As the Electoral College prepares to convene, it is worth taking stock of how we got to where we are today, what awaits the electors, and what would be required to stop Donald Trump from becoming president.
First, how we got here. Electoral coalitions are contingent and (partially) based on the choices of political actors. Effective political actors devise their coalitions in the context of the system in which they operate. Inadvertently or not, Donald Trump recognized this, making an aggressive play for the Rust Belt, with his bombastic anti-trade rhetoric and a tendency to hold huge rallies in depressed parts of the country. This was, in fact, the exact opposite of what Republican candidates have done for the last 25 years, when they have struggled in places like Michigan and Pennsylvania. Trump’s coalition ended up being very different than a conventional Republican coalition. For example, compare Trump’s performance against victorious Senate Republican candidates in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Trump won by mobilizing rural voters, a fair number of whom voted for Democratic Senate candidates. Although “conventional” Republicans Pat Toomey and Ron Johnson outperformed Trump in metropolitan areas, Trump returned the favor elsewhere.*
Unfortunately for Democrats, Hillary Clinton failed to respond to this play from Trump productively. Clinton’s campaign seemingly assumed that Trump’s Rust Belt focus wouldn’t matter or was not something they needed to challenge directly. They can blame Jim Comey or emails or Russia or whoever, but they did not do what was necessary to win the election under the well-established rules of the game. Even if they had won the election, it would have been an extremely close run thing. After all, Trump was closer in Minnesota than Clinton was in any of the Romney states she tried to pick off. (Trump may well have won Minnesota in the absence of spoiler Evan McMullin.)
The rules for winning the presidency were exactly the same on November 7 as they were on November 9. The campaign and electoral strategy should have been designed in that context. Winning the popular vote with less than 270 electoral votes is the equivalent of losing a baseball game but getting more hits than the winning team, or losing a football game but gaining more yards than the winning team. In the end, it is irrelevant: hits, yards, and votes are mere means to an end, not the end itself. As such, because of her poor Electoral College performance, Hillary Clinton will not be president. The sooner that Democrats accept this, the greater their chances are of preventing Donald Trump from becoming president.**
Trump has 306 prospective electoral votes. Democrats need to peel off 38 to prevent him from being president. (If Trump gets exactly 269, he’ll win in the House.) Their misgivings about Trump aside, very few Republican electors are going to do anything to enable Hillary Clinton to become president.
Which is why, if the Democrats are serious about preventing Trump from becoming president, they need to make Republican electors a better offer. Republicans have demonstrated that they do not see it as their responsibility to prevent their unfit candidate from becoming president; if they did, they would have scuttled his nomination in Cleveland. Democrats can play tit-for-tat by also refusing to do what is necessary to prevent Trump (through legal means) from becoming president, or they can act to try to shift the odds against him.
If you truly believe that Trump is unfit for the presidency, then extraordinary measures through the Electoral College may well be justified. But such measures will not be taken by Republican electors. They would need to be taken by the Democratic electors. In short, the Democratic electors must throw their support to a Republican other than Trump. This would be the truly “Hamiltonian” thing to do: after the 1800 presidential election, the Federalist Alexander Hamilton “endorsed” his arch-rival, the Republican Thomas Jefferson, in order to ensure that Republican Aaron Burr did not become president. How fitting that, in the Year of Hamilton, Clinton and her supporters have the opportunity to emulate him.
Right now, the choice for Republican electors is “prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming president,” or “prevent Donald Trump from becoming president.” That will not be a difficult choice for most of those electors. However, if the choice were “prevent Conventional Republican X from becoming president,” or “prevent Donald Trump from becoming president,” that would present a much more challenging decision for the GOP’s electors.
Rick Perry is probably the ideal choice for this, because Texas has so many electoral votes. If every Clinton elector voted for Perry, and Texas’ delegation did the same, Perry would get the 270 electoral votes necessary to become president. Mitt Romney is worth considering, though, because of his national profile, and because he can at least lay claim to a bunch of votes to be president based on his 2012 showing.
If Clinton wants to prevent Trump from becoming president, she should ask her electors to vote for a Republican she designates. Of course, the logic of this only makes sense if you truly believe that Trump is substantially worse than other Republicans. If he is merely an extension of a pathology that infects most of the party, as some have argued, then such steps do not make sense: you’re trading one disaster for another, and causing a crisis of legitimacy in the process.
Make no mistake: this would be an enormous, risky course of action. It would be a shock to the political system that the country might not be able to recover from, a flagrant violation of long-established and evolved norms surrounding what governs the votes of presidential electors. It would set off a million lawsuits across the country over faithless electors. And, frankly, it might cause riots and violence from disgruntled voters who feel that they’ve been sidestepped by a procedural trick, the “rigged” system defending itself in the face of an existential threat. For these reasons, it is not what I would counsel, if I were advising Democrats. Better to wait for Trump to do something impeachable, and go from there. But this is what would be required if they want to stop Trump now.
*These points are worth a fuller discussion than this article includes. A couple of great examples, though: in Wisconsin, Trump ran 4.5 points behind Ron Johnson in crucial (suburban) Waukesha County, but 5.9 points ahead of Johnson in rural Juneau County. In Pennsylvania, Trump ran 4.7 points behind Pat Toomey in wealthy, suburban Montgomery County, but a staggering 14.1 points ahead of Toomey in rural Schuylkill County (just west of Allentown). I’ve been publishing maps demonstrating these disparities on my Twitter feed.
**It is worth recalling is that Hillary Clinton made comparable errors in her 2008 presidential bid. Although she and Barack Obama essentially came to a draw in the popular vote of the primaries and caucuses, Obama’s campaign focused meticulously on delegates in lieu of simply looking for votes, and built an insurmountable delegate lead in the process.
Feature Image by Cornell University Library