Presidents Elected Without Winning the Popular Vote

Donald Trump at his acceptance speech
Donald Trump gives his acceptance speech after losing the popular vote by 2.9 million votes. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Five presidents took 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 made it so that only the House of Representatives were elected by popular vote. The Senators would be selected by state legislatures, and the President would be selected by the electoral college (see How the President Is Elected). The Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913 which made the election of Senators occur through popular vote. However, presidential elections still operate under the electoral system. 

The Electoral College is made up of representatives generally selected by the political parties at their state conventions. Since most states except Nebraska and Maine follow a 'winner-take-all' principle of electoral votes, this means 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 since this number is equal to a state's Senators plus Representatives. The Twenty-Third Amendment gave the District of Columbia three electoral votes since they have no Senators and Representatives. 

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 1,000,000 votes This could result in a Republican win at the electoral college even though when the votes between the two states are counted, the Democrats won the popular vote. 

Despite the example given above, it is very rare for a president to win the popular vote yet lose the election. As we have stated, this has only happened four times in US History, and only once in the last 100 years.