Interpreting “Landslide” and Why it Matters

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ss003One of my friends on Facebook posted a link to an article about Kellyanne Conway’s life and rise to her current place of prominence in the nation’s political landscape. I didn’t know much about Conway, so I decided to read the article. I was interested in learning more about her. Unfortunately, I found myself pausing when I read the first four words of the second paragraph referring to the presidential election, where the article’s author wrote:

“In a landslide election…”

This struck me as odd, and after reading the article I commented on Facebook that I didn’t understand how you could legitimately call Trump’s victory a “landslide” when he lost the popular vote. Another friend of mine on Facebook noted that she assumed the word landslide was referring to the Electoral College results. Well, this got me to wondering, so I decided to check it out further.

The “Landslide” Claims

I began by examining that statements both Trump and Conway made about the election results. On 11/27/16 Trump tweeted, In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” The following day on 11/28/16 Conway tweeted her description of the election results as “Landslide. Blowout. Historic.” I cite these statements in order to clearly verify that both Trump and Conway did in fact describe the election outcome as a landslide. And in this article I’m not going to explore the question of whether or not there was massive illegal voting. That’s another topic for another day if there is ever any actual evidence to evaluate.

The thing about using the word “landslide” to describe the outcome of an election is that there is no widely accepted definition of the word. What this means to me is that the use of the word in this context is open to interpretation. As such, my goal here is to determine whether Trump’s victory can reasonably be described as a landslide.

A Method for Examining the Landslide Claims

One way to do this is by comparing Trump’s Electoral College outcome to other presidential elections. Because the total number of Electoral College voters has changed over time, the proper way to do this is by calculating the percentage of Electoral College votes the winner received. For these numbers, I refer to the Wikipedia’s List of United States presidential elections by Electoral College margin. I don’t have any reason to question the accuracy of these numbers, and they can easily be verified by any number of sources.

With a total of 538 Electoral College votes available, Trump wound up with 304 or 56.5%. He would have received 306, but two electors defected to other candidates. Clinton had five defectors, which is how she ended up with 227 or 42.2%. The remaining seven votes went to a variety of candidates. If you’re interested in that, check out this article from National Public Radio: Donald Trump Secures Electoral College Win, With Few Surprises (it’s interesting).

History of Electoral College Wins

With Trump’s percentage of electoral votes determined to be 56.5%, we can now see how it stacks up to other elections. The gold standard here would be our first president, George Washington, who in 1789 received 100% of Electoral College votes – can’t do better than that! And he did a repeat performance in 1792. I think everyone can agree that those were “landslide” Electoral College wins.

Then we move into candidates who received less than 100% but more than 90% of the Electoral College votes. There are eight elections that fall in this group, including Ronald Reagan twice for 1984 (97.58%) and 1980 (90.89%), as well as Richard Nixon in 1972 (96.65%). I think these can still be easily regarded as landslides. From here there are 10 elections where candidates got between 80-89% of Electoral College votes, and then another group of eight who received between 70-79%. I’m totally comfortable calling all of these landslides. Are you? But now what do we do with the next 10 elections in which the winners received somewhere between 60-69% of Electoral College votes? Are you willing to call those landslides as well? It’s less clear to me whether or not they “qualify” for the landslide designation.

Honing in on a Reasonable Definition of “Landslide”

But let me pause here a moment and look at the bottom end of the scale. If you receive less than 50% of Electoral College votes, then you lose and you’re not president because you have to get a majority of EC votes. Greater than 50% is the ground zero from where you start measuring and describing a win.

Maybe it would be helpful to use a related concept with which most people are at least familiar: The super-majority. When the US Senate votes on some items, a super-majority is required to win, which in the context of the Senate is defined as a two-thirds majority, meaning at least 67 votes out of 100 (67%). I would humbly suggest that this definition of super-majority serves as a reasonable way to define a “landslide” victory in a vote. Of the 10 elections where the winners received 60-69% of the Electoral College votes, four would qualify as landslides and the remaining six would not. And yes, the “landslides” would then include Obama’s 2008 win, but just barely at 67.84% of EC votes. I don’t actually recall if people referred to Obama’s 2008 win as a “landslide” or not. I will say that I don’t remember personally thinking of it as a landslide, just a solid win, maybe even a “decisive” win, but not a “landslide.”

If the 67% threshold is a reasonable definition of a landslide, then Trump’s 56.5% simply doesn’t qualify – his win cannot be reasonably be described as a “landslide,” even by what I think is a pretty conservative definition of a landslide. In the history of 58 presidential elections, Trumps Electoral College win ranks near the bottom at #46. Personally, I would feel more comfortable with a minimum “landslide” threshold of 70%, which would rule out both Obama and Trump.

Why it Matters

So why am I spending so much time analyzing this? Well, because people (including Trump and Conway) are out there claiming Trump’s win was a “landslide.” Every president wants their win to be a landslide because it helps legitimize the actions they take on behalf of the citizenry. You have more “political capital” to get your way if you have a clear mandate from the people because they voted for you in an overwhelming “landslide.” And I’ve already seen examples of people on Facebook who have adopted the idea that Trump won in a landslide as if it were just a commonplace fact, such as how it was presented in the article about Conway – except that it’s not a fact. The word “landslide” is open to interpretation, and I believe the analysis I provided above shows there is simply no reasonable way to claim that Trump’s win was a “landslide.”

What this means to me is that Trump cannot claim to have some kind of clear mandate for his policies because he won in a “landslide” election. It wasn’t a landslide. He lost the popular vote (until proven otherwise) and won the Electoral College vote by what I think is best described as a slim or moderate margin. It was an “upset” victory, to be sure, but it wasn’t a “landslide.” Does Trump have a mandate? He does, but so far it remains one that represents only a minority of those who voted in the presidential election.

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