Share of electoral and popular votes by each United States president 1789-2016

Every four years in the United States, the electoral college system is used to determine the winner of the presidential election. In this system, each state has a fixed number of electors based on their population size, and these electors generally then vote for their candidate based on who got the most popular votes within their state or district. Since 1964, there have been 538 electoral votes available for presidential candidates, who need a minimum of 270 votes to win the election. Because of this system, candidates do not have to win over fifty percent of the popular votes across the country, but just win in enough states to receive a total of 270 electoral college votes. The use of this system is a source of debate in the US, and those who argue in its favor claim that candidates cannot focus on large cities and must also appeal to smaller and less-populous states, and they say that this system preserves federalism and the two-party system. However, critics argue that this system does not represent the will of the majority of American voters, and that it discourages candidates from appealing to voters in states that have consistently voted for the same party, instead turning their focus to 'swing states' where the outcome is more difficult to predict.

Popular results

From 1789 until 1820, there was no popular vote, and the President was then chosen only by the electors from each state. George Washington was unanimously voted for by the electorate, receiving one hundred percent of the votes in both elections. From 1824, the popular vote has been conducted among American citizens, to help electors decide who to vote for (although the 1824 winner was chosen by the House of Representatives, as no candidate received over fifty percent of electoral votes). Since 1924, the difference in the share of both votes has varied, with several candidates receiving over ninety percent of the electoral votes while only receiving between fifty and sixty percent of the popular vote. The highest difference was for Ronald Reagan in 1980, where he received just 50.4 percent of the popular vote, but 90.9 percent of the electoral votes.

Unpopular winners

Since 1824, there have been 48 elections, and in 18 of these the winner did not receive over fifty percent of the popular vote. In the majority of cases, the winner did receive more votes than their closest competitor, however there have been five instances where the winner of the electoral college vote actually lost the popular vote to another candidate. The most recent examples were 2000, when George W. Bush received roughly half a million fewer votes than Al Gore,and in the most recent election in 2016, where Hillary Clinton won approximately three million more votes than the current president, Donald Trump.

Share of electoral college and popular votes from each winning candidate, in all United States presidential elections from 1789 to 2016

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Release date

July 2020


United States

Survey time period

1789 to 2016

Supplementary notes

Release date is date of extraction.
Percentage of Electoral College votes calculated using data from Encyclopedia Britannica.

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Statistics on "History of U.S. presidential elections 1789-2016"

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