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A funny thing is happening on Ohio’s way to the May 3 primary.
As Ohio Republicans trip over themselves for a last-minute endorsement from former President Donald Trump, they’re rushing in every way imaginable to court the ahistorical wing of the GOP This shares with the former reality star an affinity for distorting facts and ignoring history. In fact, lagging candidate J.D. Vance—yes, that former hedge funder whose memoirs of an Appalachian childhood made him into a star among those looking for a rational explanation of Trump’s power—is now leaning into the idea that the United States’ electoral systems are too cumbersome to be accurate. He is promoting an alternative history that includes Presidents Al Gore, Hillary Clinton and both lost to the Electoral College. “I have a buddy in France, and they just had an election there. The polls were closed just a few minutes ago, and the winners have been announced. Must be nice to live in a first world country,” Vance tweeted on April 10, referencing France’s presidential election that had its top two finishers in the popular vote advance to an April 24 runoff that will be decided by a simple majority.
Let’s pause for a minute and start at the beginning, dating to the original Constitutional Convention that gave the United States its byzantine and cumbersome Electoral College, the group that every four years convenes to allocate presidential electors based on each state’s population. Giant states with huge numbers of people like Texas and California get a lion’s share of electoral votes, while states with vast land masses but fewer voters like Alaska get just a shrimp’s cut. It ruins the myth that every state’s election matters but preserves the quaint notion that every vote counts equally; otherwise giving Montana and New York the same clout would pervert the system. (Unless you’re in the Senate, where that is, in fact, the case.)
It is flawed. No one will credibly say it isn’t. It divides states into purple, blue and red. You’d be hard-pressed to see a Democratic presidential candidate chasing votes in Mississippi or Republicans pressing into California once the general election begins—except for donor meetings, of course. The resulting reality is that the Electoral College system reduces a national campaign for President to a handful of swing states, a fact that campaign veterans don’t actually mind because it allows them to triage states. On a Democratic national campaign, no Democratic campaign manager ever preferred a call from an Idaho supporter to one from Ohio.
This brings us to Ohio’s Senate race, which has been incredibly messy. Vance is a possible rockstar candidate for the seat that will be vacant when Senator Rob Portman leaves at the end this term. This weekend, Vance sent a tweet comparing the US election results to the French. France elects its leader by popular vote; the United States by electoral votes. Voting in states close to one another, such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, is more important than voting in South Carolina and Oregon. That means it takes longer to tally our votes, and it also means the way the maps look on election night don’t accurately reflect that actual outcome. Sure, there’s a whole lot of red stretching from Oklahoma City to Raleigh, but all land mass isn’t made equally in politics. And if the raw number of popular votes were determinative, the two most recent Republican Presidents wouldn’t have been seated; George W. Bush and Trump both lost the popular vote.
Vance seems to be struggling in a race Washingtonians believed was his. It is the Hillbilly ElegyAuthor was a rural Republican who had access to huge amounts of GOP cash through narrative and pragmatic thinking. He was once a #NeverTrumper welcomed at the well-heeled donor conference near Palm Springs, Calif., to discuss strategy with billionaires back in 2018—only to admit three years later he was a flip-flopper to TIME’s Molly Ball while eating breakfast in Cincinnati. “I’m not just a flip-flopper, I’m a flip-flop-flipper on Trump,” Vance said, leaning into a strategy that would damn just about any other political aspirant.
But this political moment is one where Republicans are chasing the vestiges of Trump’s power. The ex-President may be dispatched to his Florida club, but he’s plotting his comeback. Trump is still the leader of the Republican Party and most Republicans will continue to suphold him. A whole host of Republicans across the country have begun to dismiss their understanding of politics, and are reverting to Trump’s old ways of speaking. It’s why you have folks like Vance leaning into an ahistorical understanding of American politics while pushing rhetoric that has a distinct whiff of yesteryear’s populist Know Nothings. Not everyone has to understand how elections in France work, but it’s not a tough threshold to have a knowledge of the American system when one is running for a seat in Washington.
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