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The Electoral College System

How to Lose But Win an Election

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A look at the Electoral Votes From Each State and a little math will tell you that the Electoral College system makes it possible for a candidate to actually lose the nationwide popular vote, but be elected president by the Electoral College.

In fact, it is possible for a candidate to not get a single person's vote -- not one -- in 39 states or the District of Columbia, yet be elected president by wining the popular vote in just 11 of these 12 states:

California
New York
Texas
Florida
Pennsylvania
Illinois
Ohio
Michigan
New Jersey
North Carolina
Georgia
Virginia

There are 538 total votes in the Electoral College and a presidential candidate must win a majority -- 270 -- electoral votes to be elected. Since 11 of the 12 states in the chart above account for exactly 270 votes, a candidate could win these states, lose the other 39, and still be elected.

Of course, a candidate popular enough to win California or New York will almost certainly win some smaller states, as well.. But, when you play with popularity and numbers, anything can happen. And has.

Has it Ever Happened?

Has a presidential candidate ever lost the nationwide popular vote but been elected president in the Electoral College? Yes, three times:

  • In 1876 there were a total of 369 electoral votes available with 185 needed to win. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, with 4,036,298 popular votes won 185 electoral votes. His main opponent, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, won the popular vote with 4,300,590 votes, but won only 184 electoral votes. Hayes was elected president.

  • In 1888 there were a total of 401 electoral votes available with 201 needed to win. Republican Benjamin Harrison, with 5,439,853 popular votes won 233 electoral votes. His main opponent, Democrat Grover Cleveland, won the popular vote with 5,540,309 votes, but won only 168 electoral votes. Harrison was elected president.

  • In 2000 there were a total of 538 electoral votes available with 270 needed to win. Republican George W. Bush, with 50,456,002 popular votes won 271 electoral votes. His Democratic opponent, Al Gore, won the popular vote with 50,999,897 votes, but won only 266 electoral votes. Bush was elected president.
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