With all the attention given to the ups and downs of the presidential contenders for an election which is “only” 11 months away, what can get overlooked is the most important question: will the majority rule in America come January 2021?
By wide margins, America doesn’t like Trump. Other than a one-week honeymoon around his inauguration, throughout his presidency more Americans have disapproved of Trump than approved, usually by wide margins, according to polling averages compiled by Real Clear Politics (FiveThirtyEight has similar data). The gap is more pronounced considering depth of feeling: 42% strongly disapprove compared to 26% who strongly approve (Nov 24–26 YouGov poll, p. 347).
Most polls show Trump losing to any Democrat. An October 2019 ABC News/Washington Post poll, rated A+ by FiveThirtyEight.com, found that all the leading Democrats were ahead of Trump by 9 to 17 percentage points.
So in a democracy, the preferences of the majority should prevail, and Trump basically has no chance of winning, right? Well, not quite. In America, the majority does not always rule — and it certainly has not recently.
The Majority was Thwarted in 2016 and 2018
In 2016, Trump had 2.9 million fewer votes than Clinton but was nevertheless awarded more electors and thus the presidency. I should point out, since Americans often do not recognize this distinction, that the person with the most votes does not necessarily have a majority: the winning candidate had the most votes but less than a majority in 19 presidential elections, and in another five elections, including Trump’s, the winner did not even have the most votes. A majority of Americans would like to get rid of the electoral college. That has been true for decades, although support has decreased since 1968, when there was a significant chance the system would work as the Founders intended: giving the final decision to the House, voting by state. At that time, 80% favored scrapping the electoral college.
Trump won because of the way most states award their electoral votes: giving all the electors to the candidate who has the most votes in the state. If states allocated electors proportionally, or used ranked choice voting to insure that candidates have majority support, it is likely that Trump would not have been chosen. Although the Constitution enables this democracy defect, it does not require it.
In November 2018, a majority of voters chose Democrats for both the House and the Senate. But that was not enough for the party to take control of Congress. Even if the Democrats had picked up four more Senators, Trump surely would have vetoed any legislation passed by the majority.
The House, which currently reflects the majority’s preferences, adopted articles of impeachment of the President in December 2019. Unfortunately, the preference of at least a plurality of voters to remove President Trump will likely be thwarted not only by the unrepresentative Senate but by the supermajority required for conviction. Even if, by some miracle, the Senate votes to convict and remove the President, it would replace him with the Republican Vice President. In the short run, there would be no difference in political control, although it would prevent Trump from seeking re-election.
What about 2020?
Although Trump is deeply unpopular nationally, the election rules effectively give the decision to voters in a handful of swing states. Polling expert David Wasserman shows that in 2020, Trump could win the presidency with 5 million fewer votes than his opponent. Even record-breaking participation of Democratic voters, as in 2018 and 2019, may not be enough to beat Trump, since many of the additional votes would come in states where they are not needed.
Almost one-third of Republican-leaning voters would prefer a candidate other than Trump (ABC News/Washington Post poll). But they won’t get that opportunity. Some prominent Republicans are actively seeking Trump’s defeat — but not by putting up a conservative alternative. With the incumbent’s advantage, and the complete takeover / capitulation of the Republican Party, Trump is certain to win the nomination. Voters who don’t like Democrats, or who disapprove of the candidate who is eventually chosen as their nominee, have no other feasible alternative. This forced binary choice makes it less likely that the winner will reflect the values of the median voter, even apart from the distortions of the electoral college rules.
There are many Democratic choices, but the dysfunctional non-system for selecting the nominee means that the winner may not be the one who commands the most support among the majority of voters who disapprove of Trump. The Democratic nominee will be the candidate who appeals to Democratic primary voters, a distinct minority of the electorate given typical primary election turnout. Moreover, the selection of the nominee will be conditioned by such idiosyncrasies as the order of states voting, media coverage of performance vs. expectations, delegate selection rules, and likely convention voting rules, given the probability that no Democrat will win a majority of elected delegates.
The Presidency is Not Enough
A Democratic victory in the presidential election would not be sufficient to empower the anti-Trump majority. The Democrats would also have to keep their majority in the U.S. House and have a net gain of three seats in the U.S. Senate. The first seems likely, given that House elections are more responsive to voter preferences. Court-ordered redistricting to counteract a Republican gerrymander in Pennsylvania contributed to the Democrats takeover of the House following the 2018 elections. In October 2019, a court ordered North Carolina to correct its gerrymandered districts, which will likely result in a gain of two seats for the Democrats even without any improvement in their statewide vote.
Winning the Senate will be far more difficult. At least five Republican incumbents look vulnerable, but a few Democratic incumbents are too, notably Doug Jones of Alabama, who is unlikely to reproduce his 2017 low-turnout, special election victory in a heavily Republican state. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is supporting centrist candidates, including some former Republicans, in key states. While this may be a winning strategy, if Democrats achieve a majority, they will likely need every single vote and thus their most right-leaning Senators will effectively have a veto on legislation.
If the Democrats hold the House, win the Presidency, and have a net gain of at least three in the Senate, there is a possibility that they will be able to rule. But only if they use their majority to reform Senate rules, adopt measures to support universal voting and boost turnout in midterm elections (as in H.R. 1), and restructure the Supreme Court. In the longer run, they will likely need to gain an advantage in the Senate the way political parties did in the 19th century: by creating new states. More states could also tip the electoral college balance to the popular vote winner in a close election. Eventually the Democrats will need to find a way to make the president directly elected. But the necessary first step is to win a big enough supermajority in the 2020 elections to enable majority rule.
Read more on my blog, DefectiveDemocracy.