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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Electoral College likely won't matter

On Sunday, I set readers straight about Trump's unfavorable ratings, "Higher negative ratings show Trump will win." Why? It turns out the presidential election is not a popularity contest. In six of the last eight presidential elections, voters went with the least popular of the two candidates.

Now to set readers straight about the Electoral College.
It doesn't matter. It just doesn't matter. A look at past elections shows the Electoral College follows the national vote.

This was an epiphany to me.

Of course, geniuses like Professor Larry Sabato will tell you the Electoral College matters more than the national vote.

He and his two colleagues wrote this on March 31:
Election analysts prefer close elections, but there was nothing we could do to make this one close. Clinton’s total is 347 electoral votes, which includes 190 safe, 57 likely, and 100 that lean in her direction. Trump has a total of 191 (142 safe, 48 likely, and 1 leans).
Over the years we've put much emphasis on the seven super-swing states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Virginia. While some will fall to the Democrats less readily than others, it is difficult to see any that Trump is likely to grab. In fact, four normally Republican states (Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, and Missouri) would be somewhat less secure for the GOP than usual. North Carolina, which normally leans slightly to the GOP, would also be well within Clinton’s grasp in this election after being Mitt Romney’s closest win in 2012.
The probability is that the Clinton campaign will target at least one or two of the four Likely Republican states, which would have the effect of helping Democratic Senate nominees where they exist (all of those states have Senate races in November). Because Clinton’s objectives will surely include recapture of the Senate, no doubt her campaign will keep in mind the competitive contests that could yield the net four seats for a tied Senate or five seats for outright Democratic control.
Our belief is that, given the high level of party polarization existing in 2016, the election wouldn't necessarily resemble the massive landslides of 1964 (Lyndon Johnson-Barry Goldwater) or 1972 (Richard Nixon-George McGovern). Instead of the winner topping 60% as in 1964 and 1972, it is more likely Clinton would garner less than 55% of the two-party vote.
They told us roughly a year ago that Donald Trump had no chance because his unfavorables were high. Another fellow who thought that last summer -- Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight Politics -- has since repented. He is about 27 and he learned his lesson. Instead of blindly obeying conventional wisdom, Enten is doing his own thinking for himself.

Good for him.

Enten noticed what I have noticed: The Electoral College vote follows the national vote. There have been four exceptions. In 1824, the Electoral College failed to achieve a majority decision and the vote went to the House of Representatives, where John Quincy Adams won over Andrew Jackson, the plurality winner. Then came 1876 when Samuel Tilden became the first and only candidate to receive a majority of the popular vote and not win the presidency. However, voting irregularities in the South which kept black voters from voting threw the election to a commission, which gave the election to Rutherford B. Hayes. And in 1888, when Cleveland had a plurality, and again in 2000 when Al Gore had a plurality,

Unless there are irregularities (1824 and 1876) or less than a 1% difference in the popular vote, the Electoral College will reflect the national vote. In fact, it usually exaggerates the margin of victory due to its winner-take-all results (except in Maine and Nebraska).

The points made by Harry Enten:
1. The chance of an Electoral College and popular vote split is small.
2. Without looking at all the states, we don’t know how to interpret state polls.
3. We don’t have a lot of state polls.
His bottom line?
You’re going to hear a lot about the Electoral College this cycle. At various points, one state or another will be declared pivotal. But stay calm, especially with so long to go until Election Day. It’s too early to take any poll too seriously. We’ll have plenty of time to get into the weeds of different Electoral College scenarios in the months to come. For now, if you’re interested in whether Trump or Clinton is likely to be our next president, I’d pay attention to the average of national polls. Let’s wait until we’re closer to the election and we have a lot more state polling before we zoom in closer than 30,000 feet.
With this information, what should a candidate do?

First throw away the old playbook of campaigning only in the purple states. That playbook was based on a false assumption, which Harry Enten skewered.

Which means you now campaign in all 50 states. Sure? Why not? If the national poll numbers matter more than the state polls do, then a vote in Hawaii is as important as a vote in Florida, in that you want to win nationally by more than 1%, at which point apparently the Electoral College will reflect the national polls and exaggerate the margin of victory (usually).

Trump did that in the primaries. While everyone else was shucking corn at the Iowa State Fair, Trump traveled the country to give a rally or two in various states, say something outrageous, and fly back home to sleep in his bed in his golden penthouse apartment in Manhattan each night.

Eventually, Trump rallies became a thing. When he came to your state, you waited in line for hours to see him.

Meanwhile, the rest of the candidates were Wal-Mart greeters pressing the flesh to network (kiss the butt) of every Republican in Iowa and New Hampshire. Experts said Trump did it wrong.

