In 2016, Donald Trump won the US presidential election with only 46.1% of the popular vote (compared to 48.2% for Hillary Clinton). He’s the fifth President to win the election without a majority popular vote, all possible because the electoral college fudges how much votes are worth.
How small of a popular vote could the President get, and still win? Some say 22% – but I say 15% or lower. Here’s how.
The Craziest Election Ever
It’s 2016. The election looks very lopsided – the candidate for the Orange Party, Poppy U. Larr, is polling at 55% or higher in every single state. Meanwhile, the Purple Party candidate, Livin D. Country, can’t get a single supporter in the bigger states, and only polls at 37% in all of the small states. What can he possibly do to win?
A third party
Enter a third party: the Gray Party. Upset with Larr’s ideas about deporting everyone with the last name Rumpelstiltskin, they nominate the popular, orange-leaning Reef Ormer as a third option for voters to choose from.
Ormer, who campaigns about giving every family a free microwave, quickly climbs the polls, making much more of a splash than any other third party in history. He soon garners about 35% in polls in most states. By Election Day on November 6th, nobody knows what will happen.
Messed up voter turnout
Usually voter turnout is around 50-60%, but in this election, the small states (every state with a population smaller than North Carolina’s) are so sick of hearing about Ormer, Larr and Country that voter turnout falls to 40% for each small state. Each small state votes 37% for Country, but Ormer splits the Orange Party, taking 31% of each small state’s vote while Larr gets only 32%.
Meanwhile, the big states, energized by the fight between Larr and Ormer, see a fairly high voter turnout of 70%. Larr wins all of them 51% to 49%.
On election night, depressed Ormer supporters watch as state after state goes to Country and Larr. After it’s all over, Ormer hasn’t won a single state – despite having 41% of the popular vote.
Larr, on the other hand, only won a few big states – North Carolina, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, and California. The electoral votes for these states add up to 228, which isn’t quite enough to get the 270 majority, even though she had 43% of the popular vote.
Country sweeps all the other states. Even though he didn’t have a majority in any state, he had more votes than either Larr or Ormer, and so he wins every small state from New Jersey down to Wyoming. He ends up with 282 electoral votes, enough to win the Presidential election – and he’s only got 15% of the popular vote.
Here’s what the electoral map looks like:
There will be no deporting of Rumpelstiltskins or free microwaves, and President Livin D. Country begins his first term in January 2017 with a catastrophic approval rating of 15%, the lowest of any President in history.
Of course, this won’t actually happen.
The US has never even gotten close to this scenario, and it’s very unlikely that this sort of thing would happen. But it’s fun, and a little scary, to think about.
And actually, some parts of this story aren’t unheard of. In 2016, for example, XXX states were won with less than 50% of the vote – Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Wisconsin all went to Trump, and Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Virginia all went to Clinton. The lowest overall were Minnesota (46.44% for Clinton) and Utah (45.54% for Trump).
These kinds of situations are why people worry about the electoral system. It turns the election into a game of who-can-get-the-biggest-prize rather than a real democratic election process.
Try this yourself
Here’s the spreadsheet I used to make these calculations:
It’s set up to calculate the electoral college and popular vote for any numbers you change, so you can mess around with it to see what happens.
I stayed fairly realistic with my numbers, but if you go more extreme you could make Country’s popular vote pretty dang low. I got it down to 1% just by playing with voter turnout.
For more reading about the electoral college, check out my post about how much your vote counts.