd to have a liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller and conservative Democratic George Wallace, even up to 1970. In those days, the South was still solidly Democratic, while California and the Northeast were reliably Republican. There were no litmus tests.

That has changed. George Washington warned against political parties since they are gangs of people fighting against each other for power and influence. Washington lost that battle. We have had party fighting since the second president. But things were never as crystallized as they are now. Let’s look at the 2016 party platforms.

In almost every possible issue, each party has staked out an opposing position.

ABORTION
• Republicans focus on right-to-life
• Democrats focus on women’s rights

CRIMINAL JUSTICE
• Republicans call for mandatory prison time
• Democrats support alternatives to prison

EDUCATION
• Republicans call for homeschooling and private schools
• Democrats call for more support for public education

ENVIRONMENT
• Republicans call for energy production and only cost-effective rules
• Democrats focus on clean energy and protection for public lands

FIREARMS
• Republicans promote individual gun rights
• Democrats call for stricter background checks

FOREIGN POLICY
• Republicans promote American Exceptionalism and more military spending
• Democrats emphasize that war should only be used as a last resort

HEALTH CARE
• Republicans call for repeal of Obamacare, leaving regulation to the States
• Democrats consider health care a right and will work for a public option

IMMIGRATION
• Republicans warn of terrorism, drug cartels, and criminal gangs
• Democrats defend the DREAM Act and paths to citizenship

JOBS/LABOR
• Republicans support Right-to-Work and say minimum wage is a State issue
• Democrats call for $15/hr minimum wage and making union membership easier

MARRIAGE
• Republicans call for the Supreme Court to overturn its gay marriage ruling
• Democrats support the Court ruling and call to defend LGBT rights

TAXES
• Republicans promote taxation only as a tool for economic growth
• Democrats call for a “multi-millionaire surtax” to benefit the middle class

TRADE
• Republicans call for trade agreements favorable to American business
• Democrats call for agreements that do not undercut American workers

As you can see, the parties are diametrically opposed on almost every conceivable issue. That is the real problem with our elections. Half of us think one way, the other half think exactly the other way. Yet, when we have elections, presidents who barely win, or even lose the popular vote, are free to make dramatic, radical change that half the country does not want.

Is there a way to say that presidents cannot make drastic changes unless they have a real mandate from a strong election win? Shouldn’t those who barely win rule from the center—to “be president of all the people”?

7 COMMENTS

  1. Note: The National Popular Vote bill is 64% of the way to guaranteeing the majority of Electoral College votes and the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by changing state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), without changing anything in the Constitution, using the built-in method that the Constitution provides for states to make changes.

    It simply requires enacting states with 270 electoral votes to award their electoral votes to the winner of the most national popular votes.

    All voters would be valued equally in presidential elections, no matter where they live.

  2. Is there a way to say that presidents cannot make drastic changes unless they have a real mandate from a strong election win? Shouldn’t those who barely win rule from the center—to “be president of all the people”?

    What you are proposing is unenforceable. Once anyone becomes president his base will expect him to try and fulfill his campaign promises. Since you are proposing that those that win a close election have the wisdom of Saul and try to please everyone you know that they will wind up pleasing nobody. I guess your ultimate goal is to have one term presidents.?

    • We used to teach civics in such a way as to appreciate the complexities of a system where not everyone gets exactly what they want, so compromise and understanding must be emphasized and celebrated because we do not live in a dictatorship.

      Differences of opinion on policy are to be debated, but not in a way that demonizes someone simply because of the disagreement. As Barack Obama famously said, “elections have consequences,” which cuts in both directions, and the American electorate will ebb and flow back and forth.

      If a President is under the mandate to only govern from the center, why bother having elections? Just take every issue, split it down the middle, and give each side half of what they want on everything and dismantle the executive branch. Avoid this whole messy process.

      We don’t know do that, though, for obvious reasons. The emphasis on educating children along the mantle of “I don’t agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” is missing today. Now it’s “I don’t agree with what you say so you’re not aloud to say it.”

      • I was just asking if there’s a way to get away from the extremism of action that is firing anger, causing a spiral that endangers our nation.

        The last three presidents took their win as a way to give their base everything they wanted–even after two of them lost the popular vote. Trump, in particular, is even undoing every possible act Obama took. You can be sure that if Trump loses, the same will happen to him.

        (By the way, I felt that it was wrong to pass Obamacare in lame duck. That was abuse of power. We should do away with lame duck sessions, or give the incoming government the right to negate any and all lame duck decisions.)

        One answer is to quell anger is to elect people who are capable of being statesmen. When John Kennedy was elected, it was close. He took the shocking action (at that time) of putting a Republican in his cabinet. That went a long way to the 80% approval rating he had, early on. By “governing from the middle,” I meant giving both sides something they really want.

  3. Here’s another thought. Currently, we risk having a 269-269 split in the Electoral College. That means if Trump were to get 269 Electoral votes next year, the Democratic House would pick the next president.

    How about if we give DC a senator? It only seems fair, since DC has more citizens than TWO states. That would mean we could have an Electoral vote of 270-269.

    That wouldn’t change the outcome next year, since DC is overwhelmingly Democratic, but we are overdue for a tie, since the electorate is so evenly divided. Who designs a system to deadlock?

    • Here’s another option: Eleanor Holmes Norton is already a non-voting member of the House of Representatives. If she were given a vote, there would be an odd number in the House, 439, and in the Electoral College, 539.

      Of course, then, the site FiveThirtyEight would have to change its name. . .

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