5 US Presidential Elections That Would Have Had Different Results If the Popular Vote Was Used

By Matt Geer in Politics
| October 31, 2020 5:11 am PDT
Elections With Different If the Popular Vote Was Used

There have been 45 US presidents since George Washington took office in 1789. In most elections, the winning president received the most electoral votes and popular votes.

Except for five of them.

There have been five elections in US history where the president-elect won without winning the popular vote.

What’s crazy is that this has happened twice since 2000. And experts believe it will happen more often in the future.

This has reignited the debate about whether we should abolish the Electoral College. Critics, especially Democrats, complain that the Electoral College is not democratic or indicative of what the people want.

That’s not a topic we’re going to explore in that post. That’s a deep rabbit hole I’ll leave for someone else to explore.

What I want to do instead is show you the five elections where the Electoral College winner trumped the popular vote winner.

But first, I want to explain how it’s even possible to win the presidential election without the popular vote.

And it all starts with understanding how the Electoral College works.

How the Electoral College Makes This Possible

To understand how a candidate can win the election without the popular vote, you need to understand how the Electoral College works.

The Electoral College is made up of “electors.” Electors commit to casting a vote for whoever wins their state’s popular vote.

Every state has a different number of electoral votes. This number is determined using the number of Senate seats (for that state) plus two more for the House of Rep seats.

Here are a couple of examples.

Take Washington. They have 10 Senate seats. Add two more for the House of Rep seats, and you get 12 electoral votes for Washington state.

How about Montana? They have one Senate seat, and when you add two for their House seats, you get three electoral votes.

The number of Senate seats each state has — and, thus, the number of electoral votes they get — is based on the state’s population.

Washington and Montana are great examples of how state size (by square mileage) isn’t an indicator of their electoral vote earning power.

Washington is smaller than Montana. However, it’s a more populous state with a bit more than 7.5 million people. Montana has a little more than 1.05 million people. So, Washington gets more Senate seats, thus more electoral votes.

This gives the candidate who wins Washington more leverage in an election. If they win the popular vote, regardless of by how much, they will get 12 electoral votes, moving them a little closer to the 270 electoral votes they need to win the election.

That’s a general idea of how each state awards electoral votes.

Now, a second ago, I said that a state’s size by square mileage is not indicative of their electoral vote earning power.

Interestingly enough, a state’s population isn’t an indication of their ability to put a specific candidate into office either. Size doesn’t matter.

Let’s look at why.

How to Win the Election Without the Popular Vote

The best way to explain this is by using an example.

The United States population is 327.2 million as of 2018. This means a candidate will win the popular vote with 163.7 million or more votes.

Now, there aren’t 327.2 million registered voters in the United States. Nearly 75 million of that 327.2 million individuals aren’t even old enough to vote. But using the total population is the easiest way for me to give you an example of how you can win the popular vote but lose in the Electoral College.

A candidate can accomplish this by garnering every single vote from the following states.

  • California: 39,865,590Texas: 29,206,997
  • Florida: 21,299,325
  • New York: 19,542,209  
  • Pennsylvania: 12,807,060
  • Illinois: 12,741,080
  • Ohio: 11,689,442
  • Georgia: 10,519,475
  • North Carolina: 10,383,620
  • Michigan: 9,995,915

The total votes from those states would be 178,050,713

Winning the popular vote in each of these states will give the following electoral votes.

  • California: 55
  • Texas: 38
  • Florida: 29
  • New York: 29
  • Pennsylvania: 20
  • Illinois: 20
  • Ohio: 18
  • Georgia: 16
  • North Carolina: 15
  • Michigan: 16

The total of electoral votes for these states is 256

Do you see the problem?

Candidates need 270 electoral votes to win the election. So even if a candidate garnered a vote from every single person in the ten most popular states, they still wouldn’t have enough electoral votes to win the election.

You see, size doesn’t matter.

This means that candidates need to be a little strategic. They only need to win enough (popular) votes in every state to win that state’s electoral votes.

And they need to win as many states as possible, or at least win the right combination of them to get their total over 270.

This doesn’t happen often. It’s rare for a president to lose the popular vote but win in the Electoral College. Only five presidents have pulled it off (as you’ll see in the next section).

Who Won the Election Without the Popular Vote?

The following are the five presidents who won their election thanks to the Electoral College.

