Tuesday, April 17, 2012

No, Really, Forget the Electoral College For Now

I'm recycling that headline from last June, but it's still the right one to use. Want to know who will win WH 2012? You can start paying attention to the various head-to-head polls, and you can follow the economic indicators, but there's just no point to worrying about the states.

Why? Because generally swings are national, not local, in nature. Obviously that's not always exactly true, but it's true enough that if either candidate wins by, say, 2 or 3 points or more nationally, the states will fall in line. How? It doesn't really matter.

What if it's a very close race? Then...well, then local stuff kicks in, but not in ways that we can really predict or analyze in advance. Despite what you read from those who believe that Obama has an electoral college edge or those who think Romney does, what you're really talking about is some electioneering effects, some local events, and some of what looks a whole lot like luck. And given how unreliable national polls are this early as predictors, there's just no way that the less frequent state polls are going to be meaningful (Nate Silver was good on this in his poll-watching post).

Really: ignore state polls, and ignore electoral college speculation, until after Labor Day. Even if you're mostly interested in predicting outcomes, the best you can do up to that point is to project a national result and assume that the states will fall in line with it.


  1. isn't a lot of the electoral college talk just a cover on how to coordinate with independent expenditures ?

    I.E. Obama says he is going to invest in Virginia, and broadcasts it.

    1. Yeah, Jonathan, I actually thought all this state-by-state stuff is really crucial to campaigns in terms of planning where they will devote resources and get-out-the-vote and travel to? Poli sci lit says that campaigns only matter on the margins, but that's only because both sides strive to run the best coordinated and most efficient campaigns possible in part by judging which states are worth investing campaign efforts in, right?

  2. State polls, even at this early stage, aren't totally useless. They can be used as an additional indicator of how the candidates are faring nationally.

    For example, take today's PPP poll showing Obama up 5 in FL. Obviously Obama isn't both up 5 in FL and down 2 nationally (as Gallup found yesterday). But, we know FL is one of the states that best reflects the nation; that is, if the national popular vote was 50/50, FL would likely be 50/50 also. So we can consider these results together (as we do with the national horse-race numbers) and conclude that the truth probably lies somewhere in between those results.

    In the same vein, a poll last week showed Obama leading by only 9 in NJ. Now, we know that's a state that Obama will carry in November (barring a Mitt landslide), and so no one would look at that poll and say Romney should pour resources into NJ. But you could look at that poll and conclude that the national race has tightened somewhat, because in a national 50/50 scenario, NJ would still go for Obama by around 10 points.

    So no, the state polls shouldn't be taken as some sort of indication of a candidate's strength in that state as compared to other states. But I see no reason why we can't use these polls to better pinpoint the status of the race nationwide.

    1. Oh, I suppose so, but (1) there are so many national polls right now that I'm not sure the added data is going to do much, and (2) you also introduce error, because we don't really know the true adjustment for how Florida differs from the nation as a whole. Plus, it's not as if anyone uses them that way. So, yeah, but I'll stick with ignoring them.

    2. it's not as if anyone uses them that way

      Sure they do; just not explicitly. Everyone - from polisci profs to your average HuffPo reader - knows that states do not wildly swing independently from each other. Everyone knows that if Obama sinks 10 points in a given state, he is likely to have lost a lot of ground nationally as well. People don't look at these things in isolation.

      we don't really know the true adjustment for how Florida differs from the nation as a whole

      But we do know that "generally swings are national, not local, in nature." So I don't see why you'd need to know the "true adjustment" for a given state in order to extrapolate it nationally.

      (Unless you are accounting for the possibility that, for example, NJ did make a significant swing all by itself. That, I think, would negate the entire point of your post.)

      there are so many national polls right now that I'm not sure the added data is going to do much

      This sounds like post-hoc justification for your "ignore the state polls" proposal. I mean, since when has too much polling data been a problem?

    3. there are so many national polls right now that I'm not sure the added data is going to do much.

      Not only is this post hoc, it makes no sense. It is not like there is going to be fewer polls out in the fall. If it is the case that state level polling adds nothing now, in the future when more polls are released it will become even more irrelevant.

    4. Andrew,

      We know that the states don't move in lockstep; we just know that they generally move together. If we extrapolate from FL, we're going to be wrong if FL moved a bit. Is too much polling data a "problem"? No, and really I have nothing against adding state polls to your national estimator -- it's just that you have to do it very carefully, and the additional purchase you get is going to be tiny. And again: that's really not what I'm talking about, which is speculating about the EC.


      Once you get to the fall, and if it's a close race, then it starts making sense to actually look at whether the EC may wind up helping one candidate or the other.

    5. A lot of this is about minimizing noise, people. Each measurement (polling result) has an associated error or confidence range. That's why many people average polling data.
      An individual state is not going to have as many equivalent measurements as the nation will, so our certainty in its validity is much lower.

  3. Under the current presidential election system, we can't assume that the states will fall in line with national polls.

    The precariousness of the current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes is highlighted by the fact that a shift of a few thousand voters in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in 4 of the 13 presidential elections since World War II. Near misses are now frequently common. There have been 6 consecutive non-landslide presidential elections (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008). 537 popular votes won Florida and the White House for Bush in 2000 despite Gore's lead of 537,179 (1,000 times more) popular votes nationwide. A shift of 60,000 voters in Ohio in 2004 would have defeated President Bush despite his nationwide lead of over 3 million votes.

    But . . . The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. There would no longer be a handful of 'battleground' states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in more than 3/4ths of the states that now are just 'spectators' and ignored after the primaries.

    When the bill is enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes– enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%,, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 states. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions possessing 132 electoral votes - 49% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via nationalpopularvoteinc

    1. Every repetition of this comment moves me further from its supporters. It's ad hominem, but really, cut and paste comment spamming is annoying.

    2. That's a good point, although if it was shorter I wouldn't mind so much. After all, it is on topic.

      I don't know; should I think about zapping it?

    3. Yes, but Jonathan's point is that all of those elections were elections where the popular vote had a margin of one or two percentage points: that is, they were close elections. But if the election is going to be that close, it's simply too close to call this early in the game, regardless of whether the electoral college or popular vote was what decided it.

      The electoral college doesn't always fall in line with the popular vote, but it only actually elects the "wrong" person on rare occasions. The real problem with the electoral college is (as you note) that it distorts elections. But that's a separate point from what Jonathan is talking about.

  4. With the current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes, it could only take winning a bare plurality of popular votes in the 11 most populous states, containing 56% of the population of the United States, for a candidate to win the Presidency -- that is, a mere 26% of the nation's votes!

    1. Actually, because the electoral college isn't weighed by turnout, you could potentially win the presidential vote with only eleven votes, if exactly one person votes in each of those eleven states and they vote for you, and then nobody votes for you in any of the other elections.

      Of course, that's completely ridiculous and would never happen. Which is why you need to treat as separate the theoretical problems with the electoral college with the practical effects of the electoral college. (Both of which I'm not particularly fond of.)


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