How Democrats can weaponize Hillary Clinton's popular vote victory

Donald Trump's crushing popular vote loss obviously bothers him. And it should.

Losing the popular vote really hurt Donald Trump.
(Image credit: Photo Illustration by Jackie Friedman | Image courtesy AP Photo/LM Otero)

All newly elected presidents claim a mandate to lead the country in whatever direction they want, and in typical Donald Trump fashion, he and his team have claimed a huge one.

"We truly do believe that our president-elect has secured a mandate for leadership," Vice President-elect Mike Pence told a group of wealthy donors last week at a Heritage Foundation dinner in Trump's new hotel in Washington, D.C. "This is a historic victory." Late last month, Kellyanne Conway, Trump's senior adviser and former campaign manager, tweeted a similar conceit about Trump's Electoral College tally: "306. Landslide. Blowout. Historic." On Sunday, Trump claimed on Fox News that he won a "massive landslide victory, as you know, in the Electoral College."

These claims should be taken seriously, but not literally, as the Trump campaign might say. They need to be taken seriously because Trump won, and he will be president. But the "mandate" should be regarded as hyperbole because — not to put too fine a point on it — to call Trump's victory "historic" (in a positive sense) is to stretch the definition of the word beyond all recognition. Here's stats guru Nate Silver on that point:

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In a historical context, Trump's Electoral College performance is decidedly below-average. So it's a bit Orwellian to call it a "landslide" or a "blowout." There have been 54 presidential elections since the ratification of the 12th Amendment in 1804. (Before that, presidential electors cast two votes each, making it hard to compare them to present-day elections.) Of those 54 cases, Trump's share of the electoral vote — assuming there are no faithless electors or results overturned by recounts — ranks 44th. [FiveThirtyEight]

A mandate is the authority to enact policy based on victory among an electorate. Nationally, the electorate gave Hillary Clinton 2.8 million more votes than it gave Trump, or 2.1 percentage points, and the counting isn't over. Clinton has already won nearly as many votes as President Obama did in 2012 — and more votes than any victorious president save for Obama in 2008 and maybe 2012. To be clear, none of this means that she won the election. Under the rules everyone agreed to play by, Trump won more electoral votes — 306 to Clinton's 232. But the big loss among actual voters obviously bothers Trump. He even concocted the absurd talking point that he "won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally."

Well, it should bother him.

In reality, Trump eked out "a historically small mandate," says Aaron Blake at The Washington Post. The fact that Trump did not win a mandate "is almost so obvious that it doesn't bear stating," says Robert Schlesinger at U.S. News & World Report. "Trump is a glitch president, not a mandate president."

Going "back to 1856, the first contest pitting the two major parties against one another, Trump's 2016 win is below average on every single metric," says Phillip Bump at The Washington Post. "Trump's popular vote loss was in fact historic. Trump's loss in the popular vote was three times all previous popular vote losses from an eventual president combined. As a percentage of votes cast, Trump's margin was the second worst loss among eventual presidents over the past 160 years."

The obvious rejoinder to that is: So what? And it is a good point, actually. Trump will be our next president. Clinton will not be.

So here's why it matters that Trump lost a crushing popular defeat to Clinton: It is a license to say no.

Democrats in the House will have very little power, but Senate Democrats will have a chance to block Trump's more outrageous proposals — at least as long as the filibuster stands — and a handful of Republicans skeptical of various aspects of the Trump agenda (see: Russia) will wield a lot of clout. More to the point, these senators will have every right to block Trump, if they see fit. After all, America has elected its senators by popular vote since the 17th Amendment took effect in 1913 — unlike Trump, all 100 of these Senate members won more votes than their opponents.

"Mandates are ephemeral and ultimately require the assent of the defeated party," Schlesinger notes. Republicans did not assent in 2009 after Obama won 365 electoral votes, 52.9 percent of the popular vote, and nearly 10 million more votes than his Republican opponent. If Democrats, and even a few Republicans, don't buy this 46 percenter's claim to a mandate, that seems more like common sense than fighting dirty.

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.