How Hillary Clinton Won the Popular Vote But Lost the Election

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Hillary Clinton photographed at Riverfront Sports athletic facility on Aug. 15, 2016 in Scranton, Pa. 

Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton last night (Nov. 8) to become the 45th President of the United States. The man who will be sworn into office on Jan. 20, 2017 was picked to lose in almost every mainstream projection, leading up to the shocking news that he not only won, but soundly defeated Clinton. Presidential elections are decided by capturing the majority of the United States’ 538 electoral votes; at publication time, Trump led Clinton 279 to 218, thus topping the 270 needed for said majority.

But what does that all mean? You might be hearing a lot of talk about how Clinton actually won the popular vote. At publication time, she indeed led Trump by about 175,000 votes, according to the Associated Press. As Clinton-friendly West Coast votes continue to be counted, that margin figures to increase. So if more people voted for Clinton, why did Trump win the election? 

This is where the United States Electoral College comes in. It’s been in place since the Constitution was first drawn up and, ideally, it’s supposed to protect against a lot of perceived problems that would come from a straight-up popular vote. Each state is given a share of the United States’ 538 electoral votes based off its population, with totals ranging from California’s 55 to a number of states with only three.

This might seem like a wide margin, but in the big picture, it supposedly levels the playing field for sparsely-populated states like Wyoming and North Dakota, which could see even less national attention if their less-than-a-million populations were siphoned into the United States’ 300 million-plus electorate. The country is undoubtedly a melting pot of social groups, and by giving a unique say to each state, the Electoral College is supposed to foster individual interests that would be swallowed up in a winner-take-all affair. 

Back to Clinton and Trump -- Hillary won more votes overall, but a multitude of them came from the same few states, like California and New York. Regardless of how decisively you win them, you can only win them one time, and there’s a set amount of electoral votes you earn. Trump’s grand total of votes was spread more evenly throughout the country and he won many more states, albeit often by a slim margin. 

What about third parties? Despite some comparatively strong showings, they haven’t won a single electoral vote in a Presidential election since 1968, and one criticism of the Electoral College is that it’s too tough on third party challengers to the Republicans and Democrats. So far this year, the entire field (including the Green Party’s Jill Stein and the Libertarians’ Gary Johnson) have combined for about six million votes over all 50 states. You might hear some complaining about how they spoiled the race for Clinton. This is possible in some states, though extremely difficult to assess nationally, since it forces guesswork on which mainstream candidate these voters would otherwise support. Pinning Clinton’s loss on third-party voting -- in light of this year’s electoral map -- is quite a stretch.

Potentially, this would be the fifth time a candidate has won the popular vote but failed to win the election. Clinton’s most recent company is fellow Democrat Al Gore, whose supporters outvoted George W. Bush’s in 2000, but narrowly lost the electoral vote via the highly-contested state of Florida. Low voter turnout has often been tied to such elections and indeed, that factor has also come into play this year: When Trump’s final count is tallied, it’s possible he’ll have earned fewer popular votes than John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, his two Republican predecessors, both of whom lost to Barack Obama.

To win this year, Trump didn’t necessarily win the most votes, but he won the most votes in the right places. Under the Electoral College, that’s what matters. 

Plus, Zara Larsson on Trump's Election: 'It Was Supposed to Be a Joke, It Was Not Supposed to Happen'