Wow! I was surprised by the election results, as were many around the country. Experts, pundits, and average citizens alike will spend the following days and weeks trying to figure out how political outsider Trump pulled off the incredible win over consummate insider Clinton. So, how did it happen? The answer: Trump forged a winning Electoral College coalition.
Election Day always leaves people puzzling over how our presidential election system works. It is confusing. Presidents are not elected directly by the popular vote. Instead, they must win a majority of Electoral College votes.
How It Works:
Voters go to the polls in the individual states and then vote for a candidate on the ballot. The votes are then tallied in order to determine who received the most votes in the state. For the candidate who gets the most votes, the individual electors from the candidate’s party gets to cast all of the electoral votes in the state. This is called the “winner-take-all” method.
Maine and Nebraska exceptions:
These states use the “Congressional District Method.” With this method, a state is divided into its congressional districts, and the winner of each district is awarded that district’s electoral vote, and the winner of the state-wide vote is then awarded the state’s remaining 2 electoral votes. (Note that Maine's result this year was split).
How Electoral Votes Are Calculated:
The number of electoral votes a state gets is calculated by adding the number of congressional districts or representatives for each state (and this is based on population) to the number of senators (2 for each state). So, that’s why bigger states have more representatives and thus more electoral votes. Pennsylvania, for example, has 18 congressional districts, so how many electoral votes does it have? That’s right: 20.
270: The Magic Number
A candidate needs 270 electoral votes in order to win. Flip down a few slides for a mathematical illustration of how this number is derived. Note that Washington, DC, which does not have any voting members in Congress, is given 3 electoral votes by the Constitution. Interestingly, DC has 3 electors because the Constitution says in the 23rd Amendment that it can’t have more than the least populous state. So, the total is 538. The winning candidate needs to secure a majority of the electoral votes. How do you get a majority? Divide 538 by 2 and add one.
Here's the Formula:
435 (total number of house districts/members) +
100 (total number of senators) =
3 (number of electors allotted to DC) =
(538 / 2) + 1 = 270
Party Control of Elector Selection and Electoral College Voting
The states nominate electors through the political parties. Each state has its own specific method of doing this--from state party conventions to campaign committees. In the Electoral College, if the Democrat wins, the Democratic electors get to vote, and Republicans do not…and vice versa if the Republican wins in the state.
The Electoral College in 2016
Trump and the Republican National Committee successfully targeted swing states with large shares of Electoral College votes. They focused registration, turnout, and advertising in these states, especially Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. He also focused on Michigan and Wisconsin, which had not voted Republican in years, and Iowa, which has been a swing state.
Want to teach your children about the Electoral College and understand how Trump won? Here are some steps you can take:
1. Review the above information with them.
2. Download and print a blank 2016 electoral map. You can find one here or do an electronic one here.
3. Then find an interactive map online. Politico has a good one here. Starting on the East Coast, click on each state to see the results from the popular vote and how they informed the Electoral College vote.
4. On your blank map, have your child color states that Trump won in red and states that Clinton won in blue.
5. Meanwhile, keep a running tally of Electoral College votes for Trump and Clinton. Add them up. This will show your student how Trump got the needed 270 votes.