In most presidential elections, the candidate who wins the popular vote will also receive the majority of the electoral votes, but this is not always the case. Some electors abstain from voting, while others vote differently than they pledged to vote. Despite 11th hour changes within the Electoral College, only five candidates in U.S. history have won an election by losing the popular vote and winning (or deadlocking) the electoral vote:
- 1824: John Quincy Adams, the son of former President John Adams, received some 38,000 fewer votes than Andrew Jackson, but neither candidate won a majority of the Electoral College. Adams was awarded the presidency when the election was thrown to the House of Representatives.
- 1876: Nearly unanimous support from small states gave Rutherford B. Hayes a one-vote margin in the Electoral College, despite the fact that he lost the popular vote to Samuel J. Tilden by 264,000 votes. Hayes carried five out of the six smallest states (excluding Delaware). These five states plus Colorado gave Hayes 22 electoral votes with only 109,000 popular votes. At the time, Colorado had been just been admitted to the Union and decided to appoint electors instead of holding elections. So, Hayes won Colorado's three electoral votes with zero popular votes. It was the only time in U.S. history that small state support has decided an election.
- 1888: Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote by 95,713 votes to Grover Cleveland, but won the electoral vote by 65. In this instance, some say the Electoral College worked the way it is designed to work by preventing a candidate from winning an election based on support from one region of the country. The South overwhelmingly supported Cleveland, and he won by more than 425,000 votes in six southern states. However, in the rest of the country he lost by more than 300,000 votes [source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration].
- In 2000, Al Gore received 50,992,335 votes nationwide and George W. Bush received 50,455,156 votes. The race was so close in Florida that ineffectively punched ballots (known as "hanging chads") required a manual recount because the voter intent couldn't be deciphered by machine. Eventually, Bush was awarded the state of Florida by the U.S. Supreme Court and had a total of 271 electoral votes, which beat Gore's 266 electoral votes [source: Gore].
- 2016: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.8 million over Donald Trump, the largest margin by a presidential loser in U.S. history. But Trump won 306 electoral votes to Clinton's 232. He won all the Great Lakes states that traditionally vote Democrat, plus four big battleground states (including Florida and Michigan) by less than 1 percentage point [source: Ayres]. Clinton had bigger leads in fewer, but more populous states, like California.
Today, a candidate must receive 270 of the 538 votes to win the election. In cases where no candidate wins a majority of electoral votes, the decision is thrown to the House of Representatives by virtue of the 12th Amendment. The House then selects the president by majority vote with each state delegation receiving one vote to cast for the three candidates who received the most electoral votes.