I was wondering about how the Republican Party has only won the popular vote once in three decades in a presidential election. Seven out of eight presidential popular votes were won by Democrats. This is a record for either party in winning the popular vote for president.

I have added up vote percentages and found that the Democratic Party received a plurality of votes from 1992 to 2016. It won the popular vote average 48.7 to 45.1 percent. This is a 3.6 point win.

How have Republicans explained their losses in the national popular vote in most presidential elections since and including 1992?

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    The methodology behind "added up vote percentages" sounds suspect (but I'm not disputing the claim itself). Maybe you should illustrate what you did to get these numbers?
    – gktscrk
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 14:43
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    – Philipp
    Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 13:25
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    Is there a reason for the selected starting point? Commented Sep 8, 2020 at 13:35
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    That is because it was when Democrats began winning the popular vote in presidential elections with the exception of 2004. Commented Nov 6, 2020 at 17:11

7 Answers 7


The predominant explanation, especially since President Trump's victory in 2016, has been that the recent Republican presidential campaign efforts aren't even attempting to win the popular vote, and instead focus on winning the electoral college. For example, Trump himself, a week after winning the election, claimed that he would have campaigned differently if the election was decided by the popular vote:

If the election were based on total popular vote I would have campaigned in N.Y. Florida and California and won even bigger and more easily. The Electoral College is actually genius in that it brings all states, including the smaller ones, into play. Campaigning is much different!

@realDonaldTrump (1) (2)

He repeated these claims more recently in response to Elizabeth Warren calling for the abolition of the electoral college in March 2019:

Campaigning for the Popular Vote is much easier & different than campaigning for the Electoral College. It’s like training for the 100 yard dash vs. a marathon. The brilliance of the Electoral College is that you must go to many States to win. With the Popular Vote, you go to just the large States - the Cities would end up running the Country. Smaller States & the entire Midwest would end up losing all power - & we can’t let that happen. I used to like the idea of the Popular Vote, but now realize the Electoral College is far better for the U.S.A.

@realDonaldTrump (1) (2)

This was also alluded to by Pat Rosenstiel, a Republican campaigner and senior consultant to the National Popular Vote. Rosenstiel is a proponent of the organization's attempt to pass the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which attempts to ensure that the presidency would be won by the popular vote winner. Despite acknowledging the Republican party's pretty poor record on the popular vote, he doesn't believe that this change would write the party off:

Rosenstiel, who calls himself “a conservative Republican trapped behind a blue wall in Minnesota,” says it’s wrong to assume Republicans can’t win the White House on a popular vote.

“You change the nature of the system, you change the nature of the campaign,” he says. Think of it this way: “In NASCAR, I don’t drive to win every race, I drive to win the points, to win the cup.”

In other words, Republicans presidential candidates aren’t even trying to win the popular vote right now; they’re trying to win the Electoral College. Presidential campaigns would transform under NPV, Rosenstiel explains. The candidates might be different. Voters that sit out elections now might head to the polls, knowing that their individual vote — and not just the partisan swing of their state — would count.

Colorado Springs Independent (Archive.org)

This explanation is also presented by Republicans on the other side of the National Popular Vote debate - speaking in opposition to the passage of the bill in Nevada in April 2019, Jim DeGraffenreid, Vice Chairman of the NV Republican Party, voiced the same sentiments:

We often hear the argument that National Popular Vote would correct the so-called failure of the Electoral College which occurs when the winner of the popular vote does not win the Electoral vote. However, it's important to note that this is not a failure. Under the Constitutional system, candidates are not trying to win the popular vote, so it's actually kind of accidental when they do, at least in a close race. No hockey game has ever been decided by how many touchdowns the winning team scored, because hockey players aren't trying to score touchdowns. I think everyone on both sides of this issue today can agree that candidates will campaign differently if the goal is to win the popular vote. There's simply no way to know who would have won the popular vote in any past election because no candidate was ever trying to do so.

Testimony on AB186 - National Popular Vote


Aside from baseless accusations of voter fraud, I've not seen a Republican directly try to address this. However, they come pretty close to addressing it when they defend the Electoral College. See for example this piece written by Allen Guelzo in National Affairs:

Abolishing the Electoral College now might satisfy an irritated yearning for direct democracy, but it would also mean dismantling federalism. After that, there would be no sense in having a Senate (which, after all, represents the interests of the states), and eventually, no sense in even having states, except as administrative departments of the central government. We structure everything in our political system around the idea of a federation that divides power between states and the federal government — states had to ratify the Constitution through state conventions beginning in 1787; state legislatures are required for ratifying constitutional amendments; and even the Constitution itself can only be terminated by action of the states in a national convention. Federalism is in the bones of our nation, and abolishing the Electoral College would point toward doing away with the entire federal system.


