Dreaming of another Cleveland
The author is the Washington bureau chiefof the JoongAng Ilbo.
Around this time of year, the White House hosts a relay of parties. On Nov. 30, a party began with the theme “America the Beautiful.” Regardless of the resurgence of Covid-19, more than 20 parties are being held with spectacular Christmas decorations as the backdrop.
On Dec. 1, dozens of attendees gathered at the Cross Hall on the first floor of the White House. Under the English neoclassical chandelier, President Donald Trump said, “It’s been an amazing four years. We’re trying to do another four years. Otherwise, I’ll see you in four years.” It was practically a declaration that if his appeal to the election outcome does not work out, he will run again.
One-hundred-and-thirty-two years ago, America’s 22nd President Grover Cleveland lost the re-election. He got 100,000 more votes than Benjamin Harrison, but lost in the Electoral College votes, 233 to 168. Four years later, he took up the challenge again and became the 24th president of the United States. He is the first president to return to the White House in non-consecutive terms in U.S. history.
In this year’s presidential election, Trump had seven million fewer votes than Biden, and 74 less electoral votes, 306 to 232. But what changed the outcome was about 100,000 votes. In Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona, which had 47 electoral votes combined at stake, he lost by that margin. In a simple calculation, Trump could have won the electoral votes if he turned these three states and got more than half of the 100,000 votes.
The U.S. presidential election boils down to “local elections” once candidates are determined. As attention and focus naturally go to a few swing states, others are marginalized. The winner-takes-all Electoral College is strictly against the principle of equally weighted votes. Stanford University historian Jack Rakove argued that they were fatal flaws for the U.S. presidential election system. Controversies arise when the numbers of popular votes and electoral college votes are not compatible.
In a September Gallup poll, 61 percent of the respondents wanted to scrap the electoral college system. But 89 percent of Democrats supported the scrap while 77 percent of Republicans opposed. The discrepancy grew after Trump was elected four years ago. A Constitutional revision to abolish the Electoral College requires two-thirds of votes from the Congress and three-fourth of votes for ratification from the states. As the interests of the two major parties are entangled, the calls for a revision are floating vainly.
Trump has started to tie up the 74 million votes he received under the frame of “victim of election fraud.” He seems to rely on their power to get over the political and economic tsunamis after leaving office. The rules of the presidential election will remain the same in four years. In the end, it is a strange battle that the outcome is determined by flipping only three swing states.