Many Republicans in the US think Donald Trump is unelectable now.
They have solid evidence: Only about a third of Americans view the former president favourably. Voters and journalists now treat him as old news.
And his acolytes ran five percentage points behind more traditional Republicans in the 2022 midterms. Even likely Republican primary voters are leaving him: A new Wall Street Journal poll shows him trailing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis by 14 points in a head-to-head primary matchup.
But Trump has an ace up his sleeve if an “electability” debate emerges in the GOP primaries: the electoral college.
Trump has proven that he can win 270 electoral votes even when Democrats win the popular vote. If Republicans choose DeSantis or some other Trump alternative, that edge might shrink — or even disappear.
— Trump has a three-point electoral college advantage. That makes him electable.
Trump’s electoral college advantage comes through most clearly when we compare the “tipping point” or “pivotal” state to the national popular vote.
In 2016, Wisconsin was the tipping point state: That is, if every state was lined up from Trump’s best to his worst, Wisconsin was the state that got him past the 270 electoral votes and into the White House.
Trump took Wisconsin by one percentage point while losing the national popular vote by two percentage points — adding up to an electoral college advantage of about three points.
In 2020, Trump again had a three point advantage: He lost the popular vote to Joe Biden by 4.5 points while losing Pennsylvania (that year’s pivotal state) by only about one point.
In historical terms, that’s a strong advantage.
In most elections, the electoral college bias doesn’t matter: The results in the key state only slightly differ from the national popular vote margin, and the popular vote winner takes the White House. But Trump’s electoral college edge let him stay competitive even as he lost the popular vote by millions.
Moreover, Trump’s advantage might be durable.
Unlike George W. Bush — the last president to win the presidency and lose the popular vote — Trump held onto his advantage across two elections. He’s universally known. And his voters have been loyal to him: Many of his 2016 supporters were new GOP converts who didn’t turn out for the GOP in 2018, and a chunk of his 2020 supporters hadn’t recently turned out for any other politician.
A powerful advantage
If Trump were to maintain his electoral college edge, he could stay competitive in 2024 even if his opponent pulled ahead by millions in the national vote. That’s a powerful advantage.
— When Trump is off the ballot, the GOP loses its electoral college edge
In 2018 and 2022 — two elections where Trump was off the ballot — the Republican Party didn’t do as well in key electoral college states.
In the 2022 House elections, Republicans won the national vote by roughly 1.8 percentage points after adjusting for uncontested seats (that is, simulating what would have happened if every district featured a normal Republican vs. Democrat race).
But in Wisconsin — the pivotal state in both 2016 and 2020 — the GOP won the adjusted House vote by 2.8 percentage points (that is, simulating what would have happened if every district featured a normal Republican vs. Democrat race using the procedure described here).
The House vote — even after adjusting for uncontested seats — isn’t perfectly comparable to the presidential vote. But it’s the closest substitute we have. And when Trump was off the ballot in 2022, the House Republicans beat their popular vote margin by about a point in the key swing states.
That’s a steep decline from Trump’s three-point edge.
Purple-state Senate and gubernatorial races told a similar story. The GOP won the national vote by two to three points in 2022. If the swing states were reliably biased in favour of all GOP candidates, they would likely have built a winning record in key races for Senate and governor.
Instead, Republicans only went 6 for 14 in swing states while winning the national vote.
The 2018 election also offered little evidence of a GOP electoral college advantage.
According to Nate Silver’s post-mortem of that midterm’s results, House Democrats had the edge in the pivotal swing states. And, without Trump on the ballot, Republicans struggled in Pennsylvania, Michigan and other key states.
Put simply, when Trump has been on the ballot, the GOP has had an edge in the most important electoral college states. When he’s gone, that extra boost has disappeared.
GOP primary voters might know this and still decide against nominating Trump for president for a third time in a row.
They might believe that DeSantis, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin or some other Republican can win the popular vote, and the presidency, without an added advantage in Midwestern swing states.
But Republicans should go into the 2024 Republican primary with their eyes open. If they dump Trump, they lose his scandals, his insatiable appetite for attention, his awful favorability ratings, his cronyism — and maybe his ability to win the presidency with a minority of the vote.
David Byler is a noted political columnist focusing on elections, polling, demographics and statistics in the US