The Electoral College has been a significant, if poorly comprehended, mechanism for stability, liberty, and legitimacy — all of which democracies can too easily come to undermine. There is little substance to the complaint that the Electoral College was intended as an elitist brake on the popular will, since electors have rarely bucked the popular vote in their states. (For example, one District of Columbia elector cast a blank ballot in 2000; one Minnesota John Kerry elector cast a vote for John Edwards in 2004; and in 2016 five Clinton electors and two Trump electors bolted for other candidates.) And the idea that a national popular vote would lead to clearer and more representative results ignores the nature of our constitutional republic and fails to contemplate the challenges that a truly national election in our vast country would involve.

If anything, the Electoral College was designed to act as a brake on over-mighty presidents, who might use a popular majority to claim that they were authorized to speak for the people against Congress. And from that, we may well have a lot more to fear than from the Electoral College.

So while this does not address your question directly, I think it may help to explain why Republicans are unlikely to address it, as there is nothing to justify from their perspective. For them, the fact that not every president has won the popular vote might simply suggest that the Constitution is functioning as it should, preventing a so-called "tyranny of the majority".

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    I've added an answer covering the voter fraud angle this answer dispensed with in the first sentence. While it is indeed baseless, as well as cynical nonsense, it is the justification being used, which is what the question asked for. Still, I applaud this answers' instinct to only cover logic that actually contains some logic.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 15:02

There have been seven presidential elections since (and including) 1992. If we view them as independent Bernoulli trials, the p-value of losing six of them, given a 50% chance for each individually, is 6.25%, which is above the usual cutoff of 5%. By that standard, this pattern is not statistically significant. When we add in the fact that the trials are not independent, and the fact that you have arbitrarily cherry picked one statistic to look at (i.e. p-hacking), the case for statistical significance is even lower.

On a deeper philosophical level, there seems to be an attitude that there is an objective, Platonic Form of who the "right" winner is, and if that person doesn't win the election, then the election process is unjust. This is contrasted with the view that a procedure has been set up to select presidents, there is no authority to select a president outside of that process, and whoever this process awards the presidency is by definition the rightful holder of the presidency, even if it's possible for there to be someone else with a higher popular vote total, or if there is a court that has been granted the authority to interpret the rules of the process in a manner that benefits a particular candidate.

The former seems to be more predominantly "left", and the latter "right", but the association isn't universal, and which version is more convenient with regard to the current election results seems to also be a factor in what position a person advocates. Under the latter viewpoint, complaining about the popular vote winner not getting the presidency is like complaining about the Super Bowl being won by a team that didn't have the highest yardage total. If the AFC were to complain about a pattern of the NFC winning the Super Bowl despite having less yardage, the NFC might respond that the AFC is deeply confused about the basic nature of the sport of football, and note that if the AFC is focusing on gaining the most yardage regardless of how many points they score, their losses speak to their poor strategy rather than unfairness of the game. If the AFC were to claim that the higher yardage totals show that they are better at football and therefore "deserve" the win, the NFC could allege that they could get more yardage if they were to prioritize that, and their lack of doing so is not a matter of skill but of working within the system as it is set up.

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    This is pretty much the same as CDJB's answer, no? Not that there's anything wrong with that, I just want to make sure there isn't a significant distinction that I missed
    – divibisan
    Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 22:11
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    @divibisan I'd say the "argument from bad statistics" challenge is relevant and worthy of an answer in it's own right, even if the rest of this echos CDJB's excellent answer. Commented Aug 26, 2020 at 13:45
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    Yes. But what happens if 2020 is lost as well, as it is expected to be? Then it is statistically significant under that 95% confidence definition. Commented Aug 26, 2020 at 18:39
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    Partially in response to @NumberFile’s comment, the starting date of 1992 might, in and of itself, be considered p-hacking. In the three previous elections of 1988, 1984 and 1980, the Republican candidates won the presidency and the popular vote. In the time period between 1948 and 1976 (eight elections), each party won the popular vote and presidency four times.
    – Jan
    Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 12:52
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    @paqogomez: "Its like asking Bill Gates to pay more in taxes, even if he wanted to, how would he? He's following the law." For the record, anyone can make a voluntary contribution to the U.S. Treasury for any amount at any time. All you have to do is write a check. What's telling is how many wealthy people advocate for higher taxes that the middle class and poor have to pay but never voluntarily pay more on their own tax bill. Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 10:21

The typical explanation I see is the claim Democrats are only winning the popular vote via massive voter fraud. In particular, they claim that large numbers of illegal immigrants are voting, and often that the dead are somehow voting as well. Trump has been making both of these claims regularly.

