Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Do Democrats Have a Structural Electoral College Advantage Now?

There are still more votes to be counted, but as of now the tipping point state was...Colorado, same as in 2008. They're still counting the votes in Colorado, but as of now Barack Obama's lead is an impressive 4.7 percentage points, larger than his leads in Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. A uniform 4.6 point shift away from Obama would have given Mitt Romney those three states, while leaving Obama with Colorado and a winning 272 Electoral Votes.

Meanwhile, as I look at the results so far, Obama's lead in the national vote is up to 2.3 points, which makes his electoral college advantage just north of 2 percentage points. It's possible that the national lead will still grow a bit, which will mean that the apparent EC advantage will fade, at least unless the Obama lead in Colorado grows as well. It seems fairly safe at this point to say that it will be close to 2 percentage points.

First, that answers Sean Trende's (sincere and plausible) pre-election question about the difference between the state and national polls. As it turned out, the polling averages underplayed Obama's lead in both the states and nationally, but the gap between them was more or less accurate.

That gap is up a bit from the 1.7 point EC advantage that Obama had in 2008, and the small edge that John Kerry had in 2004 (when he came fairly close to winning Ohio while losing the national vote). Of course, everyone knows that the gap was in the other direction in 2000.

In other words, for three cycles now Democrats have been using their votes more efficiently in presidential elections.

We don't exactly know why, but it seems to me that it's a big question. It might have been a totally random effect of the ebb and flow of votes. I might have been an Obama-specific effect, having something to do with the particular appeal of Obama to some groups, or perhaps the particular antipathy towards him from others.

Or it could be structural, with (for now) Democrats just having a better distribution of supporters in presidential elections than Republicans.

It is rare in recent American political history for one party to have a persistent Electoral College advantage (compared to the national vote). Through 2004, there didn't seem to be any partisan advantage. Again, that certainly could still be true. It may disappear next time around.

But if it does persist, it's pretty enormous -- it would mean that Republicans begin presidential elections two points in the hole. Remember, this is apart from any advantage or disadvantage in the total number of votes. It's purely about how votes translate into wins or losses under the EC system. If, for example, the recent Democratic national vote victories (and remember, that's five of the last six elections) are a result of a mild national tilt towards them -- something that I'm certainly not claiming, but it's possible -- then this EC advantage would be above and beyond it. If, again, it's a long-term structural phenomenon.

It's going to be very interesting to see whether this distortion survives the Obama elections, and also whether Republicans will soon react to it by flipping in favor of reforming or eliminating the Electoral College -- and whether Democrats, who have been the anti-EC party at least since 2000, flip to support of that procedure.


  1. I think, in this particular election, the reason for the EC/PV divergence is pretty clear: Obama saturated the airwaves in swing states with a potent anti-Romney message. Then, after the first debate, Romney was able to regain parity with Obama - except in those stubborn swing states, where voters already had a baked-in opinion about Mitt.

    Now, in subsequent elections, maybe it's the Republicans that saturate the airwaves early. Or maybe the Democratic message isn't as potent. So I can't say that it's a structural advantage belonging to Democrats. It was a structural advantage, however, for the 2012 Obama re-election campaign.

    1. In other words, Andrew, Obama campaigned effectively. So effective campaigns result in wins.

      I think you've just discovered something here!!!



  2. I don't think Democrats have an Electoral College advantage; I think Obama's campaign team are just excellent organizers who perform unusually well in the states they contest. So it's probably just a quirk. The right Republican could make Oregon, Minnesota, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in 2012 look like Virginia & Colorado under Obama.

  3. If true, it's ironic that only Democratic states have signed up fro the National Popular Vote. It may well be that if a Republican loses the Electoral College while winning the popular vote, that initiative may gather strength and pass with additional red states.

  4. There are now 18 states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washngton, and Wisconsin) and the District of Columbia where the Democrats have won every one of the past six presidential elections. They have a total of 242 electoral votes, and none of them, even Pennsylvania, was particularly close yesterday.

    Add to that New Mexico with 5 electoral votes and Nevada with 6, where the Hispanic vote seems to have made them no longer swing states, and Colorado, which seems almost as Democratic in the past two presidential elections, and you get 262 electoral votes. Add Iowa, which gave Obama a better-than-national-average majority in both 2008 and 2012, and you get to 268. And if you add New Hampshire, which also gave Obama more than his national average both times, and which even went for Kerry in 2004, you get to 272.

    So you potentially have a situation where the Democrats lose the popular vote and lose Ohio, Virginia, *and* Florida--and still win.

  5. Sake of argument, might Obama's EC advantage in swing states be due to 1) natural population density among Democratic voters, and 2) the groundbreaking ground game for Team Obama in 2012?

    The second point is currently being played close to the vest by Team Obama, I suppose not to leak secrets, but a rep confessed on NPR today that they had fairly sophisticated by-precinct targeting, which even, in especially critical areas, went down to the level of voter.

    So if Team Obama knows it needs 400,000 votes in Cuyahoga County to win Ohio, and even has a pretty good idea who those voters are, they would be seeking people who mostly live in dense urban environments, making it relatively easy to "round them up". Even if Team Romney has comparable sophistication regarding an offsetting 400,000 votes in Appalachian SE Ohio, it must be far more logistically difficult to bank Appalachian votes than Cuyahoga County votes.

    I would assume that the price will be right for the 2016 Democratic nominee to have access to the Obama ground game vaults; in short order that sophistication will be industry standard. Even if you know the identity of the 2.5 M voters who will carry you Ohio, there's still a challenge for the Republican in converting all of them (relative to the Democrat). That's an issue that probably won't be solved for a few cycles at least.

    1. I caught the ubiquitous Obama campaign guru Stephanie Cutter on one of the cable newsies Monday; when asked about Ohio she replied that "they had the votes they need in the state".

      The host pushed back on the grandiosity ("Don't you think Romney has a lot of votes there too?"), to which Ms. Cutter clarified that through a) Ohio's early voting and b) Election Day GOTV plans, they had pretty much locked up the particular 2.7 M votes they needed to win the state.

      Given demographics, that's a much easier task for a Democrat campaign than a Republican one.

  6. IMO - The GOP won't join the push for a popular vote even though the current electoral map does slightly favor the Dems.

    A popular vote would probably raise voter turnout in non swing states plus make urban areas more important. I don't think either of those factors are especially beneficial to the GOP.

  7. I'd like to see someone control for other major factors known to correlate with Obama/Romney voting (e.g., demographics), and see if they can really pick up a difference in the close states that could be explainable by targeted organization efforts.


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