“Imagine that, four years ago, Donald Trump lost the presidential election by 2.9 million votes, but there was no Electoral College to weight the results in his favor. In January 2017, Hillary Clinton was inaugurated as president, and the Trumpist faction of the GOP was blamed for blowing an election Republicans could have won.
The GOP would have been locked out of presidential power for three straight terms, after winning the crucial popular vote only once since 1988. It might have lost the Supreme Court, too.
And so Republicans would likely have done what Democrats did in 1992, after they lost three straight presidential elections: reform their agenda and their messaging, and try to build a broader coalition, one capable of winning power by winning votes. This is the way democracy disciplines political parties: Parties want to win, and to do so, they need to listen to the public. But that’s only true for one of our political parties.
Take the most recent election. Joe Biden is on track to beat Donald Trump by around 5 million votes. But as my colleague Andrew Prokop notes, a roughly 50,000-vote swing in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin would have created a 269-269 tie in the Electoral College, tossing the election to the state delegations in the House, where Trump would’ve won because Republicans control more states, though not more seats. Trump didn’t almost win reelection because of polarization. He almost won reelection because of the Electoral College.”
“The simplest way to understand American politics right now is that we have a two-party system set up to create a center-left political coalition and a far-right political coalition.
Two reinforcing features of our political system have converged to create that result. First, the system weights the votes of small states and rural areas more heavily. Second, elections are administered, and House districts drawn, by partisan politicians.
Over the past few decades, our politics has become sharply divided by density, with Democrats dominating cities and Republicans dominating rural areas. That’s given Republicans an electoral advantage, which they’ve in turn used to stack electoral rules in their favor through aggressive gerrymandering, favorable Supreme Court decisions, and more. As a result, Democrats and Republicans are operating in what are, functionally, different electoral systems, with very different incentives.”
“To reliably win the Electoral College, Democrats need to win the popular vote by 3 or 4 percentage points. To reliably win the Senate, they need to run 6 to 7 points ahead of Republicans. To reliably win the House, they need to win the vote by 3 or 4 points. As such, Democrats need to consciously strategize to appeal to voters who do not naturally agree with them. That’s how they ended up with Joe Biden as their nominee.”
“For Republicans, the incentives are exactly the reverse. They can win the presidency despite getting fewer votes. They can win the Senate despite getting fewer votes. They can win the House despite getting fewer votes. They can control the balance of state legislatures despite getting fewer votes.”
“If Republicans were more worried about winning back some of Biden’s voters rather than placating Trump’s base, they wouldn’t be indulging his post-election tantrum. It would be offensive to the voters they’re losing, and whom they’ll need in the future. But they’re not, and so they have aligned themselves with Trump’s claims of theft — with profoundly dangerous consequences for America.
Trump is not in the White House, refusing to accept the results of the election, because America is polarized. He is there because of the Electoral College. Mitch McConnell is not favored to remain Senate majority leader because America is polarized. He is favored to remain Senate majority leader because the Senate is the most undemocratic legislative chamber in the Western world, and the only way Republicans seem to lose control is to lose successive landslide elections, as happened in 2006 and 2008.
In politics, as in any competition, the teams adopt the strategies the rules demand. America’s political parties are adopting the strategies that their very different electoral positions demand. That has made the Democratic Party a big-tent, center-left coalition that puts an emphasis on pluralistic outreach. And it has let the Republican Party adopt more extreme candidates, dangerous strategies, and unpopular agendas, because it can win most elections even while it’s losing most voters.”