The 2016 election was the fifth time in American history that the candidate who received the most votes in the election didn’t win the Electoral College. This year, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, there is a range where Joe Biden can win the popular vote, while Donald Trump wins the election.
I wanted to explore whether there is a baked-in advantage that the Electoral College brings to one party or the other. I looked at the last half-century of presidential elections, and I’ve compared the nationwide popular vote with the result in the tipping point state. The tipping point state is the state where, when you sort them by the size of their margin of victory, gives the winning candidate their 270th electoral vote. If the electoral college gives one party or the other an advantage, we’ll see them vote better in the tipping point state than in the nation as a whole.
In the last 12 elections, the electoral college has benefitted each party an equal number of times. Most years, this advantage has been small, including when Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000. But the 2016 election has seen the largest gap between the nationwide popular vote and the tipping point state in over half a century.
So how do we swing the electoral college advantage by such a large amount in one election?
In 2016, there was a very small swing to Trump nationwide, but the swing was very much not uniform across the 50 states. Some states actually swung to Hillary Clinton, including the very large, very uncompetitive states of California and Texas. Meanwhile, the states where Trump had a larger than average swing were ones that he was able to flip, such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. In those states which Obama won by under 10% in 2012, Trump achieved a 2.8% swing in 2016; if he had achieved this swing nationwide, he would have won the popular vote as well.
While the electoral college may currently benefit Donald Trump, there is no guarantee it will necessarily remain that way. A larger swing to Biden in key states compared to the nation as a whole would be enough to see that electoral college advantage disappear. At the moment, polling is suggesting a similar swing in key states relative to the national average, but a greater focus during the final two months of the campaign could still swing the electoral college advantage his way.