National Opinions

Trump’s claims about his victory are hot air

President-elect Donald Trump arrives at a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich. on Dec. 9.
President-elect Donald Trump arrives at a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich. on Dec. 9. AP

Donald Trump won the election, that’s a fact. But since then, Trump, his supporters and even some pundits are making various claims about his victory that simply aren’t true, starting with his Orwellian assertions of winning in a landslide or even recording “one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history.”

Here are a few other facts about the president-elect, the election and public opinion:

1. With almost all ballots counted, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote – that is, the total number of votes cast – by more than 2.8 million, about a 2.1 percent edge over Trump’s tally. This is a larger gap than in the 2000 election, when Al Gore got about 500,000 votes more than George W. Bush. John Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon in 1968 and Jimmy Carter in 1976 were each elected president with a smaller percentage lead in total votes cast than Clinton’s lead over Trump. In 2004, Bush beat John Kerry by only 2.5 percent of the vote.

No, winning the popular vote doesn’t have any legal standing. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise. But it does mean that claiming the voters were demanding Trump or the programs he favored is dubious.

2. Trump’s Electoral College margin, 306 to 232, is below the average spread. Nate Silver has the details, ranking Trump’s victory eighth out of the last 10 elections. A uniform 1 percent swing to Clinton would have given her Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and the presidency. Trump won those three crucial states by a total of fewer than 80,000 votes.

3. Republicans lost ground in the House and the Senate. While the party kept its majority in both chambers, it will hold fewer seats. Historically, this has tended to make it harder for presidents to get their way.

4. Trump remains unusually unpopular. The current HuffPollster estimate has him at 47 percent favorable, 48 percent unfavorable; that compares with Barack Obama’s 67 percent favorable at the same point in 2008. Pew finds approval for Trump’s transition from 10 to 30 percentage points lower than that of the last four presidents at this stage.

5. It’s true Republicans won big in both 2010 and 2014, when Obama wasn’t very popular. But it’s hard to say voters this year were rejecting Obama, whose approval ratings continue to surge. The president’s current Gallup approval level is 59 percent, matching or exceeding that of most two-term presidents at this point.

None of these five facts takes away from Trump’s victory, and his unpopularity doesn’t justify any of the impractical calls to defeat him in the Electoral College by defying voting instructions.

But presidential popularity – or the lack thereof – still matters. Trump could become much more popular after he takes office. Or, starting his presidency with record-low approval ratings, he could slip more. If that happens, he will likely receive little deference from Congress, Republicans included, or from executive-branch departments and agencies.

It all will become clear soon enough. In the mean time, don’t believe the next president is as popular as he says he is, or that he has any special electoral magic allowing him to get away with outrageous statements and actions that would hurt any other politician. There’s nothing Teflon about this president-elect.

Jonathan Bernstein writes for Bloomberg View. Email jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

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