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The Case For a Demagogue

Earlier this week, I made the case against a demagogue. On Tuesday, the electorate made the opposite argument. The demagogue won.

Electoral Vote

Popular Vote

Source: Cook Political Report

Donald Trump won the states he needed to put him over the top, and may end up winning 306 to 232 electoral votes. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a few hundred thousand (Update: by 2.8 million). While the electoral vote sends the president to office, the popular vote has a significance that is often ignored by a new administration and Congress.

An electoral/popular vote split last occurred in 2000 when George W. Bush won against Al Gore. Our country has been split pretty evenly for years. The numbers for and against the winner of each election are often closer than you might think:

Popular Vote %
Past Fifteen Elections, 1960-2016

Sources: Cook Political Report, Wikipedia, Cornell University, FEC

Presidents typically win slim majorities. In recent years, convincing even half the population to support a candidate has been tough:

  • The 2016 election was the second of the last five in which the winner won while losing the popular vote (Bush #43 in 2000 was the other), and only the fourth in U.S. history 1.
  • Trump’s share of the popular vote was near historic lows at just 47.7%. Only Nixon in 1968 (43.4%) and Clinton in 1992 (43%) were lower.
  • In six of the past fifteen elections, the winner received less than 50% of the popular vote.
  • In the past eight elections, going back to Bush #41 in 1988, no one has received more than 53.4% of the popular vote.
  • In the past fifteen elections, only three winners got more than 53.4% of the popular vote, with Lyndon Johnson in 1964 getting the highest percentage in history (over 61%), followed by the second terms of Nixon and Reagan.

Note that the three “landslides” in the past 56 years (Reagan in 1984, Nixon in 1972, and Johnson in 1964) all had a winning margin within two points of 60%. Even having merely 40% of voters opposed to your presidency – a best-case scenario – is still a significant number.

There is a lot of talk about unity right now. So what should we expect?

Getting roughly half the popular vote or less should be the first thing a new president considers if he is concerned about uniting the country, especially if he has any sense of humility (though I suppose most politicians don’t have much of that). If I were the president-elect in this scenario (a completely different concern for everyone!), I would probably realize that one of my objectives would be winning over, to some extent, those that did not support me. That’s not because I would want to be “likable,” but because I would see it as an obligation to work for the concerns of all. Though I would certainly make some decisions that would not be popular with one constituency or another, my hope would be that the group that had opposed me would at least see my efforts as honest and fair.

In that spirit, I believe all leaders should “govern from the middle”, identify issues in which both sides have a stake, and build consensus to solve those problems. Instead, new presidents typically rationalize that the team that won gets to do what it wants.

One example of this is from President Obama’s first term. While he deserves credit for several things (such as the role he played in successfully combatting the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression), I believe he made a significant mistake during his first two years in office.

In 2009 and 2010, Democrats had control of the House and Senate. It was a historic chance to unify the country. But they overreached with the Affordable Care Act. A consensus-driven approach might have worked to pass a few of the major pieces of that law, such as a ban on denying coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, or the ability for anyone to get catastrophic coverage. These were among the parts of that law that conservatives would have likely supported as much as liberals, and passing just those pieces might have been a great start. Instead, Obama led the Democrats in enacting sweeping health care legislation while mostly ignoring the outcry from opponents.

“Obamacare” was deeply unpopular with conservatives, and Democrats paid dearly for it. It galvanized the right during the 2010 elections, launched the Tea Party, and gave the political right control of both houses of Congress. Conservatives remained ignited by this for years and were able to stretch this sentiment into a wider narrative about “big government,” weaving it all into something that at times resembles mythology, mixing shards of truth with some eye-opening embellishment.

That backlash persisted for the rest of Obama’s tenure. It was the catalyst for the movement that has now put Donald Trump into the White House.

Maybe Trump will break the endless cycle of winner-take-all-and-loser-be-damned by showing restraint and focusing on a common set of concerns shared by both conservatives and liberals. Despite his campaign rhetoric, it would be fair to give him that chance, rather than anticipate that his administration will act as though it has a clear mandate to make sweeping changes that many in the majority who voted against him will oppose.

So, will conservatives push their agenda hard in the face of majority opposition? Or, will the outright loss in the popular vote tally concern the new administration and prompt Trump to seek consensus in any meaningful way? We will soon find out, but the initial indications are not promising.

If conservatives ignore popular opinion and move ahead with a contentious governing agenda, the opposition will throw its weight down hard. We may remain stuck in a cycle of bitterness, with unity eluding us for another four years.

Big league.

  1. From Pew Research: In the 1824 election, which was contested between rival factions of the same party, Andrew Jackson won a plurality of the popular and electoral vote, but because he was short of an Electoral College majority the election was thrown to the House of Representatives, which chose runner-up John Quincy Adams. Some sources refer to this as the fifth time the winner did not get a plurality of the popular vote, but for the purpose of this blog post, I consider this a special case since Congress intervened to pick the candidate. ↩︎

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