You’ll learn a little bit about how that election went, how much they win/lost by, and more.

John Quincy Adams (1824)

This election was interesting for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, this was the first year that the popular vote was counted, even though it wasn’t used to determine the winner.

I found this election interesting also because the candidate who received the most electoral votes — Andrew Jackson, who received 99 electoral votes of the 131 needed to win — did NOT win the election.

Not only did he have the most electoral votes, but Jackson also had the most popular votes — 153,544.

The candidate who went on to win the election was John Quincy Adams (son of John Adams). He received 84 electoral votes and 108,740 popular votes in the election.

But if John Quincy Adams didn’t win the most electoral votes or the most popular votes, how did he win the presidency?

Here’s the thing — none of the four candidates reached the 131 electoral votes needed to win the election.

The 12th Amendment states that if no candidate wins the majority (of electoral votes), the House of Reps will decide who the president will be. And they will only consider the top three candidates who received the most popular votes.

That’s not all Quincy Adams had going for him, though.

Representative Henry Clay, who ran for president but was disqualified in 4th place (by popular vote), had pull in the House of Reps. He used that pull to get John Quincy Adams elected as president.

So, yeah…there’s that, too.

Quincy Adams won the presidency despite losing the popular vote and the electoral vote.

However, he lost his reelection bid in 1828 to Andrew Jackson, who managed to earn more than twice the number of electoral votes as Quincy Adams.

Rutherford B. Hayes (1876)

The 1876 election was one of the most controversial elections in United States history.

Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican) ran against Samuel Tilden (Democrat). Tilden won the popular vote with 4,300,590 votes to Hayes’ 4,036,298 votes. He even led in the Electoral College with 184 votes to Hayes’ 165.

But there were allegations of widespread voter fraud.

There were twenty uncounted votes. Nineteen of those votes came from three Republican states and were disputed. And one of the electors in Oregon was deemed illegal, thus voiding that vote.

This forced Congress to create an electoral commission — comprised of 15 congressmen and Supreme Court justices — to determine the winner.

This commission met 15 times over the course of a month before deciding who’d win the presidency. They voted 8-7 in favor of Hayes.

Historians believe that this vote was fixed — that a deal, the Compromise of 1877, was made between the Republicans and Democrats. They believe that the Democrats conceded in exchange for the Republicans agreeing to withdraw federal troops from the South, which would end Reconstruction.

Regardless, Hayes ended up in the White House. Fun fact — the White House was kept alcohol-free for the duration of Hayes’ tenure.

Benjamin Harrison (1888)

This election was Grover Cleveland’s reelection run. He didn’t run a strong campaign, and his pension policies and current and tariff reforms made enemies.

Despite that, Cleveland won the popular vote. He had 5,540,309 votes — 100,000 more than Benjamin Harrison, who had 5,439,853 votes.

Yet Harrison won the electoral college because he garnered 233 electoral votes to Cleveland’s 168 votes.

What’s interesting to me about this election is that there are many states that voted for a specific party that’s unlike who they vote for today.

For example, Texas is a Republican state in 2020. However, it was Democratic back then. California is a deep-seated Democratic state today, whereas in 1888, it was a Republican state. The same goes for New York and Illinois — both are moderately to extremely Democratic today, whereas, back then, they were Republican.

And while Grover Cleveland lost his reelection bid in 1888, he ran again and won during the next (1892) election. He ran against Harrison and beat him this time.

Cleveland is the only president in history to serve two separate terms as president instead of back-to-back terms.

George W. Bush (2000)

This election was between George W. Bush (son of 41st president of the United States, George H.W. Bush) and Al Gore.

George W. Bush won by the skin of his teeth.

Al Gore won the popular vote. He had 50,999,897 votes compared to Bush’s 50,456,002 votes. But Bush won the electoral college with 271 votes compared to Gore’s 266 votes.

This election came down to one state — Florida. Many networks projected Gore the winner but later stated that Bush took a huge lead.

Hearing this, Gore called Bush to concede. But early the next morning, Gore’s camp realized that the numbers were much closer than they realized. Less than 600 votes separated the candidates.

Gore called Bush in the middle of the night to retract his concession.

The numbers were so close that the state law required a mandatory recount.

The machine count was done by November 10th, and it showed that Bush led Gore by a mere 327 votes (out of more than six million).

