Monday, July 30, 2012

Electoral College Advantage Revisited

Andrew Gelman takes me to task for what I said about the electoral college last week, pointing out that he's established that small-state voters are much more likely to be the tipping-point vote than large state voters.

I'm aware of the finding, but I disagree with the interpretation. I don't think the question of whether a voter in a particular state has a better chance of tipping the election -- the question which Gelman's articles consider -- is the same question as whether that state has an electoral college advantage.  It's a piece of it, but not, I don't think a very important one.

The question of individual voter power looks at it from the point of view of the individual voter.  What we want, however, is to look at it from the point of view of the campaigns. What matters there is whether there are differences between states linked to size. As I said earlier, it used to be the case that big, urban states tended to be closer than the smaller, rural states. That seems to be less true now, but I it's still somewhat the case. Let's 2008, there were 18 states with a total of 101 electoral votes that were 20 points or more from the national average (in other words, Republican states where McCain won by at least 13 and Democratic states where Obama won by 27 points or more). That's an average of 5.6 electoral votes in the least competitive states. What about the closest states, those within 10 points of the national average? There are 19 of those...with a whopping 221 electoral votes, for an average of 11.6 per state.

Conclusion: if you go after close states, you'll be going after big states. And so, overall, the big states tend to have an advantage, over and above the advantage that their size alone would give them in a direct vote system.

Moreover, it's probably not just a random effect, but built into the electoral college system. For one thing, it's probably true that larger states are less homogeneous and therefore more likely to be competitive. But more broadly, it makes sense in the long run for parties to chase after big states as units, shifting their policy preferences to try to work those states. It's true, as Gelman says, that the correct comparison point (or at least the one I was working from in the original post) is to a direct vote system, and the large numbers in big states would of course get attention in that system as well. However, this is where the points made in the comments to Gelman's points come in. Looking ahead in the long run, it's probably a lot easier for a party to target big, potentially close states and ignore the little ones, all things being equal. Granted, things are not necessarily equal: if the same policy could appeal to lots of little states, or if there's no policy that would appeal to a big-state-as-a-whole, then you won't do that.

But the fact that big states strongly tend to be more competitive, and the fact that the effect persists over time, suggests that things are not equal -- things favor the big states.

One more bit of this. To the extent that big states tend to share interests and small states tend to share interests -- something that may or may not be true, but to the extent that it is -- then even the big states that are not competitive may be helped by the electoral college. That is, if New York (not competitive) is similar to Pennsylvania (very competitive), then any policies adopted by the candidates in order to appeal to Pennsylvanians may also help New Yorkers. Again, that's not a sure thing; direct aid to states, for example, wouldn't work that way. And there's also the complication that even if most people in the state have an interest in something, there may be plenty of people who do not, or who disagree with a policy popular elsewhere in the state. But again, on balance this may tend to work in favor of the big states.


  1. There have only been 3 (?) times that the electoral college has elected a President different than the popular vote winner. Most people tend to think that results like in 2000 are a severe defect of the electoral college and it would be preferable that they never happen whether that's by eliminating the electoral college or having states representing 270 electoral votes agree to give their electors to the national popular vote winner.

    I would be curious in hearing you make the case that these rare events are a good thing and worth leaving in as a possible outcome of Presidential elections in order to preserve the other advantages you see in the electoral college.

    1. 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). A shift of 60,000 voters in Ohio in 2004 would have defeated President Bush despite his nationwide lead of over 3 million votes.

      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: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%.

      Most Americans don't care whether their presidential candidate wins or loses in their state. . . they care whether he/she wins the White House. Voters want to know, that even if they were on the losing side, their vote actually was directly and equally counted and mattered to their candidate. Most Americans think it's wrong for the candidate with the most popular votes to lose. We don't allow this in any other election in our representative republic.


  2. I think it might behoove us to define "big."

    My definition might not be the same as yours. In fact, I suspect that it isn't. My definition includes CA, NY, TX, FL, OH, PA and IL....all the states with more than 20 EC votes. That definition includes more swing (4) than non-swing (3) states (going off the last 3-4 elections). HOWEVER! If one has a more restrictive cut-point (say, 25 EC votes), that list becomes CA, TX, NY and FL, of which only FL has been competitive in a pretty long while. Reasonable people could easily disagree on what "big" means (and your average of 11.6 is getting noticeably down into the "isn't that more properly thought of as midsize" territory.

    Once we start thinking of mid-size states, too, it becomes possible that the mean population goes up as does competition, but that it's an addition-by-subtraction effect, as all the small states are non-competitive. In fact, it raises the question: is it better to phrase it as small states are NOT competitive than using the large states ARE competitive phrasing?

    To paraphrase Daffy Duck, this may be a case of adjective trouble.

    1. To go further: the three largest states are complete laughers. Not even vaguely close, and haven't been for a decent time (not since 1996 at the latest).

      So, it really is coming down to definitions, it seems.

    2. Now with state-by-state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), presidential elections ignore 12 of the 13 lowest population states (3-4 electoral votes), that are non-competitive in presidential elections. 6 regularly vote Republican (AK, ID, MT, WY, ND, and SD), and 6 regularly vote Democratic (RI, DE, HI, VT, ME, and DC) in presidential elections. Voters in states that are reliably red or blue don't matter. Candidates ignore those states and the issues they care about most.