Now the national polls show Trump down by 6.

We shall see.


  1. NC: Given the WC (Brit for bathroom) controversy, I'm reasonably sure Hill has next to no chance there. Bern, too. Meanwhile, The Won is letting her twist slowly in the wind on the bathroom server story (Hey! A 2-bathroom comment!).

    1. Potty humor - AR AR!

    2. Thanks. I'll be around all day, eventually.

  2. "a vote in Hawaii is as important as a vote in Florida"

    Given the time zone difference, the national election is decided long before the polls in Hawaii close, Bush-Gore 2000 being an/the exception. And nowadays Hawaii ALWAYS tilts reliably Democrat. In reality it's a single-party state.

    1. Hawaii is among the 38+ states that are politically irrelevant in presidential general elections, because they vote predictably.

  3. Because of the state-by-state winner-take-all electoral votes laws (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state) and (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states),in 48 states, a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide. This has occurred in 4 of the nation's 57 (1 in 14 = 7%) presidential elections. The precariousness of the current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes is highlighted by the fact that a difference of a few thousand voters in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in 4 of the 15 presidential elections since World War II. Near misses are now frequently common. There have been 7 consecutive non-landslide presidential elections (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012). 537 popular votes won Florida and the White House for Bush in 2000 despite Gore's lead of 537,179 (1,000 times more) popular votes nationwide. A difference of 60,000 voters in Ohio in 2004 would have defeated President Bush despite his nationwide lead of over 3 million votes.

    After the 2012 election, Nate Silver calculated that "Mitt Romney may have had to win the national popular vote by three percentage points on Tuesday to be assured of winning the Electoral College."

  4. With the current state-by-state winner-take-all system, the presidency is determined by state winners in just the 7 swing states -- Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Nevada, Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire -- and 270 Electoral College votes. At the end of the day, a successful presidential campaign for Republicans depends on winning in almost all of the swing states. While Democrats, could just need to win one, Florida.

    Because of state-by-state winner-take-all laws, , in the 2012 presidential election, 1.3 million votes decided the winner in the ten states with the closest margins of victory.

    Because of state-by-state winner-take-all laws, analysts concluded months ago that only the 2016 party winner of Florida (29 electoral votes), Ohio (18), Virginia (13), Colorado (9), Nevada (6), Iowa (6) and New Hampshire (4) is not a foregone conclusion.

    As of May 4th, an analyst shifted 13 ratings on their Electoral Vote scorecard, almost all of them favoring Democrats -- 304 electoral votes are “Solid,” “Likely,” or “Leaning” Democratic.

    4 “toss up” states Ohio (18), North Carolina (15), Iowa (6) and New Hampshire (4), with 43 votes.

    6 (former recent “toss up” or only “likely Democratic” states) are now more strongly “leaning” Democratic Florida (29 electoral votes), Pennsylvania (20), Virginia (13), Wisconsin (10), Colorado (9), Nevada (6) with 87 votes

    2 former “solid” Republican states, now only “leaning” Republican – Georgia (16) and Arizona (11).
    One analyst is predicting two million voters in seven counties are going to determine who wins the presidency in 2016.

    Since March, ASSUMING a Clinton vs. Trump campaign, some analysts believe there will be no swing states. States with 347 electoral votes are leaning, likely, or safe Democratic, and 191 Republican.

    The indefensible reality is that more than 99% of presidential campaign attention (ad spending and visits) was invested on voters in just the only ten competitive states in 2012.

    Two-thirds (176 of 253) of the general-election campaign events, and a similar fraction of campaign expenditures, were in just four states (Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Iowa).

    38 states had no campaign events, and minuscule or no spending for TV ads.

    The only states that received any attention in the 2012 general election campaign for President were states within 3% of the national outcome.

    Because of state-by-state winner-take-all laws, the predictability of the winner of the state you live in determines how much, if at all, your vote matters.

    So, if the National Popular Vote bill is not in effect, less than a handful of states will continue to dominate and determine the presidential general election.

  5. The Boston Globe noted on Dec. 8, 2015: "The Electoral College math doesn’t give the Republican nominee any room for error. In fact, Karl Rove reminded Republicans this month that they must win Florida to even have a shot at taking the White House."

    Paul Ryan said, "If there's a thing I learned from being involved in the 2012 election, it's that we can't have this Electoral College strategy with the margin of error of one state."(August 21, 2014)

    Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia said on October 31, 2015, unless the 2016 presidential election is a landslide, it will come down to 86 electoral votes spread across seven states.

  6. So with all these Republican governors and state legislatures having come to power the past decade or so, why are any of the states they're in still purple? Shouldn't they all be going red, or are the state governments failing to deliver on the party's promise? (whatever that is anymore...)