College of Liberal Arts

Why the Most Popular Candidate in a Close Election Will Probably Lose

Thu, Sep 19, 2019
In a close race, the less popular candidate has a 45% chance of becoming president.
In a close race, the less popular candidate has a 45% chance of becoming president.

The Presidential elections of 2000 and 2016 were controversial, in part, because it seemed like the wrong person won.

In 2000, Republican George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore by 5 electoral votes after losing the popular vote by about 540,000. And in 2016, Republican Donald Trump garnered 27 more electoral votes than Democrat Hillary Clinton but lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million.

To many, the results seemed like a fluke: What are the odds of this happening, especially twice in the last two decades?

Higher than you probably think, say UT Austin economists Michael Geruso and Dean Spears whose paper on “inversion” elections was recently released by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The paper is part of the University of Texas Electoral College Study and was coauthored by Geruso, Spears, and economics and math undergraduate Ishaana Talesara.

According to their work, inversion elections are very likely in close elections. Although they’ve only happened four times in U.S. history — 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016 — the researchers report an 80% chance that another slightly less popular candidate will win the presidency in the next 60 years if elections continue to be as close as they have been in recent decades.

Those are some pretty good odds. In fact, the researchers estimate that if someone loses the popular vote by within 1%, or 1.3 million votes, he or she has a 45% chance of winning the election. It has nothing to do with who the candidates are, the researchers emphasize, but the trend favors Republicans, who are estimated to benefit from future inversions 77% of the time.

So, we asked Geruso and Spears more about what this could mean for future elections and the future of the Electoral College. Read our Q&A with the researchers at Life & Letters.

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