By late November, the state board determined that Bush was the winner by 537 votes. However, there were legal battles in the background regarding the hand recounts, over and undervotes, and more.

So, the Florida state Supreme Court decided to do a manual recount of the 45,000 undervotes.

However, three days later, the court determined that the state could not do a recount before the deadline, so they issued a (controversial) decision to reverse the recount order. This gave the win to Bush.

Many people didn’t agree with this decision. It was the first time since 1888 that the president-elect won the presidency without winning the popular vote.

But it wouldn’t be 112 years before we saw it happen again.

Donald Trump (2016)

This was a historic election.

For one thing, Hillary Clinton was the first woman to run for president. And she would’ve been the first female president had she won.

Donald Trump was one of only a few candidates in history to have zero political experience. This was on top of him winning the election despite losing the popular vote — one of only five presidents to do so.

The margins for how much the candidates won the Electoral College and popular vote by are by far the largest in this list, too.

Take the popular vote, for example. Clinton received 65,853,514 votes to Trump’s 62,984,828 votes. She earned 2,868,686 more votes than Trump did.

However, in the Electoral College, Trump received 306 votes, whereas Clinton received only 227.

Trump pulled his victory off by winning several swing states such as Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

This election was interesting for reasons other than Trump winning, too. For example, both candidates were some of the most unpopular candidates in recent memory — at least 10 election cycles.

Trump brought a lot of controversy with him, too, specifically racist and sexist comments and actions. Despite this, Trump got enough support to win the Electoral College.

Clinton wasn’t an angel either, between her email server scandal, her investing issues from years prior, and just her attitude overall. Many people simply didn’t like her.

Ultimately, Trump made history in more ways than one. For our purposes here, he became one of only a handful of presidents to have won the White House without being popular with the people.

It’s for this reason and many others that many people support abolishing the Electoral College. However, since the college works so well and was put in place for a reason, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

There you have it — those are the five presidents who won the election without winning the popular vote.

I hope by now it’s clear how it’s possible for a candidate to win the presidency while losing the popular vote.

It doesn’t happen often (which is important to remember), but when it does, it’s always close…and almost always riddled with controversy.

I don’t anticipate the 2020 election being any different. There’s every chance Trump can lose the popular vote and still get reelected.

We’ll see what happens.

Electoral College FAQ

Our political system is confusing to anyone who hasn’t studied it. This includes the basics, such as what the Electoral College is and how it works.

This leads to a lot of questions.

  • Why do we have the Electoral College?
  • How is it possible for the popular vote to lose the presidency?
  • Should we abolish the Electoral College?
  • And more…

I answered many of these questions above. However, there are many others that I couldn’t get to, so I answered them below. Understanding all this can be very useful when betting on presidential elections.

Why do we use the Electoral College?

The Electoral College (process) was created to provide some balance to the voting process. The Founding Fathers didn’t want the vote to be entirely in the public’s hands, as they believed that many people back then weren’t politically savvy or knowledgeable about the issues.

They also didn’t want a “headstrong democratic mob” steering the country. A president who appealed to the people could garner a potentially dangerous amount of power.

Why not get rid of the Electoral College?

What would we replace it with? Again, going back to the reason the Founding Fathers created this process, it’s necessary to prevent putting too much power into the public’s hands.

It’s also important to have the Electoral College because it gives a voice to people who live in small cities or rural areas as opposed to larger cities having all the pull. This forces candidates to get out and campaign everywhere so that they can earn the electoral votes they need to win.

Another important thing to think about is that the goal is for the candidate to receive the majority of support. And if we look at history, say the 1992 election as one example, that doesn’t always happen. Clinton only got 43% of the popular votes but the majority of electoral votes.

If we used a popular vote system only, we’d get a lot of candidates who’d have only a little support instead of the overwhelming majority we want them to have.

Did Trump win the popular vote in 2016?

Trump DID NOT win the popular vote — Hillary Clinton did by nearly 3 million votes.

However, Trump DID WIN the right combination of states to secure 304 electoral votes, 34 more votes than he needed to win the election, and 77 more than Clinton.

How many votes did Trump win by?

Trump won 77 more electoral votes than Clinton.

He lost the popular vote by 2,868,686.

Did Abraham Lincoln win the popular vote?

Abraham Lincoln did win the popular vote. Here’s how the votes were distributed.

