Update, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2 p.m. ET: It’s now all but certain that Hillary Clinton will win the popular vote. Click here for more.
Original post, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 11:45 p.m. ET: As of 11:45 p.m. EST on Tuesday, the New York Times’ live forecast projected a Trump victory with greater than 95 percent confidence. At the same time, it projected roughly a 1 percentage point victory for Clinton in the popular vote, even as Trump led in the early returns.
This should sound awfully familiar to Democrats. The last candidate to win the popular vote but lose the election was Al Gore in 2000. It happened just three times prior to that, all in the 1800s.
It would be scant consolation to Clinton or her supporters, but a popular vote win would still be a historic landmark: It would make her the first woman to win the most votes in a U.S. presidential election.
If Clinton does become the next winner who also lost, the simplest way to explain it will be to look at the three most populous states in the nation: California, Texas, and New York. Clinton will win both California and New York by wide margins, racking up millions of votes that have no effect on the number of electoral votes she receives. The Times is projecting margins of greater than 20 percent for Clinton in both states. In contrast, Trump’s projected margin in Texas—the largest red state by far—is a more modest 10 percent.
If few had discussed this possibility ahead of the election, it was probably because most models projected Clinton to win both the popular vote and the Electoral College. That said, FiveThirtyEight had noted for some time that Clinton was more vulnerable in the Electoral College than in the popular vote, and Nate Silver elaborated on that Tuesday night:
According to our polls-only model, Clinton was projected to win the Electoral College in only 59 percent of cases where she won the popular vote by 1 to 2 percentage points, as she may eventually do tonight once all votes are counted. And she was projected to win it only a quarter of the time when she won the popular vote by less than 1 point.
After Gore lost, there was a loud cry among Democrats about the injustice of a system that would allow such a result. That seemed to fade in subsequent elections, as George W. Bush and Barack Obama won both the popular and electoral votes. After tonight, there will be a whole lot more calls to fix a system in which Americans’ preferred candidate can finish second.