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The Electoral College explained
02:02 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Robert Alexander is a professor of political science and founding director of the Institute for Civics and Public Policy at Ohio Northern University. He is also the author of “Representation and the Electoral College.” Follow him on Twitter: @onuprof. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

With the 2020 election quickly approaching, the Electoral College has emerged as a favorite target of some Democrats who would like to see it abolished in favor of a national popular vote. This is unsurprising, given that the party has endured in recent years a process that yielded two Republican presidents in the past five elections who failed to win the popular vote – President George W. Bush in 2000 and President Donald Trump in 2016.

Despite Joe Biden’s consistent lead in national polls, some Democrats continue to be uneasy that Trump could repeat his win in the Electoral College while again losing the popular vote. Indeed, some election forecasters, including CNN’s Harry Enten, have estimated that Donald Trump could lose the national popular vote by more than 5 million votes and still win the election in the Electoral College.

It is no wonder then, that during the primaries many Democrats took aim at the institution, with Biden being a notable exception.

Robert Alexander

While energy to change the Electoral College is fueled by Democrats today, not too long ago it was Republicans who took issue with it. Ironically, on Election Day 2012, Donald Trump famously tweeted that “the electoral college is a disaster for a democracy” and “this election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!”

He then tweeted a call to action: “Lets fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice! The world is laughing at us.”

Since his election in 2016, Trump has sent mixed messages, both praising the Electoral College and claiming that he would prefer a national popular vote over the current system. The Wall Street Journal reported that he discussed possibly abolishing the Electoral College in a meeting with congressional leaders shortly after taking office only to be dissuaded from pursuing it by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

It turns out that he is not the only prominent Republican to call for a national popular vote. Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush indicated support to abolish the Electoral College in favor of a national popular vote – the latter two voting for an amendment to do so when they were members of the House of Representatives in 1969.

In 2014, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich also called for a national popular vote. And just a year ago, former chair of the Republican National Committee Michael Steele and Saul Anuzis, the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, made the case that Republicans should ditch the Electoral College in favor of a direct popular vote.

After a second convincing Electoral College victory by President Barack Obama in 2012, some were convinced the Electoral College needed to go if Republicans were to be competitive in presidential campaigns.

Conservative columnist Myra Adams pointedly asked in a headline: “Can a Republican Win 270 Electoral Votes in 2016…or Ever?” Other notable headlines and news articles after the 2012 election included these doozies: “Do Democrats have a permanent Electoral College advantage?,” “Why Ditching the Electoral College Would Benefit the GOP,” and “Republicans Want to Reform the Electoral College to Help Themselves.

Stopping short of abolishing the Electoral College, a number of Republicans considered efforts to change how electoral votes were awarded in several key states.

Just months after the 2012 presidential election, Republican lawmakers in Florida, Virginia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio considered whether they should move away from the winner-take-all method of awarding their electoral votes to the district method of awarding their electoral votes, similar to the approach used in Maine and Nebraska.

The overarching rationale was that adopting the district method would guarantee the party Electoral College votes in a number of Republican-leaning congressional districts that they would not be able to rely on if they continued to use the winner-take-all system. Former Republican National Committee Chairman and later Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus endorsed the idea shortly after the 2012 election. Although these efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, they illustrate that laws pertaining to the Electoral College are not necessarily held as sacrosanct by many in the GOP.

Because the Electoral College has often been a lightning rod, it is hard to believe, but there was a time that voters from both parties were in widespread support for a national popular vote. In 1968, a Gallup survey found that 80% of Americans favored abolishing the Electoral College and replacing it with a national popular vote.

Much of this was fueled by the 1968 election, in whi h Richard Nixon narrowly won the presidency with a less than one percent lead over Hubert Humphrey. Concerns over a possible contingency election (where no candidate was able to secure an Electoral College majority) or an election where the winner of the popular vote failed to prevail in the Electoral College (a misfire election) was on the minds of many at the time.

Nixon had reason to oppose the Electoral College; close inspection of the 1960 election reveals that he likely was a victim of a misfire election, winning the popular vote but losing in the Electoral College and the election to John F Kennedy. The election is often overlooked as a misfire because the popular vote totals in Alabama are often wrongly attributed to Kennedy.

That election is rarely grouped among the other misfire elections we have experienced (1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016), but it also represents the only occurrence where a Democrat won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote.

Interestingly, while Democrats had reason to be upset with the Electoral College in 2000, it was the Bush campaign that was preparing to undermine it in the weeks preceding the election. A number of outlets, including the New York Daily News, reported that the Bush team considered how they might challenge a result where he won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College.

They were preparing to run advertisements, draft Democrats to advocate on their behalf and were ready to mount an effort using radio to emphasize the importance of the popular vote and work to delegitimize a potential Gore Electoral College victory. While all of this came to pass, it suggests that outcomes have as much to do with one’s view of the Electoral College as any purported values associated with the institution. If the outcome serves your interest, then all is well. When it doesn’t, then we see major problems.

I suspect that had just over 2% of voters in Ohio changed their minds in 2004, from George W. Bush to John Kerry, Democrats and Republicans would have had very different views of the Electoral College. Had that happened, Kerry would have earned 271 electoral votes and the presidency, even though George W. Bush would have won the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots.

Changes in public opinion reflect this observation. While Gallup surveys have dependably shown that most Americans favor a popular vote, support for the Electoral College actually rose after the 2016 misfire election. This was due to a large increase in support among Republicans. About one in five Republicans supported a popular vote in December of 2016 compared to nearly 50% in 2004.

Currently, nearly a quarter of Republicans support a national popular vote, according to Gallup, as opposed to nearly nine out of 10 Democrats – which is the highest level of support reported among Democrats in two decades.

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    Like so many other things these days, the Electoral College is viewed through a partisan filter. Although Republicans are largely supportive of it today, electoral history suggests that views of the institution change depending on electoral outcomes.

    Indeed, I have made the case that if states such as Texas and Georgia continue to drift toward the Democrats, we could find more Republicans who voice concerns over the Electoral College and more Democrats who would come to embrace the institution. Paraphrasing the old saying, when it comes to the Electoral College, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.