John Cochrane makes the only even barely persuasive argument for the U.S. electoral college method of selecting presidents I’ve ever heard, which is that the electoral college, by making votes in already very heavily partisan states worthless to candidates, discourages presidential candidates from fanning the flames of promoting their own party’s most safest section of the country above all the others. Of course, James Madison made a similar argument, but for a somewhat different system of selecting electors to the electoral college. Madison argued for winner-take-all by district (the closest the U.S. has to this currently is the system used in Maine and Nebraska, though Madison supported having all electoral votes be allocated by district, without any statewide component), in place of winner-take all by state, on the basis that
The States when voting for President by general tickets or by their Legislatures, are a string of beads; when they make their elections by districts, some of these differing in sentiment from others, and sympathizing with that of districts in other States, they are so knit together as to break the force of those geographical and other noxious parties which might render the repulsive too strong for the cohesive tendencies within the Political System.
that is, winner-take-all by district would be less prone to sectional parties and be more likely to promote truly national ones than winner-take-all by state.
Now, granting the truth of this -there would be no point for Democrats to campaign in Nebraska or Republicans to campaign in Maine were their electoral votes allocated statewide-, and assuming the districts were drawn by independent commissions (as in California, Arizona, Minnesota, etc.) to eliminate all complaints of gerrymandering, what would be the result of the U.S. moving to a system of allocating electoral votes entirely by district? It would lead to politicians ignoring the vast majority of the country, an even larger portion than that ignored by the current winner-take-all the state system of allocating electoral votes. It would result in presidential candidates promising all sorts of favors to the tiny number of swing districts in, say, southern California, suburban Minnesota, southern Nevada, and rural Iowa at the expense of the entire rest of the country. It would lead to political apathy in every portion of the country outside those key swing districts. It would make Americans subject to the vicissitudes of the thoughts of a few over the general opinion of the many. This would be a great deprovement on even the present way of candidates concentrating on key swing states. But these same criticisms of the district method apply equally as well to the current method of winner-take-all by state.
The electoral college rewards presidential candidates who prioritize the interests of swing states at the expense of those of safe states. Thus, while hemorrhaging margins in the vast, but safe states of California and Texas, Donald Trump sacrificed their interests to those of the key swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan by promoting protectionist and nativist policies. Is such dictatorship by the minority befitting of a democracy? And though it is true that the electoral college as it exists today does result in the winner’s margins more evenly spread out within the states he wins, it also allows his offensiveness to the states he loses to be as large as is conceivable without any trouble for his political fortunes. Is a Republican candidate today being able to ignore California’s slide into becoming a 90% Democratic state or the Republican candidates of the late 19th century being able to totally ignore the South truly healthy for government? Abraham Lincoln, whose election by the swing states of the electoral college caused the War Between the States by his disregard for the interests of the South, could never have won a national popular vote precisely due to his extreme unpopularity in the South. Thus, the present electoral college permits -indeed, encourages- the infinite increase of sectionalism within the states that comprise the losing coalition by incentivizing the winner to promise benefits for the swing states to be paid for by the residents of those states he cannot win. Under a national popular vote, however, if a presidential candidate aims to increase his votes by fanning the flames of sectionalism, whether of the safe states of his party or of the swing states, he is likely to symmetrically alienate the voters of the other sections of the country, thus bringing these efforts at boosting vote share to nought.
In short, even the best argument for the Electoral College over the national popular vote as a method of selecting presidents is badly lacking. Politicians are much more incentivized to play sectional zero-sum games in the electoral college than under a national popular vote.
Now; this is not to say Trump did not deserve to win; far from it. Both candidates knew the rules of the contest beforehand, they would have had very different strategies were the rules different. Trump had the better electoral college strategy under current rules, and there’s nothing wrong with following the rules as they exist.