Demographics

The Electoral College Versus Religion

This map shows one of the many religious denominations that are regionally concentrated outside swing states. 

The percentage of Mormons by county:

A very quick scan at this map reveals that with the arguable exception of Nevada virtually all Mormons live in states that are taken for granted in the general presidential election. As a result, members of this denomination are effectively irrelevant in the general presidential election. 

Generally speaking, Mormons vote by a large majority for the same political party and share a common agenda. If the national popular vote picked the president this religious block would get attention from all major party candidates. But instead the winner-take-all electoral college system politically neutralizes members of the Church.



The National Popular Vote Benefits People, Not Parties

In an opinion piece published in The Hill, Lara Brown urges Democrats to “stop worrying about the electoral college,” because over time, demographics are likely to shift and the current system may favor Democrats.  Likewise, Republican pollster Jim Hobart notes that the electoral college is “cyclical,” and that in a few years, Republicans may wish that we chose our president by national popular vote.

They are both right that under the current system, swing states become safe states, and safe states for one party can become safe states for the other, with relative frequency.  Therefore, Republicans are not likely to retain a long-term structural advantage from keeping the current system, nor are Democrats always going to be better off under a national popular vote.

But under the current system, even if the identity of the swing states that decide elections changes to the advantage of one party or the other, certain things will remain the same:

That is why so many people—of all political persuasions—have been working tirelessly to enact the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact since 2006, through Republican and Democratic electoral victories alike.  No one has the right to always have their candidate of choice elected president.  But if the president has to win the national popular vote, every person’s vote will count equally. 



The Small State "Advantage" Under the Electoral College is Illusory

Some argue that because small states get more electors relative to their population than large states, the Electoral College is good for small states and protects their interests.  However, that minor advantage is far outweighed by the incentives to ignore people who live in small states entirely when almost every state awards all of its electors to the winner of the statewide popular vote.  From Ryan Cooper at The Week:

The 2016 candidates spent almost all their time in a handful of states, most of them medium or large. Two-thirds of campaign events happened in just six states — Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Michigan. If we include Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Arizona, then those 12 states account for 96 percent of campaign events.

The nine smallest states (including D.C.), meanwhile, got precisely zero attention. Only the tenth-largest, New Hampshire, got any events at all. In total, 25 states (mostly small and medium-sized) got no events whatsoever. And while it's true the states that got huge attention are mostly on the big side, the very largest states were almost totally ignored as well — California and Texas got one event apiece, and New York none.

The reason for this is obvious. Almost every state gives all of its electoral votes to whoever wins the state — allowing candidates to take the votes of strongly partisan states for granted. Indeed, it's actively foolish to campaign where you are guaranteed to win or lose — only the swing states matter. It would be a waste of resources for a Democrat to campaign in California or Kentucky, or for a Republican to campaign in New York or D.C.



Electoral college system encourages climate change

A strong majority of Americans supports the government leading in battle against climate change. But the electoral college system privileges states that account for the major part of greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania, three swing states that were integral to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, were among the top 12 states in aggregate emissions.  These states would have to change their energy use the most in order to defeat climate change. Change is hard. 

 Therefore in 2016 and again in his 2020 campaign it serves Donald Trump‘s interests to support climate change denial and to be in favor of continuing business as usual, which is obviously threatening global climate disaster. If it were not for the electoral college system the United States would be much more likely to have a climate change policy that reflects the wishes of most Americans and all scientists who pay any attention to this subject. 

All the other states on the list of 12 are taken for granted by both parties. The key fact is the presence of the three swing states in the dirty dozen. 

See this chart:

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Swing States Stop Swinging

If you live in one of the few battleground states left, you may believe that the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is against your interests as one of the few voters who actually has a say in the outcome of presidential elections.  But history has shown that states do not remain swing states forever, and voters in some of the most important swing states in past elections may soon find themselves joining most of the country in the Land of the Ignored Voters in the next election.

Take Ohio, the deciding state in the 2004 election. Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, criticized the popular vote movement as being against Ohioans’ interests because a national popular vote “would make Ohio not a player in the political game.” 

However, looking forward to the 2020 election, Ohio has already lost its coveted swing state status and moved into the into the column of states taken for granted by the Republican party.  The 2018 midterms, which generally provided significant gains for Democrats, demonstrated that Ohio has moved further into solidly-Republican territory “[s]o much so that the perpetual battleground seems less and less likely to be in play in 2020.”  A prominent Democratic super PAC has “significantly downgrade[d] Ohio’s targetability, listing it as a ‘GOP Watch’ state along with Texas and Iowa.”