This has also been the theoretical driver behind of all their voter security measures, which Democrats (and most mainstream media outlets) regard as voter suppression. The idea is that if you require a state-issued ID be shown, that will prevent undocumented immigrants from voting using the identity of a lawfully registered voter.

Regular and energetic voter roll purges are considered a good thing by people who believe this theory, as they remove from the rolls large numbers of registered non-voters for these theoretical fraudsters to use the identity of. Purges may also help prevent people from voting in precincts they no longer live in.

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    “and often that the dead are somehow voting as well” to clarify, they aren’t alleging that dead people are voting. Instead, they’re alleging that living people are fraudulently voting using the identities of dead people.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 10:34
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    @AndrewGrimm Wow, is there anybody who thought otherwise?? If so, they should take it easy on zombie movies!
    – Déjà vu
    Commented Nov 9, 2020 at 2:24
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    This answer seems opinion and not well educated. I have never seen the republican party use voter fraud as an excuse for losing popular vote - like never. Voter fraud is a thing and yes if it were used as an excuse it seems highly unlikely. But you making the claim that republicans use that as an excuse is about as rational as voter fraud being used to dispel a million votes. Now voter fraud could very likely flip a state using a few thousand votes and that could have an effect on the electoral college - cont.
    – blankip
    Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 6:59
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    I have heard republicans make similar statements - but again nothing to do with popular vote. Also what is wrong with trying to get rid of voter fraud. On a side note most republicans I have heard on this topic don't really care because if you discount NY and CA the republicans I believe have won the popular vote in most of the recent elections. You need to get your rational thinking cap on and look at the facts. Take two states out - and two states that the republican party cares little about and boom nothing you said makes sense.
    – blankip
    Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 7:01
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    @blankip - Since I posted this, the Republican "Count all legal votes" frame they came up with inherently asserts that they believe they won except for fraudulent votes
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 13:44

Through the active use of vote wasting via gerrymandering, it is possible to make it impossible for the majority to elect their candidate. All you need to do is draw the lines such that you divide those of the opposite party into multiple districts which means they cannot win an overall victory:

Wasted votes are the basis of the efficiency gap measure of gerrymandering, where voters are grouped into electoral districts in such a way as to increase the wasted votes of one political faction and decrease the wasted votes of the other. Wasted Vote

The math behind this is explained here.

Since the state level government controls the voting precincts, they control how hard it is for the opposing party to get a fair election. There has been one court victory (that I know of) that proved the "new" gerrymander was designed to waste as many democratic votes as possible.

Combine this with the winner take all electoral college rules and you have a system ripe for abuse (and one that is being abused). You don't need to abolish the electoral college to fix it by making it proportional to the popular vote on a state by state basis. The current winner takes all approach is what allows this abuse to continue, but each state sets the rules for how electoral college votes are divided and there is no interest from the ruling party in those states to make things fair or equitable.

For more info on how electoral votes are passed out, you might want to read 270towin. This is a complicated topic not easily discussed in a single answer and definitely not in the comments by those that have opinions instead of facts.


Winner Take All (WTA) awards all electoral votes to the popular vote winner of the state. This is the current methodology in all but Maine and Nebraska.

Congressional District - Popular (CDP) awards two electoral votes to the popular vote winner of the state, with one each allocated to the popular vote winner in each individual Congressional District (CD). This approach is used by Maine and Nebraska.

Congressional District - Majority (CDM) awards two electoral votes to the party winning the popular vote in a majority of the CD, with one each allocated to the popular vote winner in each individual CD.

Proportional Popular - Popular (PPV) awards two electoral votes to the popular vote winner, with the remainder allocated based on the percentage of popular vote earned.

Popular Vote by State (PVS) is the same as PPV, except all a state’s electoral votes are allocated by popular vote.

