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When winning more votes in an election isn't enough

Americans were given a choice, and Hillary Clinton received more votes. She won't be president, but this is a detail that matters for a variety of reasons.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concedes the presidential election at the New Yorker Hotel on Nov. 9, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty)
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concedes the presidential election at the New Yorker Hotel on Nov. 9, 2016 in New York City.
Look at any map of the election results, and the presidential race doesn't appear to be especially close. And by the metric that matters, it wasn't: Donald Trump needed 270 electoral votes to win, and he'll end up with about 300.But there is that other metric to think about. Slate reported:

Amid all the diagnoses of how Donald Trump won -- all the campaign postmortems and think-pieces and conservative crowing and liberal soul-searching -- a salient fact seems to have passed underappreciated.More Americans appear to have voted for Hillary Clinton than voted for Trump.

The data is still coming together, but I think we can safely remove "appear to" from the equation. Americans were given a choice between two major-party candidates -- four, if you include the Libertarian and Green Parties -- and Hillary Clinton received more votes than any other candidate.In practical terms, that's not much of a consolation prize, and it may seem to amount to little more than bragging rights. It could have some impact on the debate over Trump's "mandate," though it's hard to imagine Republicans caring.But that doesn't mean it's irrelevant. For those taking stock of what's become of the American electorate, for example, and whether it's lost its moral compass, it matters that voters in the United States were given a choice -- and Donald Trump came in second.It also matters when it comes to scrutinizing polling. While this looks like an election in which pollsters came up short, the fact remains that national polling showed Clinton up by about two points headed into Election Day, and when all is said and done, that won't be far off from her overall advantage over the Republican victor.While we're at it, I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention that there's a certain irony to Trump's incessant complaining about the "rigged" political process: it's a system that will elevate him to the presidency despite earning fewer votes than his opponent.And then, of course, there's the fact that Clinton won't be the first candidate to lose despite receiving more votes.Americans tend to think of these electoral-college/popular-vote splits as incredibly rare, but it's now happened 5 times out of 57 presidential elections in U.S. history. That's a failure rate of about 9%, which isn't that rare.More to the point, however, is the fact that two of those five failures occurred since 2000. It's a statistic that's almost hard to believe: in the last seven presidential elections, the Democratic candidate has earned more votes six times, but they've only won four of those seven elections.The electoral college, in other words, has an unfortunate habit of late of making presidents out of candidates who came in second. I remember one prominent political figure declaring not too long ago, "The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy," which is hardly an unreasonable point.That prominent political figure, by the way, was Donald Trump.