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A funny thing happens on Ohio’s road to the May 3 primary.
As Republicans in Ohio stumble for a last-minute endorsement from former President Donald Trump, they’re scrambling in every way imaginable to woo the ahistorical wing of the GOP that shares with the former reality TV star an affinity for twisting facts and ignoring history. In fact, trailing contender JD Vance—yes, that former financial backer whose memoir of a childhood in Appalachia made him a star among those seeking a rational explanation for Trump’s power – now leans into the idea that US electoral systems are too cumbersome to be precise. And in doing so, it promotes an alternate history of this country that had Presidents Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, who both won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College. “I have a friend in France, and they just had an election there. The polls closed a few hours ago and they already know who the winners are. It must be nice living in a first world country,” Vance tweeted on April 10, referring to the French presidential election which saw its first two popular vote runners-up qualify for a run-off on April 24 which will be decided by a simple majority.
Let’s stop for a minute and start at the beginning, dating back to the original Constitutional Convention that gave the United States its cumbersome, Byzantine Electoral College, the group that meets every four years to distribute presidential electors based on population. of each state. Giant states with large numbers of people like Texas and California get the lion’s share of electoral votes, while states with vast land masses but fewer voters like Alaska only get a cut of shrimp. This ruins the myth that every state’s election matters, but preserves the odd notion that every vote counts equally; otherwise, giving Montana and New York the same weight would pervert the system. (Unless you’re in the Senate, where you actually are.)
The system is imperfect. No one is going to credibly say that is not the case. But it neatly divides the states into reds, blues, and purples. You’d be hard-pressed to see a Democratic presidential candidate seeking votes in Mississippi or Republicans crowding into California once the general election begins, except for donor meetings, of course. The resulting reality is that the electoral college system reduces a national campaign for president to a handful of swing states, a fact that campaign veterans don’t really mind because it allows them to sort out the states. (No Democratic campaign manager on a national campaign has ever prioritized a call with a supporter in Idaho over a call from Ohio.)
Which brings us back to the Senate race that is going spectacularly messy in Ohio. Vance, a potential rockstar recruit for the seat vacated when Sen. Rob Portman retires at the end of this term, pursued the history-averse wing of his Republican Party in his errant tweet this weekend comparing the election results in the United States to those taking place in France. The problem: France elects its leaders by universal suffrage while the United States elects its leaders by electoral suffrage. A vote in nearby states like Michigan, Wisconsin and, yes, Ohio, counts more than a vote in South Carolina or Oregon. This means it takes longer to count our votes, and it also means that the appearance of the cards on election night does not accurately reflect that actual result. Sure, there’s plenty of red stretching from Oklahoma City to Raleigh, but not all landmass is equal in politics. And if the raw number of popular votes were decisive, the last two Republican presidents would not have been elected; Both George W. Bush and Trump lost the popular vote.
Vance is struggling in a race that many here in Washington thought was his undoing. the Hillbilly Elegy The author was a rural Republican who could tap into vast sums of GOP money based on storytelling and pragmatism. Once upon a time a #NeverTrumper was hosted at the well-heeled donors conference near Palm Springs, California to discuss strategy with billionaires in 2018 – only to admit three years later he was a flip flopper to Molly TIME Ball while having breakfast in Cincinnati. “I’m not just a flip-flopper, I’m a flip-flop-flipper on Trump,” Vance said, leaning into a strategy that would damn just about any other political wannabe.
But this political moment is one where Republicans are chasing the remnants of Trump’s power. The ex-president may be sent to his Florida club, but he is preparing his return. Most of the Republican Party still sees Trump as the leader and demands loyalty from him. And, as such, a whole host of Republicans in this country reject their own knowledge of how politics works and what history demands to say only what the former president wants to hear. That’s why you have the likes of Vance leaning into an ahistorical understanding of American politics while pushing rhetoric that has a distinct whiff of the populist Know Nothings of yesteryear. Not everyone has to understand how elections work in France, but it’s not a difficult threshold to have knowledge of the American system when running for a seat in Washington.
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