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    Only 2 states allocate electors based on something other than popular vote in the state. It seems unlikely that gerrymandering in those 2 states is the answer to the question, and you cant gerrymander the states.
    – Matt
    Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 11:54
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    @Matt States where admitted to the US in order to Gerrymander the US Senate itself. N/S Dakota, for example, where split to give them more power in the Senate.
    – Yakk
    Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 19:01
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    @Yakk No. Gerrymandering is the manipulation of districts to benefit a party or other group. The state boundaries are not (and almost cannot) be manipulated therefore they are not gerrymandered. I do not know how the borders were originally drawn but districts decided over 100 years ago cant possibly be considered still gerrymandered.
    – Matt
    Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 19:07
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    @boatcoder The "districts" im talking about here are the states. Those are the only districts that matter in a presidential election in 48 of the states.
    – Matt
    Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 14:05
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    The majority of states were added more than 180 years ago, none at all have been added in the past 60 years, and their boundaries have changed very little since then.
    – dan04
    Commented Aug 28, 2020 at 19:09

Let's talk about baseball for a second. In Major League Baseball there is a championship series of games most years between the best team in each of the two leagues. It's called "the World Series" and is a best-of-seven contest. The first team to win four games wins the series.

Let's say the Washington Nationals and the New York Yankees are playing in the World Series. Washington wins the first game 20 points to 1 - in baseball that's a blowout victory. Then the next four games are each won by New York, 1 point to 0 - a common but not very exciting outcome.

Under baseball's rules, this would be considered a blowout victory by New York in the series, even though Washington scored four times as many total points. Is that wrong? You might think so, but that's just how it is in baseball.

And now hopefully you see my argument about the electoral college. The presidential election is designed to provide a balance, in which electoral votes are allocated in proportion to seats in the House of Representatives, plus two for every state as for its two Senators. States with more people have more representatives, and therefore more electoral votes. But even the smallest (least populous) states, such as Rhode Island, have at least three electoral votes.

If the President was decided simply by vote counts without regard to geography, the few largest, most populous states and the most populous cities in the country would decide the presidency each time. No one would even bother to campaign for President anywhere else - small towns, rural areas. All policy positions would be tailored to the concerns of the most populous cities.

The electoral college was designed to prevent exactly this from happening. It guarantees that while larger states have a greater voice, they cannot totally dominate the election of the President. That's just how it works, because the Founders believed this balance was important. You may disagree, as you are entitled to your opinion, but everyone should recognize that this was the design goal.

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    Again, this is the same as Accumulation and CDJB's answer, no? Is there any additional point there other than that Republicans don't care about the popular vote?
    – divibisan
    Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 15:22
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    Well I like my baseball analogy quite a lot, thank you :-)
    – wberry
    Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 15:24
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    I do find the argument ‘[without the Electoral College,] the few largest, most populous states and the most populous cities in the country would decide the presidency each time’ highly amusing because it glosses over or completely ignores the fact that with the Electoral College, the same set of highly competitive swing states decide the election every time. (As states/cities can get more or less populous, states can join or leave the swing state group). You can consider this a good thing or a bad thing but it’s a fact about the current US system.
    – Jan
    Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 12:10
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    That said, I believe you are misinterpreting the intent of the Founding Fathers. Reference 32 in the Wikipedia article links to a journal article whose contents you may disagree with; but footnote 24 on page 4 provides evidence that the Founders’ intent may have been to send the election to the House most or all of the times.
    – Jan
    Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 12:16
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    Also, the reason candidates only tend to compaign in 'battleground' states is due to most states granting their electoral votes in winner-take-all fashion. If most states granted electoral votes proportionally, campaign strategies would change. This cannot be entirely blamed on the electoral college.
    – wberry
    Commented Aug 30, 2020 at 15:40

I think this has to do with how states "chose sides" and consistently voted for a particular party around that period. The initial stretch had to do with Bill Clinton's popularity. Even though there are fewer Democratic-voting states, the Democratic-leaning states are more populous. However, the GOP has an advantage in the Electoral College because most small states vote Republican because their message resonates more with rural Americans.

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    This is true to a point, but it's easy to overstate. In 2016, there were 77 more electors pledged to Trump than to Clinton. Trump won 9 more states than Clinton (counting DC as a "state" for this purpose). If we subtract three electors from each state, that completely negates the "small state" effect, but still leaves 50 more electors pledged to Trump than to Clinton. So the "small state" effect accounts for barely a third of the difference, at least in that election.
    – ruakh
    Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 20:30

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