  • Abraham Lincoln: 1,865,908
  • Stephen A. Douglas: 1,380,202
  • John C. Breckinridge: 848,019
  • John Bell: 590,901

Lincoln garnered 39.8% of the popular vote and 180 electoral votes to win the 1860 presidential election.

Did Obama win the popular vote?

Obama won the popular vote in 2008 by a huge margin. Obama received 69,498,516 votes to McCain’s 59,948,323 votes, beating him by 9,550,193 votes.

He also beat McCain by a large margin in the Electoral College — 365 to 173.

Obama’s 2012 election was closer, but he won the popular vote and Electoral College, nonetheless. He won the popular vote with 65,915,795 votes and 332 electoral votes to Romney’s 60,933,504 popular votes and 206 electoral votes.

What does it mean to win the popular vote?

It means that you garnered more of the votes cast by the American public than your competitor did.

Using the 2008 campaign as an example, Obama won the popular vote when he beat Romney by nearly 5 million (popular) votes.

What is the difference between winner-takes-all and proportional voting?

Most US states use a winner-takes-all approach. This means that whoever wins that state wins all of that state’s electoral votes.

There are two states who don’t use the winner takes all approach — Nebraska and Maine. Their electoral votes are distributed based on which districts each candidate wins.

What happens if no candidate receives 270 electoral votes?

If no candidate receives 270 electoral votes, then it’ll be up to the House to determine who the president will be.

The House will choose from the top three candidates based on popular vote. Every state delegation will receive one vote.

Which candidates won the popular vote but lost the election?

The following presidential candidates won the popular vote but lost the election.

  • Hillary Clinton
  • Al Gore
  • Grover Cleveland
  • Samuel Tilden
  • Andrew Jackson

What’s the point of voting if the Electoral College determines who wins?

It’s important to vote because the popular vote in each state determines which candidate will receive that state’s electoral votes.

This is arguably less important in states that are Democrat or Republican. However, in swing states, every vote matters, as the margins the winning candidate wins by is usually razor thin.

What are some criticisms of the Electoral College?

There are several criticisms of the Electoral College.

  • It favors Republicans
  • Less attention is paid to states that historically vote for one party
  • It’s undemocratic — every vote doesn’t matter or have a voice
  • The loser of the popular vote can still win the presidency
  • It’s possible to have a tie (269-269). However, this has never happened

It’s tough to say if abolishing the Electoral College and using only the popular vote would be any better, though.

How many electoral votes does each state have?

There’s a total of 538 electoral votes. The following shows how many electoral votes each state has.

  • 55 – California
  • 38 – Texas
  • 29 – Florida, New York
  • 20 – Illinois, Pennsylvania
  • 18 – Ohio
  • 16 – Georgia, Michigan
  • 15 – North Carolina
  • 14 – New Jersey
  • 13 – Virginia
  • 12 – Washington
  • 11 – Arizona, Indiana, Massachusetts, Tennessee
  • 10 – Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin
  • 9 – Alabama, Colorado, South Carolina
  • 8 – Kentucky, Louisiana
  • 7 – Connecticut, Oklahoma, Oregon
  • 6 – Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Nevada, Utah
  • 5 – Nebraska, New Mexico, West Virginia
  • 4 – Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island
  • 3 – Alaska, Delaware, District of Columbia, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming

Why do people believe the popular vote is better?

A 2019 poll shows that voters prefer to elect the president by a national, popular vote instead of using the Electoral College.

There are a few reasons why.

  • They believe the popular vote is more democratic. It gives every vote a voice. Every vote will truly count. It gets rid of the winner-takes-all approach
  • There’s less focus on swing states, which are states that can vote red or blue. Candidates focus a lot of time here and less time on states they know will vote a specific way. The popular vote will force them to spend more time in areas that are less important to them today
  • With the Electoral College, some states have more voting power than others. The popular vote would get rid of that

There are several benefits to using the popular vote instead of the Electoral College. Whether those benefits outweigh the downsides is a different topic altogether.

Why is the popular vote important?

When you break it down on a state-by-state level, the popular vote is important because it determines who the winner of the state and electoral votes is.

Zoomed out, it tells you who the public wants to see in office.

Do electors have to vote the way their state votes?

They’re supposed to. However, there are “faithless electors” — electors who opt to vote for someone else or not at all.

A few states have consequences for faithless electors (usually a fine). However, most states don’t. All they do is cancel the elector’s vote and replace him or her instead.

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