Monday, January 24, 2011

Electoral College Advantage

Have Democrats developed an electoral college advantage?

Throughout the 1980s, Republicans and some gullible reporters (and not a few easily-intimidated Democrats) assured us that there was a GOP electoral college lock on the presidency. Just look at all those states Ronald Reagan (and then George H.W. Bush) won! Even if Republicans lost some swing states, all they had to do was to win the states that they always won, and they would win the presidency.

This worked just fine...until an election came along in which the Democratic candidate received more votes than the Republican candidate, and it turned out the "lock" was meaningless.

Well, all it's taken is a grand total of one election for Chris Cillizza to roll out a reverse version of the argument. See, he says, Barack Obama is in great shape for 2012:
[A] detailed examination of the national map heading into 2012 suggests that the president still sits in a strong position for reelection - able to lose half a dozen (or more) swing states he carried in 2008 and still win the 270 electoral votes he needs for a second term. 
The problem with this kind of analysis is that it ignores the possibility that the Republican candidate might actually do better than the Democratic candidate overall. If that happened, it wouldn't just be the states that Obama won narrowly that would swing to the GOP; it could be lots of marginal states. Cillizza's "detailed examination" is meaningless; all he's telling us is that Obama won big in 2008 and could do a lot worse and still win. That's true -- but Democrats in 1968 and Republicans in 1976 could tell you that large swings from election to election are quite possible. As could George H.W. Bush.

Usually, it's safe to assume that the winner of the popular vote will win the electoral college. In very close races, such as the 2000 contest, that can obviously go wrong...but both parties are capable, over the last few decades, of winning decisively overall, and if so they'll win the electoral college, too.

The correct way to check for an electoral college advantage is to see what would happen in tie races by shifting each state equally to reflect a tie result. Up until recently, it turns out that neither party had any kind of advantage in the electoral college.

It is perhaps worth noting that while the college tilted to the Republican in the only modern election in which it actually mattered, since 2000 the college has tilted dramatically to the Democrats. In 2004, John Kerry lost the popular vote by 3% to George W. Bush, but would have won had Ohio, which Bush won by 2.5%, swung to the Democrats (and a universal swing of that size would have brought New Mexico and Iowa with Ohio, leaving Bush with a narrow popular vote lead but a 284-254 electoral college loss).

Then, in 2008, Barack Obama won the overall vote by a bit over 7 percentage points, but only a few states -- Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Indiana -- went to Obama by less than that margin; in an evenly shifted 50/50 election, John McCain would have added 72 electoral votes and lost 293-245. Even a ten point shift to McCain only adds another 20 electoral votes and leaves him a solid popular vote winner but an electoral college loser. Only after that does McCain start grabbing a large electoral college lead.

Electoral college advantages are certainly theoretically possible. A party will have an advantage if it does better in small states than large ones, all else equal; or, more likely, it will have an advantage if its votes are distributed more efficiently, with the other party wasting votes in huge landslides in large states. As I said, this doesn't seem to have been the case generally over time. For every Republican Wyoming there's a Democratic Rhode Island, and for every GOP wasted margin in Texas there's a Dem wasted margin in New York. So we'll see if 2004 and especially 2008 is a trend that sticks, giving Democrats a real advantage, but my guess is that it's just a fluke.


  1. Another way is to do better in states that have lost population since the last census. In recent years this is said to have favored Democrats.

  2. North Carolina was another one Obama won by less than the national margin (as was NE-02).

    You mentioned this idea of "always winning" a state. Obama won quite a few states Democrats had not won in some time (Colorado, Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia, for example). The talk in 2008 was about how much Obama change the electoral map, and he (and the nation's economic fortunes) certainly did that, but not to the extent that it was talked about during the nomination phase of the election. Still, the shift -- election to election -- will be onto more traditional Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania swing territory in 2012 (all blue in 2008).

    And let's not forget, the electoral college has presumably, according to some of the same media sources, shifted toward the Republicans, post-reapportionment. I still like this way of visualizing it best:

  3. btw . . .

    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. Elections wouldn't be about winning states. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. Every vote, everywhere would be counted for and directly assist the candidate for whom it was cast. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states.

    In the 2012 election, pundits and campaign operatives already agree that only 14 states and their voters will matter under the current winner-take-all laws (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state) used by 48 of the 50 states. Candidates will not care about 72% of the voters-- voters in 19 of the 22 lowest population and medium-small states, and big states like California, Georgia, New York, and Texas. 2012 campaigning would be even more obscenely exclusive than 2008 and 2004. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

    The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes--that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those 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 in virtually every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed in recent polls in closely divided battleground states: CO-- 68%, IA --75%, MI-- 73%, MO-- 70%, NH-- 69%, NV-- 72%, NM-- 76%, NC-- 74%, OH-- 70%, PA -- 78%, VA -- 74%, and WI -- 71%; in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE --75%, ME -- 77%, NE -- 74%, NH --69%, NV -- 72%, NM -- 76%, RI -- 74%, VT -- 75%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and border states: AR --80%, KY -- 80%, MS --77%, MO -- 70%, NC -- 74%, and VA -- 74%; and in other states polled: CA -- 70%, CT -- 74% , MA -- 73%, MN – 75%, NY -- 79%, WA -- 77%, and WV- 81%.

    The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers, in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in AR, CT, DE, DC, ME, MI, NV, NM, NY, NC, and OR, and both houses in CA, CO, HI, IL, NJ, MD, MA ,RI, VT, and WA . The bill has been enacted by DC, HI, IL, NJ, MD, MA, and WA. These 7 states possess 74 electoral votes — 27% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.


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