      Support for a national popular vote is strong in every smallest state surveyed in recent polls among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group. Support in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK -70%, DC -76%, DE --75%, ID -77%, ME - 77%, MT- 72%, NE - 74%, NH--69%, NE - 72%, NM - 76%, RI - 74%, SD- 71%, UT- 70%, VT - 75%, WV- 81%, and WY- 69%.

      In the lowest population states, the National Popular Vote bill has passed in nine state legislative chambers, and been enacted by 3 jurisdictions.

      Of the 25 smallest states (with a total of 155 electoral votes) 18 received no attention at all from presidential campaigns after the conventions. Of the seven smallest states with any post-convention visits, Only 4 of the smallest states - NH (12 events), NM (8), NV (12), and IA (7) - got the outsized attention of 39 of the 43 total events in the 25 smallest states. In contrast, Ohio (with only 20 electoral votes) was lavishly wooed with 62 of the total 300 post-convention campaign events in the whole country.

    3. The political reality is that the 11 largest states rarely agree on any political question. In terms of recent presidential elections, the 11 largest states include five "red states (Texas, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Georgia) and six "blue" states (California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New Jersey). The fact is that the big states are just about as closely divided as the rest of the country. For example, among the four largest states, the two largest Republican states (Texas and Florida) generated a total margin of 2.1 million votes for Bush, while the two largest Democratic states generated a total margin of 2.1 million votes for Kerry.

      Among the 11 most populous states in 2004, the highest levels of popular support, hardly overwhelming, were found in the following seven non-battleground states:
      * Texas (62% Republican),
      * New York (59% Democratic),
      * Georgia (58% Republican),
      * North Carolina (56% Republican),
      * Illinois (55% Democratic),
      * California (55% Democratic), and
      * New Jersey (53% Democratic).

      In addition, the margins generated by the nation's largest states are hardly overwhelming in relation to the 122,000,000 votes cast nationally. Among the 11 most populous states, the highest margins were the following seven non-battleground states:
      * Texas -- 1,691,267 Republican
      * New York -- 1,192,436 Democratic
      * Georgia -- 544,634 Republican
      * North Carolina -- 426,778 Republican
      * Illinois -- 513,342 Democratic
      * California -- 1,023,560 Democratic
      * New Jersey -- 211,826 Democratic

      To put these numbers in perspective, Oklahoma (7 electoral votes) alone generated a margin of 455,000 "wasted" votes for Bush in 2004 -- larger than the margin generated by the 9th and 10th largest states, namely New Jersey and North Carolina (each with 15 electoral votes). Utah (5 electoral votes) alone generated a margin of 385,000 "wasted" votes for Bush in 2004. 8 small western states, with less than a third of California’s population, provided Bush with a bigger margin (1,283,076) than California provided Kerry (1,235,659).

  3. Looking at this from a state-level is misleading when the more significant ideological divide is on the urban/rural level and not the red state/blue state level. NY and PA generally don't share ideologies as much as NYC and Philadelphia do. Swing voters in PA and the population base of NY state are very different groups.

  4. The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), ensures that the candidates, after the primaries, will not reach out to about 76% of the states and their voters. 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.

    Presidential candidates concentrate their attention on only a handful of closely divided "battleground" states and their voters. There is no incentive for them to bother to care about the majority of states where they are hopelessly behind or safely ahead to win. 9 of the original 13 states are considered “fly-over” now. In the 2012 election, pundits and campaign operatives agree, that, at most, only 12 states and their voters will matter. They will decide the election. None of the 10 most rural states will matter, as usual. About 76% of the country will be ignored --including 19 of the 22 lowest population and medium-small states, and 17 medium and big states like CA, GA, NY, and TX. This will be more obscene than the 2008 campaign, when candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their campaign events and ad money in just 6 states, and 98% in just 15 states (CO, FL, IN, IA, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, PA, VA, and WI). Over half (57%) of the events were in just 4 states (OH, FL, PA, and VA). In 2004, candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their money and campaign visits in 5 states; over 80% in 9 states; and over 99% of their money in 16 states.

    More than 2/3rds of the states and people have been merely spectators to presidential elections. They have no influence. That's more than 85 million voters, 200 million Americans, ignored. When and where voters are ignored, then so are the issues they care about most.

    The number and population of battleground states is shrinking as the U.S. population grows.

    Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

    Anyone concerned about the relative power of big states and small states should realize that the current system shifts power from voters in the small and medium-small states to voters in the current handful of big states.

    With National Popular Vote, when every vote counts equally, successful candidates will find a middle ground of policies appealing to the wide mainstream of America. Instead of playing mostly to local concerns in Ohio and Florida, candidates finally would have to form broader platforms for broad national support. Elections wouldn't be about winning a handful of battleground states, small or large.

    And BTW . . .
    With the current state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes, winning a bare plurality of the popular vote in the 11 most populous states, containing 56% of the population, could win the Presidency with a mere 26% of the nation's votes!


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