President Barack Obama won the popular vote in 2012 but...

President Barack Obama won the popular vote in 2012 but formally was reelected by defeating Republican Mitt Romney in electoral votes. Credit: The Washington Post via Getty Images / Melina Mara

Supporters of either Donald Trump or Joe Biden are clearly motivated to vote this year, even in states where their candidate has little chance of making gains in the Electoral College.

For any president, winning more votes in a democracy offers the intangible value of a popular mandate. Otherwise, Trump might not have bothered to create unfounded "fraud" scenarios to excuse his having lost the popular vote four years ago by nearly 3 million ballots.

If Trump had won the greater share of votes, maybe the complaints of Hillary Clinton supporters about Russian meddling, emails and the FBI would have had a duller edge.

All that is now irrelevant.

This election has a different shape than in 2016 because an incumbent is on the ballot. The last three presidents not only won their second terms via the Electoral College but also carried the popular vote along the way.

Whether Trump can meet that bipartisan benchmark will say a lot.

In 2012, the most recent comparable year, President Barack Obama, a Democrat, got nearly 66 million votes to Republican Mitt Romney’s 61 million, according to numbers certified well after Election Day.

In 2004, GOP President George W. Bush got 62 million to Democrat John Kerry’s 59 million. And in his 1996 reelection, Democratic President Bill Clinton won a plurality — 47 million votes to Republican Sen. Bob Dole’s 39 million and independent Ross Perot’s 8 million.

Trump has been trailing Biden in national popularity polls, but analysts say he has a plausible path to victory in the Electoral College.

Should the president end up winning under controversial circumstances, it would be best for him politically if he convincingly captures the popular vote too, whatever the chances.

If Bush hadn’t barely landed second in the popular vote in 2000, his Electoral College win, with the help of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Florida, might have attracted less cynicism in hindsight. Vice President Al Gore got 50,999,897 in popular votes, to Bush's 50,456,002.

But that milestone race 20 years ago had no incumbent on the ballot. Winning the popular vote four years later gave Bush's reelection, which turned on his razor-thin capture of Ohio's 20 electoral votes, an added stamp of legitimacy.

Electoral College votes are distributed according to individual states' population. But the system doesn't give equal weight to the valid ballots of all citizens.

For one thing, most states are winner-take-all. If a candidate loses a state, the votes he did get there won't help him nationally. Also, the smallest states get a minimum of three electoral votes, no matter the population.

Whatever the rationale for keeping the Electoral College — and it’s unlikely to be abolished — an instinctive feeling endures in America that the candidate with the most votes should win. This is one dynamic to consider when the results start rolling in.

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