Donald Trump’s narrow victory in enough states to win the Electoral College despite losing the national popular vote has sparked a firestorm of debate over that institution. Many conservatives profess a newfound love for a system that they claim supposedly protects us from an “imperial” California unfairly imposing its will on the rest of America, never mind that it was originally intended to empower slave states. This elitist reasoning undemocratically argues that some votes should count more than others. But there’s something conservatives don’t reckon with when they defend the Electoral College this way: Trump would have lost the election without the region of Appalachia imposing its will on the rest of the U.S.
The above map shows what the Electoral College outcome would have been if the large cultural region of Appalachia composed a single populous state like New York that spanned from Alabama to Pennsylvania instead of being divided 11 ways (see here for a larger version). This article is a preview of our upcoming broader series on the political geography of Appalachia after we previously analyzed the presidential primaries there. We plan on delving down to the county level and looking back at how historical presidential and major statewide races might have turned out had this distinct American region formed its own superstate.
Under these redrawn state lines, Trump would have just barely won a 280-258 majority of Electoral College votes nationally. His 0.2 percent margin in Michigan would have been the state to put him over the top. As shown below, the hypothetical state of Appalachia favored Trump by a 33.8 point landslide, an even larger margin than Hillary Clinton’s 30-point win in California; indeed, Appalachia would have been Trump’s fourth-best state after Wyoming, Oklahoma, and North Dakota. Consequently, its 26 electoral votes would have been indispensable for Trump’s victory because without them, Clinton would have won more electoral votes, 258 to Trump's 254.
Excluding their heavily Republican Appalachian regions, Clinton would have captured the rump states of Georgia by 0.9 percent and Pennsylvania by 13.1 percent. Clinton even came within just 0.3 percent of winning North Carolina’s 14 remaining electoral votes, which would have handed her an Electoral College victory even if we included Appalachia. If we removed Appalachia from the election entirely, Clinton’s national popular vote margin doubles from 2.1 percent to 4 points.
One major reason the Electoral College favored Trump today was quite simple: luck. Quirks of historical geography created our modern state boundaries, which often bear little resemblance to how Americans actually live now, and it just so happened that this configuration benefited Trump’s electoral coalition. The Electoral College by no means makes America better off because certain regions aren’t able to impose their will on the rest of the country, since in fact it does quite the opposite. Existing state boundaries allowed voters in Appalachia to elect a president the rest of the country disagreed with, and it’s simply undemocratic to argue that they should count more than Californians or anyone else.
The chart below shows the presidential election result in Appalachia by each state’s subregion, all of which Trump easily carried in a landslide. His closest margin was 18.5 percent in Appalachian Pennsylvania, and his biggest was 67 points in Appalachian Alabama.
This second chart below shows the presidential result in the existing states containing the Appalachian region on the left, while on the right it shows each state without their Appalachian component. As noted above, Clinton would have flipped Georgia and Pennsylvania without their Appalachian portions, while every rump state would have become more favorable to her, especially Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
If you’re a careful student of cartography, you'll note that the map at the top of this post places non-Appalachian northwestern Pennsylvania with Ohio to avoid creating a non-contiguous state, but the partisan impact of doing so is very modest regardless. Keeping northwestern Pennsylvania with its original state causes Clinton to win non-Appalachian Pennsylvania by 11.1 points, and Trump would have won the rest of Ohio by 6.5 percent.