Regular readers will not be surprised to know that I have spent a significant amount of time in the last two months analysing the US presidential elections last year. The more time I spend, the more I realise how hopelessly inadequate every piece of analysis I have read has been in Australian newspapers over that period. I think I can do better - so here goes.

For Barack Obama’s second term win, the dates were Tuesday 6 November 2012 for the popular vote and Monday 17 December 2012 for the electoral college vote. For Donald Trump’s win, the dates were Tuesday 8 November 2016 for the popular vote and Monday 19 December 2016 for the electoral vote. Candidates from the Democratic Party won both popular votes.

In 2012, they were 65,915,796 for Obama (51.06%), 60,933,500 (47.20%) for Republican Mitt Romney and 2,236,178 (1.74%) for all others combined.

In 2016, they were 65,834,793 (48.31%) for Hillary Clinton, 62,946,472 (47.19%) for Republican Donald Trump and 7,508,332 (5.50%) for all others combined. The 2012 statistics are absolutely final, while those for 2016 are 99.9% final.

Source: AAP

The American people do not elect their president

Of course, the American people do not elect their president – they merely participate in the choice of presidential electors. For that reason, these events should be seen strictly in two-candidate terms. Consequently, I say (and every academic analyst agrees) that in 2012, there were 2,236,178 votes thrown straight into the rubbish bin and 7,508,332 in 2016. Therefore, the Obama vote in two-candidate terms was 51.96% and 51.12% for Clinton. Thus, in 2016 the popular vote swing to the Republican Party was a miserable 0.84%.

The electoral votes

However, here are the electoral votes won by the four candidates. In 2012, Obama won 332, while in 2016 Clinton won 232. In 2012, Romney won 206, while in 2016, Trump won 306.

Exactly a hundred votes transferred from one party to the other resulted from such a miserable popular vote swing! Note that both elections sum up to 538 votes in all. From these statistics, I draw three conclusions. The first is that this is a truly horrible system. Second, Clinton was incredibly, repeat incredibly, unlucky. Third, Trump was very good at gaming the system.

Back in the days when I taught American Politics to university students, I used to defend this system in the way I still defend the Australian constitutional monarchy. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I should have known better. After all, I knew that in 2000, the equivalent popular votes were 50,992,335 (50.26%) for Al Gore, while there were 50,455,156 (49.74%) for George Walker Bush. But, of course, that was universally recognised to be a very, very close election. By contrast, 2016 was not close, either in the popular vote (won easily by Clinton) or in the Electoral College, which Trump and his supporters claim to have been a landslide vindication for him and a mandate for all his policies.

The defence I used to give was that the system favoured the big states and, for a variety of reasons, that was a good thing. So, in doing my analysis for 2016, I began with the six most populous states. Here they are in rank order, giving the electoral votes for each:

1. California: 55

2. Texas: 38

3. New York: 29

4. Florida: 29

5. Illinois: 20

6. Pennsylvania: 20

That adds up to 191 of the 538 votes. Obama lost Texas, but won the others, so his electoral vote in these states was 153 while that for Romney was 38.

In 2016, Clinton’s vote improved on that of Obama in California, New York and Illinois, making them even more solidly Democratic. She also improved on Obama’s vote in Texas, turning it from very solidly Republican in 2012 to very competitive for the Democratic Party today. At the same time, Florida and Pennsylvania flipped over from very narrowly Democratic in 2012, to very narrowly Republican in 2016. So, at this election, Clinton won only 104 votes from these states, while Trump won 87.

The interesting exercise is to add up the two-candidate popular votes in these six states. For 2012, they were 25,895,692 for Obama (55.36%) and 20,879.329 for Romney (44.64%). In 2016, they were 27,644,992 for Clinton (56.03%) and 21,693,564 for Trump (43.97%). So, there was a popular vote swing to Clinton of 0.67% in the six biggest states combined.

Why the Trump win is not like Brexit

Many commentators are seeing a likeness between Trump and Brexit. I could not disagree more. I do admit that, if I had been British, I would have voted Remain, as did my sister, two sons and daughter-in-law. However, I am quite glad Brexit won. It won fair and square with a 52-48 popular vote win over Remain. That is British democracy for you. I approve of British democracy which is majoritarian in concept and I approve of the way Theresa May is implementing the will of the British people. To that extent I have revised my opinion on this website of November 17 “Brexit and The Donald: both big mistakes? 

Source: AAP

My main thought on the anachronistic American system is that it is supposed to be semi-democratic, and it is that. It is also based on the theory of checks and balances. Yet, for the next four years, it will have the Republican Party running all four branches of government. In the case of the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, that will be so because they will be rigged that way. In the case of the Senate and the President, that will be so because the Founding Fathers substantially made the decisions on the rules in 1787. In practice, therefore, the “majority” party, Republican, will dominate over the “minority” party, Democratic. The checks and balances will operate in one direction only, and not according to the theory that “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition” (James Madison in the “Federalist Papers”, 1788). So much for political theory! 

Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University.