Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Don't Worry About the PA Plan

If you want to know why the Pennsylvania plan of rigging the Electoral College by having Republican majorities in the Keystone State change the way that electoral votes are allocated there is a bad idea in general, see Josh Putnam's excellent post on the topic. You remember -- this is the plan to neutralize the state in presidential elections by switching from winner-take-all apportionment of electoral votes to either a district plan or, now, splitting them by vote share. He's pretty mild on it, overall, concentrating on why the allocation is a poor one generally; he doesn't really go into why it's highly problematic for a party to constantly mess with the rules in such an ad hoc way in order to get the advantage.

But mostly, it's just not very likely to be a problem. The main thing here is that very few states which are reliably Democratic in presidential elections are going to have unified Republican government at the state level (and vice versa). Well, back up...first of all, the problem only arises in those states big enough so that how they split their votes will matter. Then after that, you need a state that's safely Democratic in presidential elections. If it isn't safe, then you run the risk of costing your own party!

And that's not all. After all, what matters here isn't how safe the state really is in presidential elections; it's what the incumbent Republican governor and legislature think. So for them to believe that neutralizing the state is good for a future Republican presidential candidate, they have to believe that their own elections were basically flukes. True, there are some who could acknowledge that, but I'd say it's more likely that they'll take their victories -- and remember, we're talking about unified control of state government, so it's a pretty wide win -- as signs that the state is trending to the GOP.

Everything to this point are reasons why there are only rare cases in which a state is going to find it in the national party's interest to pass this kind of plan.

The next step is that what's in the national party's (perceived) interest is unlikely to be in the interest of the state or the state party or the individual politicians. That's because each of them (the state, the state party, and the individual politicians) all have an interest in keeping their state as a major presidential battleground. The reason is the same in each case: resources flowing into the state are good, and national resources follow electoral incentives. It's possible that state politicians will nevertheless act out of national party interest, but it's not obvious they would do so at all.

And the last part? Generally, something like this doesn't just have to be favored by Republican politicians; it has to be a fairly high priority, or it won't get action. It's certainly something that will be perceived by everyone as a flat-out partisan move, and presumably Republicans who have won office in a Democratic-leaning state -- who, per above, believe that it's a Democratic-leaning state so they won't get too many chances -- won't want to pass too many flat-out partisan measures, and will have several items more important to them than a electoral college scheme that may never make any difference anyway.

Put it all together, and you're just not very likely to have this ever happen (and it's even less likely it would happen in more than one state, or stick around for long in that state). So: terrible idea, but not one to worry too much about.

14 comments:

  1. You're assuming that the people who make up these unified Republican state governments are rational, sentient beings, who will attempt to act in their own self-interest. This is not a safe assumption.

    For instance, a lot of the arguments you make here could apply equally to voter suppression laws. Unified GOP state houses pushing through laws making it more difficult to vote, just like fiddling with electoral vote allocation, is baldly partisan move, and it betrays a belief that GOP electoral successes in those states were fleeting, if not flukes.

    So why were GOP lawmakers in PA, OH, and FL willing to do it? I don't think it has much to do with a rational evaluation of self-interest.

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    1. The difference is that the most publicized of the voter suppresion measures (photo ID) was actually popular. A lot of people with photo ID's simply don't understand why others might not have them. By contrast, apportioning electoral votes by (gerrymandered) congressional districts is not likely to be popular excpet among hard-core Republicans.

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  2. Jonathan:
    You forget one other thing. The person pushing the PA measure wasn't some obscure back-bencher trying to get publicity. It was one of the GOP legislative leaders, like the PA state government equivalent of Eric Cantor.

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  3. I think you're forgetting the fact that apportioning electoral votes by congressional district isn't simply a plan to deprive the state-wide winner of some electoral votes; it's a plan to divert votes away from a Democratic candidate specifically.

    Because of gerrymandering and the natural clumping of liberals in urban areas, Republicans have an advantage in the number of House seats they can expect to pick up. I can definitely see giving up 7 iffy votes to have 12 in the bag.

