Five Facts on How to Win a Presidential Election

Five Facts on How to Win a Presidential Election

With this week’s GOP primary debate, the race for the White House is well underway. But beyond the campaign rallies and political ads lies a complex system that governs how the U.S. elects its president. Understanding this system is key not just for the candidates but also for voters, giving them a better awareness of how campaigns choose to allocate their resources and how candidates can win.Here are Five Facts on what it takes to win the White House, and why the results can sometimes be surprising.

  1. To win the presidency, a candidate must earn a majority of the 538 votes in the Electoral College.

The Electoral College is comprised of a set number of electors from each state and DC, proportionate to a state’s total number of representatives and senators. While a small state like Wyoming receives only three electoral votes, California will have 54 electors in the 2024 presidential election, reflecting its larger population.

2. Forty-eight states and DC allocate Electoral College votes under "winner-take-all" rules.

In 48 states and the District of Columbia, all Electoral College votes go to the candidate receiving the most statewide votes – a system known as "winner-take-all." This means that in a competitive three-way race, a candidate could win all a state's electors – for example, the 40 electors allocated to Texas – with just a plurality, needing as little as 34 percent of the popular vote. The only exceptions to this rule are Nebraska and Maine, which distribute two electoral votes to the candidate who wins the state's overall popular vote, and then allocate one additional electoral vote to the winner of the popular vote within each individual congressional district.

3. Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Bill Clinton, and Richard Nixon won the Electoral College without a majority of the popular vote.

In 1860, Lincoln only brought in 39.7 percent of the vote, while others have had nearly as slim margins while still winning the Electoral College. But an outright victory with an even lower percentage is theoretically possible. An analysis by NPR found that winning the 39 smallest states and DC could have led to an Electoral College victory in 2012 with just 23 percent of the total vote.

4. There have been four instances in U.S. history where a candidate won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College.

Notably, in 2016, Donald Trump achieved an upset victory over Hillary Clinton by winning 304 electoral votes to her 227, despite losing the popular vote by 2 percentage points – equivalent to nearly three million fewer votes. Similar upsets happened when George W. Bush won in 2000, Benjamin Harrison beat Grover Cleveland in 1888, and Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Samuel Tilden in 1876.

5. If no presidential candidate earns a majority of Electoral College votes, the election would be decided by the House of Representatives, where each state has one vote.

In the event no presidential candidate earns 270 Electoral College votes, the Twelfth Amendment dictates that the House of Representatives will choose the winner through a “contingent election,” with each state’s delegation casting a vote for one of the candidates – to win, a candidate must secure an absolute majority of votes (26 states). The Senate would choose the vice president by a similar majority vote. This rare but consequential scenario occurred in 1824, when the House chose John Quincy Adams as president over Andrew Jackson and Henry Crawford. Adams’ win was controversial, as he had received fewer popular and electoral votes than Jackson but secured the influential support of House Speaker Henry Clay (who had also run in the 1824 election). Political scientists debate what would happen in such a contingent election in modern times, but 1824 shows that the path to the Oval Office can be more unlikely than voters often imagine.