Thursday, June 9, 2011

Electoral College

Politico's Glenn Thrush has a long story this morning about the Obama team's state-by-state plans for contesting the 2012 election. If you're an operative who is wondering whether you'll wind up in North Carolina or Ohio in October 2012, or a local TV station wondering about ad buys, I don't blame you for paying a ton or attention to even very speculative articles right now.

For the rest of us, it's just a waste of time. The early predictor modes do indicate that 2012 is apt to be a close race, but even then the odds are still pretty good that it will only be moderately close, in one direction or the other. And if that's the case, the electoral college will follow the popular vote (indeed, once it gets beyond a couple of percentage points, the electoral college tends to amplify the popular vote).

Sure, it's interesting to speculate whether Arizona or Georgia or Indiana is closer to flipping to the Dems if they have a good year. But it really isn't important for the big question of who will win. Any time you hear someone speculating that it'll be hard for one of the parties to win the presidential race because they would need to win some seemingly difficult state to do so, just remember: it always seems that way, until that party takes the overall lead. After the Republicans won three consecutive presidential election in the 1980s, people started mistakenly believing there was an electoral college "lock"; that lasted only until the incumbent Republican became unpopular, and lo and behold what that happened he was also unpopular in Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and New Mexico, and lots of other states. If things go well for Barack Obama and he wins solidly next year, you'll probably start hearing the same stuff in the other direction, and it'll be just as much nonsense that way, too.

If you're trying to figure out who will win the presidency, my advice is to pretend the electoral college doesn't exist until around Labor Day (of the election year, that is) at the earliest.


  1. I don't know. It seems to me it is never too early to try to help yourself win by eventually exhausting the resources of your opponent--even when, and perhaps particularly when, your future opponent is still in the process of trying to win his or her nomination. Isn't credibly "expanding the map" at these early stages part of that process? Yes, both you and your opponent will eventually have a much better idea what the real map looks like, but an awful lot of resources will be expended before then.

  2. that lasted only until the incumbent Republican became unpopular, and lo and behold when that happened he was also unpopular in Ohio

    How much of this do you think is attributable to a change of opinion in the electorate, of the kind that updated polls might detect, and how much is due to a less-exciting candidate experiencing infrastructure problems in a swing state?

    I couldn't find it, but there's a famous photo of a McCain phone bank in central Ohio the weekend before the 2008 election, and in a vast gymnasium with a couple hundred idle phones, there's only a solitary senior helping the team.

    Of course, filling that gym wasn't gonna deliver Ohio for McCain. I guess what I'm asking is, is the "electoral lock" theory wrong because perceived partisan advantages are still within error variance (like, an otherwise viable candidate in a purportedly 'electoral lock' state may yet pay the price with a terrible GOTV operation), or do parties actually gain statistically significant advantages, occasionally, in swing states, only to see them later reverse?

  3. I agree with Brian; I was going to say the same thing. It's valuable insofar as it is self-fulfilling: if everyone believes X is suddenly competitive, and that convinces them to expend time and resources there, it helps the overall effort.

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  5. It's way too early to know which "swing states" will actually be competitive. Plus, swing states usually have something to do with the electoral college and where campaigns put their money.
    Don't forget, Clinton was the Governor of Arkansas and won it TWICE when running fore President.

  6. While I wont pretend that a candidate's electoral strategy this far out is really that important, If Obama were NOT doing this sort of planning this far out I think it would be cause for concern for his team.

    In all of American politics, I don't know that there's an office where incumbency grants a better advantage than the Presidency. I know Mayhew puts it at 66% compared to a much higher rate in congress, but I take issue with his study because it includes eras of politics that don't look anything like our modern one. In the past 20 cycles, an incumbent president has only really lost reelection three times and each was pretty much a fluke. Ford lost "reelection" but was never elected in the first place, H.W. Bush had Ross Perot playing spoiler, and even with a failing economy Carter probably would have made it if it weren't for the Iran hostage crisis.

    So there's good reason for the Obama team to set up its infrastructure in states it thinks will be key while the Republicans are at each other's throats and stuck in states that aren't as important in the general as say Virginia and Florida. I'm sure his team understands the advantages of incumbency and thats more what this is about than anything.

  7. (Totally OT, apologies in advance) I have a bunch of questions about Anthony Weiner, fortunately none of them anatomical:

    1. Is his House seat safe? (have read that he got 59% of the vote in 2010, don't know how much to make of that)

    2. Is his seat safer if he runs wounded in 2012, or if a neophyte runs in a special election sometime this year if Weiner should resign? (the Martha Coakley and Chris Lee examples would seem to be strongly suggestive of the former)

    3. If Weiner stays on, are other House Dems likely to suffer collateral damage, in terms of actual danger of losing their seats, not just tiresome press questions? (my guess: seems unlikely)

    4. How valuable is Weiner's role as an MSNBC ass-kicker and troop-rallyer, unlikely to be duplicated by a neophyte successor? (my own guess: that value is greatly overrated, possibly zero or even less than zero)

    5. Overall, how much is at stake in Weiner leaving or staying, and on balance what is better for House Dems?

    Anyway, those questions seems more in your wheelhouse than anyone else that comes to mind, so if you do a post (or just answer here) I'd be obliged as heck.

  8. Quick clarification: of course the Obama campaign should be doing this kind of stuff. I'm not saying they shouldn't. What I'm saying is that state-by-state analysis doesn't tell us anything about who is going to win.

  9. I'm hard-pressed to think of a presidential election that was decided by a really unlikely, single state that was won as a result of a campaign's relentless focus on that state. Bush in 2000 is the closest example I can think of, but that was because Nader acted as a spoiler in Florida and New Hampshire, not because the Bush campaign had a brilliant ad strategy or GOTV operation in either state. Obama would have won 2008 without Indiana or North Carolina, Clinton would have won without Arkansas, etc.

  10. Of course, there's Ohio in 2004, but I don't think it was at all unlikely that Bush carried it. I'm thinking of something like a Republican wins thanks to carrying, say, Oregon while the rest of the Pacific coast stays bright blue.

  11. Jonathan,

    I agree with your point as far as it goes. But I also think the article in question reflects a very real issue.

    As the incumbent President, and just because in general his people are good at this sort of thing, Obama is going to have a huge advantage in terms of total resources. If he can force his eventual opponent to expend a lot of his or her resources in a lot of states that turn out to be non-vital, that will be a significant strategic victory.

    I think that explains why that article is all about the Obama people arguing they have a big map, and the GOP arguing the Obama map is actually small. And the fact that no one knows for sure what the map will look like is important--it means that Obama just needs to have a credible chance at this point to put a state on his overall map.

    So where Obama is credible at this point is in fact an important piece of information, not because that is a slam-dunk prediction about the ultimate map, but because it will shape resource expenditures until we do know what the ultimate map looks like.


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