Scott Brinton

Trump, Clinton and musings on the Electoral College

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Strangely, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton landed in Nassau County on the same day, at the same time, last week. Trump came for a roundtable in Bethpage to hammer home a singular message: MS-13 is bad. Clinton came to Hofstra University to nominate Andrew Cuomo for governor at the state Democratic convention.

Their visits brought memories of the 2016 presidential campaign streaming back, specifically of the Hofstra debate, which most pundits said Clinton nailed. In the end, Clinton won the popular vote, earning nearly 65.8 million votes to Trump’s 62.9 million. Roughly 2.9 million votes separated them, a margin of 2.1 percentage points. If not for the Electoral College vote, which Trump won, the U.S. would have elected its first woman president.

America, though, has this bizarre system of electing a president based on a Germanic system that dates back to the Middle Ages: Electors, not the people, choose the president. The idea behind it is really quite jaded, if you ask me.

Our founders worried that we, the people, might be unable to elect a highly qualified, righteous president. So they set up a nationwide electoral board, if you will, whose members are appointed by their states’ political parties, and who are supposed to be more knowledgeable than average voters. They can consider the popular vote result when electing the president, but in most states they can also vote to override it, which is, if you think about it, what many electors did in 2016.

Writing in 1787 against direct democracy, a.k.a. the popular vote, James Madison, the “father of the Constitution,” who drafted the Bill of Rights, said electors would guard against the “obnoxious individual” who might run for president.

Hmmm.

Anyway . . . five times in our nation’s history, presidents have been elected without winning the popular vote — John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016.

Trump’s margin of victory in the Electoral College was actually razor-thin, despite his receiving 304 electoral votes to Clinton’s 227. Here’s why: If Clinton had won three traditionally Democratic-leaning states — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, the so-called “blue wall” — she would have been president. Trump won the popular vote in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by three-quarters of a percentage point, and Michigan by less than a quarter of a point. Those stunning wins gave him the 46 Electoral College votes he needed to claim victory.

There’s been much talk of Russian interference in the election, which now appears certain, along with potential Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. I emphasize potential because nothing has been proven thus far, though it seems increasingly likely something happened.

All of that aside, to me, the presidential election boiled down to strategy. Trump won for two reasons. First, he embraced “clean coal,” which appealed to folks in the rural parts of Pennsylvania that we call coal country, while Clinton vowed to dismantle the coal industry, without telegraphing a concrete message of hope for coal workers. That is, she left them with little sense of how they might make a living in the decades to come.

Second, Trump visited Michigan and Wisconsin in the final days of the campaign.

That’s it.

Many pundits thought Trump was wasting his time stumping in the upper Midwest. Here’s what John Cassidy wrote in an Oct. 31, 2016, New Yorker analysis:

“According to the polls, Donald Trump has been trailing Hillary Clinton badly in Michigan and Wisconsin for months. In Michigan, two surveys taken last week showed Clinton leading by seven percentage points. In a third poll, the margin was six points. It’s a similar story in Wisconsin, where the past three polls have shown Clinton ahead by four points, six points, and seven points.

“Why, then, with just more than a week left before Election Day, is Trump campaigning in these two states? Surely he would be better off camping out in places where the polls are closer, such as Florida, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio . . .

“The Trump campaign, though, is operating according to its own logic, or illogic.”

We’re now gearing up for the 2018 midterm election, which means, soon enough, we’ll be gearing up for the 2020 presidential election. Have Democrats learned from Clinton’s clear strategic errors? Like it or not, presidential candidates must play according to the rules of the Electoral College game, not according to the popular vote.

The Dems face a monumental task ahead. Clinton keeps reappearing, as she did last week, to remind voters of Democrats’ bruising 2016 defeat. Meanwhile, no Democratic frontrunner has emerged, or any candidate at all, and Trump’s approval ratings continue to inch up as people grow weary of hearing about possible Russian collusion and the economy heats up.

Whatever Democrats do, they must remember this: The people, common folks, matter. And they should never assume victory until they have crossed the finish line.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.