Presidents Elected Without Winning the Popular Vote

President Donald Trump delivering his acceptance speech

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Five U.S. presidents have taken office without winning the popular vote. In other words, they did not receive a plurality regarding the popular vote. They were elected, instead, by the Electoral College—or in the case of John Quincy Adams, by the House of Representatives after a tie in the electoral votes. They were:

Popular vs. Electoral Votes

Presidential elections in the United States are not popular vote contests. The writers of the Constitution configured the process so that only the members of the House of Representatives would be elected by popular vote. The Senators were to be selected by state legislatures, and the president would be selected by the Electoral College. The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1913, making the election of senators to occur through popular vote. However, presidential elections still operate under the electoral system.

The Electoral College is made up of representatives who are generally selected by the political parties at their state conventions. Most states except Nebraska and Maine follow a "winner-take-all" principle of electoral votes, meaning that whichever party's candidate wins a state's popular vote for the presidency will win all of that state's electoral votes. The minimum electoral votes a state can have is three, the sum of a state's senators plus representatives: California has the most, with 55. The Twenty-Third Amendment gave the District of Columbia three electoral votes; it has neither senators nor representatives in Congress.

Since states vary in population and many popular votes for different candidates can be quite close within an individual state, it makes sense that a candidate might win the popular vote across the entire United States but not win in the Electoral College. As a specific example, let's say the Electoral College is only made up of two states: Texas and Florida. Texas with its 38 votes goes entirely to a Republican candidate but the popular vote was very close, and the Democratic candidate was behind by a very small margin of only 10,000 votes. In the same year, Florida with its 29 votes goes entirely to the Democratic candidate, yet the margin for the Democratic win was much larger with the popular vote win by over 1 million votes This could result in a Republican win at the Electoral College even though when the votes between the two states are counted together, the Democrats won the popular vote.

Interestingly, it was not until the tenth presidential election in 1824 that the popular vote had any effect whatsoever on the outcome. Until then, presidential candidates were chosen by Congress, and all of the states had chosen to leave the choice of which candidate would receive their electoral votes up to their state legislatures. In 1824, however, 18 of the then 24 states decided to choose their presidential electors by popular vote. When the votes were counted in those 18 states, Andrew Jackson polled 152,901 popular votes to John Quincy Adams' 114,023. However, when the Electoral College voted December 1, 1824, Jackson received only 99 votes, 32 fewer than he needed for a majority of the total 131 electoral votes cast. Since no candidate had received a majority of the electoral vote, the election was decided in Jackson’s favor by the House of Representatives under the provisions of the Twelfth Amendment.

Calls for Reform

It is very rare for a president to win the popular vote yet lose the election. Although it has only happened five times in U.S. History, it has occurred twice in the current century, adding fuel to the anti-Electoral College movement’s flame. In the controversial 2000 election, finally decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, Republican George W. Bush was elected president, despite having lost the popular vote to Democrat Al Gore by 543,816 votes. In the 2016 election, Republican Donald Trump lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes but was elected president by winning 304 electoral votes compared to Clinton’s 227 electoral votes.

Protestors demonstrate against President-elect Donald Trump outside Independence Hall November 13, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Protestors demonstrate against President-elect Donald Trump outside Independence Hall November 13, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mark Makela/Getty Images

While there have long been calls to abolish the Electoral College system, doing so would involve the lengthy and likely to fail process of enacting a Constitutional amendment. In 1977, for example, President Jimmy Carter sent a letter to Congress in which he called for abolishing the Electoral College. “My fourth recommendation is that the Congress adopt a Constitutional amendment to provide for direct popular election of the President,” he wrote. “Such an amendment, which would abolish the Electoral College, will ensure that the candidate chosen by the voters actually becomes President.” Congress, however, largely ignored the recommendation.

More recently, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) was launched as a state-level movement to reform—rather than abolish—the Electoral College system. The movement calls on the states to pass legislation agreeing to commit all of their electoral votes to the winner of the aggregate, national popular vote, thus negating the need for a constitutional amendment to accomplish the task.

So far, 16 states, controlling 196 electoral votes have passed National Popular Vote bills. However, the National Popular Vote proposal cannot take effect until such laws have been enacted by states controlling at least 270 electoral votes— a majority of the 538 total electoral votes.

One major purpose of the Electoral College was to balance the power of the electorate so that votes in states with small populations would not (always) be overpowered by larger-populated states. Bipartisan action is required to make its reformation possible.

Sources and Further Reading

Updated by Robert Longley