 As a result, Republican commentator Scott Jennings predicts that “If you are one of the masochistic few who loves hearing your phone ring 48 times a day every fourth October, you are about to be sorely disappointed.”

On the other hand, Virginia, which had been a solidly-Republican state, then became a swing state, now looks more and more like a safely blue state.  The result: candidates may soon stop visiting Virginia, spending money in Virginia, and taking policy positions that serve the interests of Virginians. 

That former swing states should move to one column or another should not come as a surprise.  Indeed, even Democratic stronghold California used to be a swing state.  On the other side, Republican stronghold of Texas may become a swing state soon

As time goes on and demographics and party positions change, the key swing states that decide elections will inevitably shift.  A state with tremendous power and influence in one election may be completely ignored in the next.  But under the national popular vote, all votes will matter equally in every election.



Yup that’s it

This article correctly understands that the election turns entirely on who wins the statewide votes in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan. and Wisconsin. The very strong economy in these four states gives the president an extremely good chance of winning reelection while losing the national popular vote by a margin of millions. That would mean that in half of the elections of this century the loser of the popular vote nationally would become president. 



Most of the 2020 Campaign Will Happen in Just Six Big States

Though defenders of the Electoral College often say that the institution is necessary to protect the interest of small states, in fact, the opposite is true.  A winning strategy for presidential candidates requires them to ignore small states and spend all their time and money on the few persuadable voters in large swing states.  

In 2016, 99% of campaign spending took place in only fourteen states, with half of that going to just four large states—Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.  The rest of the United States was ignored.  And 2020 is shaping up to be even worse.  A pro-Trump Super PAC, America First Action, has stated that that just 13 states matter in the next election and plans to spend $250 million in just 6 large states—Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. 

 The result of the election may be dependent on an even smaller pool of voters: swing voters in Florida.

In Florida, for example, the starting Trumpworld assumption is that 10.5 million votes could be cast, which would represent record turnout in a fast-growing state. To be sure of a win, the president would need around 5.2 million to 5.3 million votes. At least 4.3 million Floridians, according to the campaign models, are already assured to come out for the president. The goal from there is straightforward: Find the 972,000-odd voters who would get the president to the win number.

The president isn’t wrong to commit to this strategy. The eventual Democratic candidate will certainly focus all of his or her energy, money, and time on these same few voters, taking the rest of the country for granted.  It is the system that forces candidates to spend all their time and money in large swing states.



Electoral college shapes foreign policy

This would not be taking place if it were not likely to win votes in Florida. Without carrying Florida the president has precious little chance to win re-election. But for an important segment of Florida voters both Cuba and Venezuela are seen as enemy states. Hostility and intervention there wins votes, whereas these same voters may support, or at least not mind, the president’s withdrawal from Syria or his amicable attitude toward North Korea. 

Spanish-speaking voters in Texas or California are far more likely to react negatively to Donald Trump’s policies toward Mexico and Central America, from where they’ve come. But they are relatively indifferent to his Cuba or Venezuela policies, since most do not trace their origins from those areas. However, these voters are taken for granted or ignored in presidential politics because of the anti-democratic  electoral college system. 

This is another in a litany of bad aspects of the selection system. 



The Electoral College Distorts the Primary Process

The Electoral College system has a tremendous impact on candidates’ campaigns and policies.  But it also dictates who the candidates are in the first place.

The 2020 Democratic primary is in full swing, and voters have a staggering number of candidates to evaluate. According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll, 49% of Democratic voters think it’s more important that a candidate is more likely to win compared to only 35% who think it’s more important that a candidate’s position on the issues is closest to their own.  A focus on electability in itself is not terribly surprising—any primary voter should be concerned about a candidate’s appeal to the broader electorate.  But under the Electoral College, primary voters can’t just evaluate which candidate they think will do the best across the nation as a whole.  Instead, they think about electability in terms of a fraction of a fraction of voters—that is, swing voters in swing states. As Ed Kilgore explains:

“Without question, the most popular contestants for key swing voters next year are the Rust Belt white working-class voters — many of whom voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and/or 2012 — who helped Trump win Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and thus, the presidency in 2016.”

The problem is, voters tend not to be very good at determining electability. So the primary system forces voters to make a decision based on the perceived preferences of just a tiny sliver of the population, a double distortion that leads candidates even further away from the policies that most Americans actually want.



