In the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election, Gore won the popular vote by 0.5% and lost the Electoral College vote.

In the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election, Obama won the popular vote by 7% and won the Electoral College vote.

In the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election, Obama won the popular vote by 4% and won the Electoral College vote.

In the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, opinion polls forecasted Clinton win the popular vote by 3–5%. In reality she won by 2% and lost the Electoral College vote.

As of March 2020, nationwide opinion polls give either Sanders or Biden a margin of about 5% over Trump, only marginally more than the 2016 opinion polls just before election day gave Clinton, but more than Obamas 2016 margin.

Is there any rule of thumb by what margin a Democrat de facto needs to win in practice in order to also win the electoral college vote and become President?

  • Probably a duplicate of How likely is it for a Democrat to win the Presidency if he/she gets 52.8% of the (popular) vote?, which was closed as off-topic.
    – Rick Smith
    Mar 4, 2020 at 10:50
  • It's curious that you skip the 2004 election and the 1992 and 1994 elections (The latter two Clinton won a plurality of the popular vote (Republicans George H.W. Bush ('92) and Bob Dole ('96) lost in several states because third party spoiler Ross Perot (both elections) split the voters favoring Republican candidates, but not a majority but did win a majority of the Electoral College). Clinton received ~42% and ~49% of the popular vote in the respective years.
    – hszmv
    Mar 4, 2020 at 15:49
  • @hszmv I focussed on Democratic popular vote wins, because in recent history only Democrats have won popular vote while losing electoral college vote.
    – gerrit
    Mar 4, 2020 at 15:52
  • @gerrit: But by omitting Republican popular wins and plurality wins, you're ignoring data that supports the A. bakker's answer of no corelation. Clinton was a majority popular winner, but he got 270 Electoral votes, so he's President. Additionally, the lose Popular vote win Electoral scenario has happened in five elections out of the the 58 held over the nations 229 year history (from the adoption of the Constitution) and a disputed possible 6th that will probably never be resolved. 91% of the time the PV and EC have had the same person win.
    – hszmv
    Mar 4, 2020 at 16:05
  • @hszmv A. Bakkers answer of no correlation is trivially incorrect. Of course there is a correlation between popular vote and electoral vote, but the correlation is smaller than 1. See also the discussion in chat I've had with A. bakker. 2 of those 5 have happened in the last 20 years, and based on recent polling data, it is possible to simulate a million election results to calculate at what PV margin the likelihood of losing EV is below 2 sigma. This depends on which party is ahead.
    – gerrit
    Mar 4, 2020 at 16:12

1 Answer 1


The popular vote matters nothing concerning the election of the president either Democratic or Republican. What matters is the electoral college which can be won with (seemingly) a minimum of 23% of the votes according to this article. But of course the percentage will change regularly due to population increasing/declining in certain areas.

And when we look for a rule of thumb there doesn't seem to be one seeing John Quincy Adams won the 1824 election with a margin of -10.44% and Warren Harding winning the 1920 election with a margin of 26.17% (and if we only include Democratic presidents the difference in margin is still between 0.17% for JFK in 1960 and FDR in 1936 with a margin of 24.26%)

So simply said, there is no rule of thumb.

  • I know the legal rules, but I wrote "rule of thumb". The theoretical minimum is irrelevant in practice. De facto, popular vote correlates with electoral college vote.
    – gerrit
    Mar 4, 2020 at 10:35
  • @gerrit edited my answer.
    – A.bakker
    Mar 4, 2020 at 10:40
  • And 1824 or 1960 results are hardly relevant for todays demographics.
    – gerrit
    Mar 4, 2020 at 11:30
  • 1
    You are asking for a rule of Thumb... This would require data analysis if you exclude everything outside the current demographic (so let's say nothing beyond 1970) you will only have 5 democratic wins and 2 losses where they got the popular vote...this isn't enough data to do anything with other then stating the conclusion "There is no real correlation between popular vote margins and the electoral vote"
    – A.bakker
    Mar 4, 2020 at 11:41
  • 1
    Your question is "Is there any rule of thumb by what margin a Democrat de facto needs to win in practice in order to also win the electoral college vote and become President?" To this the demographic doesn't matter nor does the state. All that matters is the total count which is just to low on (re presentable) data to give an mathematically sound answer. It is simple...there is NO CORRELATION WHATSOEVER between the popular vote margin and the chances on becoming president. The only thing you can say is that the popular vote gives a slight larger probability.
    – A.bakker
    Mar 4, 2020 at 12:17

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