Wasted Votes: Why National Polls Won’t Predict Victory in 2020

Wasted Votes: Why National Polls Won’t Predict Victory in 2020

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The 2004 Presidential election was the only time in the last 30 years that more people voted for a Republican president than a Democratic president. While Democrats won four of the seven elections during this period, Republicans won three, twice with fewer votes nationwide.

In 2000, an election famous for hanging chads, Al Gore won 543,895 more votes than George W. Bush yet lost to him by a hair’s breadth of 267 to 271 in the Electoral College. If Gore had won just 538 more votes in Florida, he would have been president.

In 2016, an election famous for foreign interference, Hillary Clinton won 2,868,686 more votes than Donald Trump yet lost to him by a much bigger 232 to 306 in the Electoral College. Clinton would have had to have won at least an additional 77,747 votes perfectly distributed in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to overcome her deficit.

Looking ahead to 2020, Democrats have to be wary when they see their candidates ahead of Trump in the national polls. In today’s climate, it is possible that a Democrat could win the national popular vote by 2-3% and still lose the election in the Electoral College.

In 2016, national polls gave a false impression of imminent victory and obscured Clinton’s cratering in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin where Democrats had few wasted votes to spare.

Most polling in spring 2020 shows Joe Biden beating Trump by a larger margin nationally than Clinton did in 2016. But Democrats need to make sure they run a campaign that appeals in all types of places from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, not just run up the score in places that are in a “Blue Bubble.”

Democrats need to make sure they nominate a candidate who can appeal in all types of places from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, not just run up the score in places that are in a “Blue Bubble.”

That begs the question: how did Hillary Clinton manage to win the national popular vote by a margin more than five times larger than Gore did, yet underperform him in the Electoral College by 35 votes and lose by not one, but three, states? And could Democrats set themselves up for a Pyrrhic victory by simply widening the margin between popular vote and Electoral College victory the next time around?

What Happened?

The answer is simple: political polarization exploits faults in the Electoral College creating a phenomenon we are describing as “wasted votes.” Within this system, it doesn’t matter how many more votes a candidate gets than their opponent in a state (or in a few cases, a district) as long as they beat them by one. Therefore, Gore and Clinton both received all of California’s electoral votes (54 for Gore; 55 for Clinton) because they both won California. However, Gore won California by 1,293,774 votes, and Clinton won it by 4,269,978. Those extra nearly three million votes didn’t do a single thing to put a Democrat in the White House.

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Of course, there is some utility in winning over those voters. In 2003, Democrats held a 33 to 20 seat advantage in the state’s congressional delegation. By 2019, Democrats now hold a 46 to 7 seat advantage. Democrats’ ability to win more votes in more places in California has allowed them to pick up 13 congressional seats, but at the presidential level, it is meaningless.

Similarly, Gore won Illinois by 569,605 votes compared to Clinton’s 944,714 vote margin. That means Clinton netted another nearly 400K votes out of another safe blue state, adding to her national vote margin but not impacting the election’s outcome.

Not all the difference between Clinton and Gore’s margins were in blue states. Interestingly, in Texas, Gore lost by 1,365,893 votes while Clinton lost by a much smaller 807,179 votes, meaning she made up a lot of ground—over 500K to be exact—in the national popular vote in the country’s largest reliable Republican state. And while that movement is going in the right direction for Democrats and might eventually bear Electoral College fruit, it was still far off of producing results in 2016.

What It Means

Adding up the wasted votes across all 50 states and DC, it becomes apparent that more votes are being wasted today than just 20 years ago—both in raw numbers and a percentage of total votes. But the phenomenon is getting much worse for Democrats. In fact, in 35 of the 51 places that allocate the electors that determine the winner, there were more wasted votes in 2016 than 2000.

In 2000, Gore received 6,479,373 wasted votes while Bush received 5,935,478 wasted votes. Gore’s margin of victory in the national popular vote of 543,895 can be found by subtracting Bush’s wasted vote total from Gore’s wasted vote total. That year, 105,421,423 people voted for President, which means 11.8% of all votes were wasted votes for either Gore or Bush.

In 2016, the total wasted vote number skyrocketed to 19,584,091, or 14.3% of the 136,669,276 total votes cast. Both Clinton and Trump received much larger wasted vote numbers as well, with 11,226,361, and 8,357,730 respectively.

Gore, Bush, and Trump all had very similar wasted vote percentages compared to their total votes (12.7%, 11.8%, and 13.3% respectively). However, Clinton’s number was much higher—coming in at a full 17.0% due to her over-performance in large non-swing states as shown above.

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This problem is only getting worse. Political polarization’s impact on the Electoral College wasn’t as brutal in the mid-to-late-20th century. In three of the closest elections in that time period, the wasted votes phenomena stayed between 6-7% nationwide.

For example, in the 1960 election, in which John Kennedy won the national popular vote over Richard Nixon by 112,827 votes, only 6.0% of all votes were wasted, nearly half of the proportion from 2000 and way less than 2016.

In 1968, Richard Nixon won the national popular vote by 511,944 votes, which was less than a 1% margin. Only 6.7% of votes fell in this wasted votes category. Eight years later in 1976 as Jimmy Carter was winning the national popular vote by 1.7 million votes for a two-point win similar to Clinton’s 2016 performance. However, only 6.3% of all votes fell in this wasted votes category. Carter had nearly double that Gerald Ford did (8.3% to 4.4%) but that is to be expected of someone who is winning.

And in the 21st century the polarization is true even in close contests where the national popular vote winner is winning the Electoral College. In 2004, George W. Bush won by a tad over 3 million votes in the national popular vote, but won the election by 118,601 in Ohio, which would have tipped the election to Kerry. The percentage of wasted votes nationwide was 11.9%, similar to 2000, but Kerry’s percentage was 9.8%, and Bush’s was 14.1%. Again, Bush’s number is a bit high but that is because the Electoral College almost worked in Democrats’ favor to overturn the nationwide will of the electorate.

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What Ifs?

If you could go back in time and give the Clinton campaign an extra 77,747 votes to distribute wherever they want, Clinton could win the Electoral College by a 278 to 260 margin by picking up Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin by one vote each.

By comparison, Gore would be able to win 296 Electoral votes to Bush’s 242 with just an extra 7,750 votes to distribute to Florida and New Hampshire. He wouldn’t even need the extra 70,000 votes Hillary Clinton required.

Democrats need to remember that winning more votes only translates into beating Trump if they win them in the right places.

Looking toward 2020, it is important for Democrats to remember that winning more votes only translates into beating Trump if they win them in the right places. Obviously, campaigns target potential voters in certain states through canvassing, phone banking, advertisements, and direct mail, but how they craft a national message and narrative will be the most important thing in determining if they can win new voters, or lose others, in the decisive states.


If Democrats want to win power in 2020, and not just more votes, they will have to make sure they are not just turning blue places bluer. With political polarization continuing to push blue states and red states further away from each other, Democrats must concentrate on improving on the 2016 margin in places where more votes will translate to winning the electors necessary to win the White House.

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