    In the long run of course, this depends on the political makeup of districts saying the same and a big round of liberal redistricting not happening after the 2020 census, but I think politicians like to think "long term" without taking those changing conditions into account

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  4. If OH, PA, WI, MI and VA all went to awarding 1 electoral vote for each Congressional district won and 2 at-large EVs to the statewide winner, then Romney could have won the Electoral College by carrying FL (which he lost by only 0.88%) and the 12 Republican CDs in Ohio, the 13 in PA, the 8 in VA, the 5 in WI and the 9 in MI. That would have given him 282 Electoral votes, so he could have lost up to 12 of those CDs and still won the Presidency. A future Republican candidate in 2016 or 2020 would only have to run 0.5% stronger than Romney and have the Democratic candidate run 0.5% weaker than Obama to win the Presidency. Note that WI, OH, MI, PA & VA are all currently controlled by Republican governors and legislatures (the VA State Senate is tied 20-20, but the Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling can break the tie, as he did in Jan 2012 to create the Congressional districting plan that resulted in 8 Republicans and only 3 Democrats winning House seats in VA).

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  5. My understnding is that this was proposed in PA before the 2012 elections and was rejected not only because the GOP mistakenly thought they could carry the state but also because Republican congressmen from relatively close suburban congressional districts protested. Even after the GOP gerrymander their seats were not absolutely safe, and they figured that if the bill passed, Obama would focus on winning the few relatively "purple" districts in Pennsylania--in other words, their districts. If he succeeded in this, he might defeat them too. I'm not sure whether they will still oppose it; they won by fairly comfortable but not overwhelming margins in 2012.

    I really doubt that WI will pass it, not only becuase GOP control of the State Senate is so narrow, but because Republicans there may still think that Walker or Ryan as presidential candidates could carry the state. Likewise VA Republicans may hope that with McDonnell on the ticket they can carry the state in 2016.

    As for FL and OH they were actually less Democratic than the nation as a whole, so in a really close race the plan would help the Democrats there!

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    1. If Wisconsin hadn't be worth so many electoral votes would Ryan still have been chosen for the ticket? Does Tom Corbett think he has a chance at a VP slot in 2016?

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  6. What states that are controlled by Democrats lean Republican at the presidential level? Or in what states is this likely to be the case in the near or medium term future? Even if there are a few, the reverse situation is and seems like it will continue to be much more common.

    Without knowing anything else, it seems you could assume this tactic to be a +(EC)EV play for Republicans regardless of how rational legislators are, how static these policies are, how closely national party interests align with individual state legislator interests, etc.


    It's easy to think of scenarios where various state governments could have manipulated the rules to give Romney more EC votes in 2012, but is there any state that could have plausibly done so for Obama? Can anyone point to any states where this would have been plausible for any Dem candidate post-Mondale? (someone with more expertise on the South's transition away from the Democratic party will have to chime in on whether for instance Alabama Dems could have plausibly changed the rules in the late 90s to give Gore a few more EC votes).

    It just seems that institutional design and apportionment are for the foreseeable future going to prejudice this tactic in favor of the GOP, so they would be foolish not to utilize it, even if in just a blunt way. Sure you could envision more complex ways to implement it that would be very +EV and other ways that would be only slightly +EV

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    1. Well of course they *could have* changed the rules to favor Gore, but it's not something they'd have been likely to do. The tradition of very conservative white Southerners voting for very conservative Republicans at the national level and for very conservative Democrats at the state level ended about a month ago and was still going strong in the late '90s; the fact that the Alabama Democratic Party had control of the Alabama state government in 2000 (and indeed in 2009!) shouldn't lead us to think a majority of Alabama state legislators voted for Gore because they didn't.

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  7. Wasn't PA the "tipping point" state or close to it? Republicans are just shooting themselves in the foot if it's going to be one of their key swing states in a future election.

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    1. Currently the difference in Pennsylvania is 5.38% and not yet official. Colorado has certified their vote with an Obama lead of 5.37% which makes them the tipping point.

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  8. Man, spam is getting creative.

    I guess I am also past the point where I find a rational argument against the GOP doing something reassuring. The politicians are increasingly desperate or zealots, the billionaires increasingly bold, leading to an increasingly irrational and autocratic party.

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    1. Yeah, I really don't find the GOP rational at all anymore. I read today from Wiegal that Virginia has a plan to split their electoral college vote up by congressional district. Given how Michigan just passed "Right to work" law with no warning, it really wouldn't surprise me if polls show in 2015 (or 2016) that Democrats are favoured to win that Republicans push through these measures where they can. Not at all.

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  9. What possible consequences could there ever be for the GOP if they pushed this plan? So it would be unpopular, so it would show people how unprincipled they are, so they'd lose a lot of votes, so what? The Pennsylvania legislature's districts are just as gerrymandered as its Congressional districts are; it's basically impossible for Republicans to lose control of both chambers until at least 2022. There's really no downside here for them.

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