Did you know that President Donald Trump won the popular vote in the battleground states, both in 2016 and 2020?
If one were to add the popular vote of the 15 states in which the candidates actually campaigned, Trump won that vote by 1.63 million votes in 2016 and by 2.3 million votes in 2020.
The election seemed close only because if 40,000 voters in three states in 2016 or 23,000 voters in three states in 2020 had changed their minds, the outcome would have changed under the winner-take-all rule used in 48 states and the District of Columbia to award electoral votes.
But the popular vote totals in those states are telling because in the 15 states where Trump compared his ideas to the ideas of his opponent, he won. He lost the overall vote because of New York and California — states where he never campaigned.
The fact is, since 2000, the conservative candidate has won the popular vote in the battleground states four out of six times. George W. Bush and Trump prevailed in the jurisdictions where there was active competition. But they lost in the areas where they made no effort to persuade voters.
Conservatives have come to fear a competition of ideas because they think they will lose in the court of public opinion. As a result, conservatives lose where they fail to campaign. The jury in the battleground states where there is a vigorous competition of ideas between the major party candidates rules in favor of conservative ideas. In other words, where conservatives fight, they win. When they don’t, they lose.
That is why conservatives should take a second look at the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. There are several reasons why.
First, conservatives should not be afraid to present and defend their ideas. Most opposition to a national popular vote is rooted in the fear that people will vote for the other side. The left’s perceived national majority comes from New York and California, where they rule unchallenged.
Second, Republicans have over the last 30 years tried to pander to narrow slices of voters in disparate parts of the country. In doing so, they abandoned conservatives to win battleground states. Bush pressed Congress for Medicare Part D, aka free drugs for seniors, to win the senior vote in the battleground state of Florida. Good politics, bad policy. The same with No Child Left Behind — a huge intrusion on local control. Bush believed he needed to win the Cincinnati suburbs in the battleground state of Ohio, where this idea was popular, even though it was, and is, a horrible policy that alienated millions of conservatives across the country. Once again, good politics, bad idea.
Third, vast numbers of conservatives in the Mountain West, Midwest and Southern states have been alienated and abandoned by the GOP establishment. That establishment makes no effort to come up with a policy agenda or electoral strategy to engage those voters because they are focused on winning battleground states to win the presidency. Voter turnout in those areas has dropped each year because conservative voters believe, rightly so, that no one cares what they think or want from the political process.
If every vote in every state is important in every election — a goal that will be achieved once the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact goes into effect — Republicans will have to worry about conservatives in every state and figure out what policies and strategies will turn them out to vote.
Importantly, when Republicans and conservatives engage in the competition of ideas, as the compact will force them to do, they will win. Trump proved that. After four years of a constant barrage of negative media, Trump still won in those states where he showed up.
To be sure, the compact will also require conservatives to work harder, to market their ideas to a broader audience and to take more time to persuade more people that their ideas will make a better America.
That challenge is worth the effort. Conservatives shouldn’t be afraid to pursue it.
Ray Haynes is a former California state senator, former national chairman of the American Legislative Exchange Council and a senior advisor to National Popular Vote.