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4 November 2020updated 28 Aug 2021 9:42pm

How Donald Trump’s loss of the popular vote could signal a longer term gain

The Republican candidate has continued a long-running losing trend – but expanded the party's minority vote.

By Ido Vock

The final results of the presidential election are still uncertain. Still, one thing is clear at time of writing on Wednesday 4 November: Biden has already won more votes than any candidate for president in the history of the US, with millions more still to be counted. And Donald Trump has almost certainly lost the popular vote. Again.

Whether Biden or Trump is eventually inaugurated, the 2020 election is the latest incarnation of a grim trend in American politics: Republican minoritarianism. Trump is likely the seventh Republican candidate for president to lose the popular vote, in what is now eight elections. (The last Republican to win more votes than his opponent was George W Bush, when he was running for re-election in 2004.)

The Republican Party can run closely fought elections, and even win, without coming close to winning a majority of votes. They can do this because of the Electoral College process. Under this system, people vote for a slate of electors, who in turn vote in the President. But this process grants vastly more influence to voters in small, political bellwether states than in larger, more reliably partisan ones. In addition, electors are almost all winner-takes-all – meaning that a tiny margin of thousands of voters in a handful of swing states decide elections.


After all, were this election a straight contest based on the number of votes, Biden would have walked it. He appears on track to win the popular vote by at least 5 per cent.

And the principle of Republican minoritarianism also goes for the Senate. It is estimated that the previous Senate majority of three seats was elected by around 14 million fewer votes than the Democratic minority. Each state is granted two Senators, and therefore voters in smaller states, which lean Republican, have more influence for fewer votes.

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Will the Republicans ever be able to win an election again without leaning on the arcane institution of the Electoral College? Against all received wisdom, there are ironically signs that Trump is making progress on that issue.


Although the incumbent is more than two million votes behind, compared to the 2016 election results he appears to have made progress among most ethnic groups. Crucially, he made significant inroads with Cuban-American voters, which delivered Florida to Trump where Biden was hoping that it would turn blue, exit polls show. (Though the picture is more nuanced in states like heavily Hispanic Arizona, which went to Biden.)

This flies in the face of popular wisdom about Trump. The standard view has had it that as the US becomes less white, it will become more liberal – though this was already being noted as problematic before the election, as Ben Walker wrote. Trump should put off non-white voters more than any other president in recent history, given his long history of racist statements, yet according to exit polling, he is growing more popular with minority voters, which are increasing as a share of the US population. (Even though his strongest – and angriest – support base remains white men).

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For Democrats, this raises difficult questions about their future appeal, regardless of whether they can console themselves with having won the popular vote this time. They can no longer take an essentialist view of politics which sometimes assumed that the minority vote would necessarily lean heavily towards the Democrats. Exit polls can be inaccurate, as was shown in 2016 when they overestimated the proportion of white women who voted for Trump, though they give a decent initial indication of the general picture.

Trump’s attacks on democratic institutions and casting of results unfavourable to him as “fraud” disguise a genuine achievement: despite all the polling, he is currently within a hair’s width, just a few hundred thousand votes, of winning the election legitimately. The Democratic landslide Biden was hoping for is nowhere to be seen.

Perhaps, in casting doubt on the results and preparing for a protracted battle in the courts, Trump will end up snatching the presidency. The irony is that, though Trump has decided to lie and call foul to retain the presidency, his expanded base might be such that he almost didn’t need to do so to win.