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The Population and the Popular Vote

In response to our post from earlier this week on the size and scale of Barack Obama’s popular vote victory, several readers wrote in to ask how Barack Obama’s popular vote total ranks as a share of the United States population at the time of his election.

Obama has received at least 68,724,397 popular votes for the Presidency. I say “at least” because they’re still counting in California and several other states, and so Obama’s total should wind up comfortably over 69 million; 70 million appears unlikely, but is not entirely out of the question.

This total represents 22.62 percent of the Census Bureau’s 2008 estimate of United States population, which was 303,824,640. That figure doesn’t sound that impressive at first glance — fewer than one in four Americans actually voted for Barack Obama — but it’s actually the second-highest percentage ever, trailing only Ronald Reagan in 1984:

(Note: for 1900 onward, population figures are based on yearly Census Bureau estimates as of July 1st of the year in question. For years prior to 1900, they are based on a linear extrapolation of population figures from the nearest decennial Censuses.)

Modern candidates, it should be noted, have several distinct advantages over older ones. In particular, the vote now extends to women, African-Americans, and 18-to-21 year-olds, which it did not originally. There are no longer any poll taxes, or any of the widespread suppression of the black vote that was present until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Also, the population has gotten a little older as human lifespans have increased, which means that the percentage of the population which is of voting age has increased. Finally, the percentage of the population which are US citizens (i.e. the percentage that aren’t immigrants) is lower than many periods throughout history…

…still, Barack Obama can lay claim to being president of the entire country in a way that few candidates of the past can.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.