Senior Republicans are resigned to President Donald Trump losing the popular vote in 2020, conceding the limits of the flamboyant incumbent’s political appeal and revealing just how central the Electoral College has become to the party’s White House prospects.
Some Republicans say the problem is Trump's populist brand of partisan grievance. It's an attitude tailor-made for the Electoral College in the current era of regionally Balkanized politics, but anathema to attracting a broad, national coalition that can win the most votes, as past presidents did when seeking re-election amid a booming economy.
Others argue that neither Trump, nor possibly any Republican, could win the popular vote when most big states are overwhelmingly liberal.
“California, Illinois, and New York make it very, very difficult for anybody on our side to ever again to win the popular vote,” said David Carney, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire.
Asked if he expects Trump to defy the odds next year, Carney said flatly, “No,” but added, “the president shouldn’t worry about it. 270 — that’s what people remember.”
In 2016, Trump won 306 electoral votes, comfortably above the 270 required to capture the presidency. But he lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton by an eye-popping 2.9 million votes.
If Trump wins a second term without the popular vote, it would mark the first time in American history that the candidate who finished second in overall votes won consecutive presidential elections.
When President George W. Bush ran for re-election, his campaign prioritized the popular vote to vanquish doubts about his legitimacy after becoming the first president since 1888 to win the White House without it. Bush succeeded, winning the popular vote by 3 million in 2004.
Fifteen years later, Republicans, lately confident about Trump’s re-election, are downplaying the symbolism of the popular vote.
“The popular vote is irrelevant because it’s not how our system works,” said Dan Eberhart, an energy executive and Republican donor in Arizona who supports Trump. “The president is right to focus on voters in states with the biggest number of electoral votes.”
Trump concurs. “The brilliance of the Electoral College is that you must go to many States to win,” he said in a Twitter post. “I used to like the idea of the Popular Vote, but now realize the Electoral College is far better for the U.S.A.”
Trump’s impressive maiden campaign demolished the Democratic Party’s blue wall, picking up heartland states a Republican nominee hadn’t won in decades: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In each, the president’s victory was slim. Combined with wins in Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, and Ohio, it might seem Trump in 2020 would be in a defensive crouch out of pragmatic necessity.
But Trump's team, planning for higher voter turnout in 2020 but privately bracing for a second popular vote defeat, is moving to build on 2016 by going on offense in Democratic-trending battlegrounds that Trump lost to Clinton by surprisingly narrow margins.
Some states on this list were targets three years ago. Trump is prepared to commit substantial resources to Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, and Nevada despite 2018 midterm election results suggesting tough sledding there ahead. New Hampshire may also be a target.
“We look to maintain and expand the Trump map,” Kayleigh McEnany, the president’s campaign spokeswoman, told the Washington Examiner.