Both Candidates Will Continue to Fight for the Same Few States—While Ignoring Most of the Country

The manager of President Trump’s 2020 campaign said that Trump thinks he can win a few states that Hilary Clinton carried in 2016, while repeating his victories in the key states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.  The Democratic candidate will, of course, have to win some of the states that Clinton lost in order to win in 2020.

The problem is that both parties are continuing to fight for the same handful of states, with hardly a thought for the rest of the nation. While the states that are up for grabs may slowly change over time, the overall number of competitive states has decreased.  This means that more and more of the country is left out of the presidential election conversation entirely.  Presidential candidates rarely or never visit most states.  Worse, they tailor their policy positions to the needs of swing states alone—with serious consequences.

Until every vote matters equally, the system will force candidates to spend almost all of their time and money on winning the votes of the small percentage of the country that live in big swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania, ignoring most of the small states. That is not the system that our founders envisioned, and is not one that is working today.



Impact Estimated

According to one estimate the decision to ask about citizenship may cause nearly 6 million people not to be counted, and thus not to be represented in the House and Electoral College. 

The current Electoral College system makes irrelevant campaigning in the general election in 40 states. This lowers turn-out by between 17 and 77 million. 



What 2020 will be like

The map below, from NationalPopularVote.com, totals general election campaign events by the nominees of the two major parties in 2016.

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This is by no means the most useful measuring stick for how the Electoral College skews the importance of voters toward only those in a few states. A candidate goes to a state in order to obtain local media coverage and to bolster enthusiasm among loyalists. But there's no particular reason for a candidate to go to a critical state every day for a week, even if the state were absolutely critical, like Florida. A much better measurement of a state's electoral importance is advertising spending and a secondary measurement is money spent on the ground building field offices and installing the many mechanisms to drive turn-out. Nevertheless, the map of visits reveals what everyone in presidential politics know: the vast majority of American voters are taken for granted in the presidential election



The Electoral College Exposes Businesses Outside Swing States to Punishment

This is from Bill Bishop whose newsletter requires a subscription:

“It’s also worth noting that talk is going around DC that the US and China may keep the original $50B in tariffs, but that the Trump Administration has asked the Chinese to move theirs away from targeting the GOP base to less politically sensitive sectors, even proposing alternative industries to the Chinese side.”

What makes a business sector “politically sensitive”?

Campaign donations is one answer, but since Citizens United individual donations by the mega-wealthy have become far more important than corporate donations. Businesses generally balance donations between both parties and want to avoid alienating customers or hurting their brand by being labelled to the left or right on the political dial.

What matters is location. A business with many employees that is headquartered in a swing state is “politically sensitive” because its managers and employees matter to the close-run pluralities that define a state as a battleground.

Or did you think it was just an accident that Chrysler was twice bailed out by the United States government?

The Electoral College system exposes businesses headquartered on the Pacific or Atlantic coasts to the alleged conduct described by Bishop.

It’s in the interest of all businesses to have the presidency determined by national campaigns, with the winner always being the person who gets the most votes. Only under these circumstances will presidents seeking their second term have to regard all businesses with many employees as “politically sensitive.” 



Slight Modification

In this article the excellent Tom Edsall speculates that rapid and recent job growth in Republican-leaning states may boost the president's chances for re-election.

But the job growth in the 20 or so states certain to return Republican pluralities is irrelevant.

All that matters with the crazy system by which the United States chooses presidents is the situation in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. 

Of course it is true that job growth and wage growth—particularly among volatile segments, such as less educated people ages 22 to 60—has a huge impact on whether they vote and how they vote. But this consideration affects the outcome only as it applies to the handful of swing states.

If the United States used the national popular vote to pick the president, then the selection of the president would not turn on the fact that swing states by chance are located in a region of the country that lags in an economic recovery.

Should a poorly performing region have the tremendous clout that comes from picking the president?

There are three reasons the answer is no.

First, it is a mere accident that the few swing states currently are in the lagging Midwest. Suppose most people were suffering a sluggish economic recovery, but the swing states happened to be the booming Southwest. Then the well-off would be picking the president, leaving most people relatively ignored by the chief executive. The random selection of some states as swing states should not be the factor that causes the denizens of those states to get attention from candidates for president. 

Second, there are enough people in the Midwest—70 million!—to make it crucial in deciding who wins the national popular vote. Having a decisive role in the electoral college is not necessary for attention to be paid to the citizens of that region. It would be impossible for anyone seeking a national popular vote victory to ignore the Midwest, or to win without doing reasonably well in getting votes there. 

Third, many millions of Americans are underpaid or underemployed because they are less educated than necessary in the modern economy. They deserve to be treated as a voting block critical to choosing the president, regardless of where they live. Very affordable education, personal savings along the lines of Cory Booker's baby bonds, and very cheap health care costs are very important policies for all in this segment. But the focus only on this segment's representation in certain states tilts political promises toward hiring by local companies or hostility toward inbound migration, neither of which is as useful to address the fundamental problem. 



Battlegrounds divide country by tribal politics

As the chart below shows, race and religion are attributes that are highly divisive.

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White evangelicals compose between a quarter and a third of the voting population in the Midwest battleground states. These states (stochastically) determine the presidency. Therefore candidates in the general election, such as the incumbent, adopt views appealing to evangelicals that are not necessarily held by the candidate personally and are anathema to the rest of the country.  In this way the electoral college educes hypocrisy, plays on division,  and intensifies hostility among Americans. 

Does anyone think that battles among people based on religion and race are good for an open and tolerant democracy?  Yet that is what the electoral college fosters. 



A "Flourishing Effort to Advance Democracy"

From The Progressive:

Though billed as a nationwide election, presidential elections are, in reality, decided by, at most, fourteen states: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The reason? Virtually all states allocate electoral votes in a winner-take-all format—if a candidate wins the majority of votes in a state, that candidate receives 100 percent of the electoral votes. As such, there is no incentive for presidential candidates to campaign in states dominated by one party, even if millions of supporters live there.

In 2016, 95 percent of candidate appearances and 99 percent of campaign spending went to these swing states. Worse still, these states are unrepresentative of the broader population; they are older and whiter and their economic interests—especially relating to energy production—are anomalous. National priorities are subsequently skewed and federal funds get disproportionately allocated to serve swing state needs.

Despite these facts, Electoral College reform efforts, such as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact or proportional allocation of electoral votes, are virtually never discussed in the media. Warren, by taking a stand for a democracy solution, broke the silence, sparked a much-needed debate about the Electoral College, and spread the word about a concrete policy solution that Americans could immediately act on.



What if 

One speculation about the national popular vote is that it could permit someone to win the presidency without gaining a large fraction of the popular vote.

Another way to say this is that the national popular vote could give a third-party a chance to be more than a spoiler like Nader in 2000 or Perot arguably in 1992. 

Therefore, arguably, the Electoral College is useful because it creates a majority by the terms of the Constitution.  If there is no majority in the Electoral College the selection process moves to method number two, which is choice in the House of Representatives. If no one obtains a majority of delegation votes there, then the Senate picks the president. 

So goes the claim. 

Let’s unpack it. 

First, the supposition is that a majority in the Electoral College creates legitimacy even if underlying it there is no majority in the popular vote. Indeed, the loser of the popular vote can garner that majority. 

It is difficult to know what to say about an argument premised on the view that a loser of the popular vote gains legitimacy through a selection system that ignores the popular vote. Isn’t this dread circularity? And who is supposed to concede that legitimacy? Certainly not the voters and yet aren’t they the only relevant audience? Remember, under our current system, it is possible for a candidate to win a two-party race while getting as little as 23% of the popular vote.

Second, if we assume that instead of two major parties, three or four or five or six each gain meaningful shares of the total, then it is unlikely any candidate wins a majority of electors, and so the House selects the president on a state by state vote. But if multiple significant parties exist then the House has already divided into multiple blocks akin to many parliaments. The likely outcome is that no candidate wins 26 delegations as required. 

Then the Senate decides. There disproportionality rules. States with tiny fractions of the populace can play the deciding role. Legitimacy is not the outcome. 

Third, this speculation presupposes that major third parties and fourth parties and fifth parties would come out of nowhere to nominate viable presidential candidates. That’s crazy. 

History indeed shows that and political parties do not last forever. Famously the Republican party once was a new thing competing for preeminence. 

But the job of winning the presidency through the national popular vote in big America requires resources of vast scale. The barriers to entry for a spoiler party with the electoral college system are trivial. But the threshold cost for a serious third-party candidate to win the necessary minimum of 34% of the vote in a three-person contest is so high that in fact the national popular vote system would not permit the existence of more than two or three viable major parties, and it would require any or all of these parties to create big tents containing multiple factions. Compromises would have to be reached within the parties for them to achieve national scale. It would be impossible for a winning party to be mostly a one race, one language, one ethnicity, dominantly single gender, nativist block. Not saying that exists, but doesn’t the electoral system enable that option?