Inequalities

Future Elections will be Close. That Means that We’re Going to See More Popular Vote Winners Lose.

Some defenders of the way we chose our president insist that a “wrong winner” election—when the person who gets the most votes does not become the president—is a “rare divergence” that is unlikely to happen again (despite the fact that it has happened in two out of the last five elections).

But according to our statistical analysis, the winner of the national popular vote will lose the Electoral College 32-40% of the time in close elections.  And as Geoffrey Skelley at FiveThirtyEight has explained, the current trend of very close elections—within single-digits percentage points—is likely to continue.  The closer the election, the more likely a split between the national popular vote and the Electoral College.  In addition, in recent elections, there have been fewer swing states than in the past, and more states where the margin of victory was very large. The result: more and more elections where the winner of the national popular vote will lose the Electoral College.  

Nor does the current system give a long-term advantage to either party.  In modern elections, the Electoral College has appeared to be skewed against Democrats.  But, as Democrats and Republicans agree, this trend won’t last forever.  Swing states stop swinging, and safe states for one party shift to become safe states for the other.  The next “wrong winner” could just as easily be a Democrat who wins the Electoral College and loses the national popular vote.  In addition, as many, including Donald Trump, have rightly noted, no candidate has ever actually campaigned to win the national popular vote.  There is no telling which party would have an advantage if they did.

But one thing remains certain: so long as we stick with our current system, candidates will exclusively campaign in the current crop of swing states.  Most of America will be ignored, and their voices silenced. 



Electoral College On Track to Reward National Loser With Landslide Victory

According to this model the incumbent is on track to win by a margin of 294 electoral votes. That means 416 electors to 122 electors. This astounding landslide would be won by the most unpopular president ever re-elected, based on the fact that the president's disapproval rating typically runs more than 10 percentage points ahead of his approval rating. His broad and deep unpopularity is manifested in the extremely unusual fact that nearly half of voters say they will never vote for him. That is a much higher number than were dead set against Obama in 2011, when he was still battling the Great Crash and had only just passed the not particularly well-received Affordable Care Act. 

It is not necessary for the United States to have a method of choosing the president that re-elects such an unpopular president. The populist movement that seems to animate people on both the left and right should include as a core tenet agreement on the choice of an election method that guarantees the defeat of a president much less popular than his or her rival from an opposing party.

Of course the Democrats do have to nominate someone more popular than the incumbent. The odds of that happening are much better than the odds of that person defeating the president.  

Head-scratching does not produce any good reason why an extremely unpopular president should be able to get re-elected against a popular opponent.

  • Does the incumbent's unpopularity stem from the failure of voters to understand what he is really like and what he is really doing, which if they understood they would endorse? That doesn't seem likely given the enormous attention the president attracts to his own utterances and deeds.

  • Is the unpopularity merely transitory? The polls show remarkable steadiness in perception and over time views have hardened in place rather than changed.

  • Should we prefer a system where an elite can keep political power in the face of opposition from the poorer, less influential, less educated, or simply less empowered but more numerous majority? In other words, is an authoritarian system better than democracy? That is the fundamental question faced by governments all over the world, now that democracy is under challenge more than at any time since the Second World War.



The electoral college hates choice for women

The majority of women believe that women should have the right to exercise some choice about whether to have children. But evangelicals vehemently disagree. President Trump sides publicly with evangelicals.

It is almost impossible to believe that he has always sincerely held this position. 

But the electoral college system practically compels him to be taking this stance while running for president. Why? Because a huge proportion of voters in swing states are evangelicals. 

The views of the majority of women would militate for a different policy in the Trump Presidency. If they mattered. Which they don’t. Because of the electoral college system.



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 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.



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. 



Still Another

Here is still another article that does not explain the meaning of presidential politics. The claim here is that President Trump is scuttling the China trade agreement (if there really was one in the offing) in order to improve his re-election prospects. The theory expounded is that by imposing tariffs on Chinese imports the president will get more votes, although it is also true that the Chinese will tariff their imports (our exports) of agricultural products, thus hurting American farmers.

What the article does not say is that the electoral college system makes the interests of American farmers irrelevant to the president. He is certain to obtain the electoral votes in the agricultural heartland of the country, say, Iowa, the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska. He can ignore, and obviously is ignoring, the interests of farmers in these states, where evangelical Christians are sure to give Donald Trump their votes and a plurality that awards him all the electoral votes.

The reason that bashing China and hurting American farmers works as an election strategy is that, presumably, it is popular in the more manufacturing-intense states that by pure accident happen to be the only states truly relevant in determining the outcome of the election – Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Florida, the lynchpin of the Trump election strategy, also is not impacted much by the Chinese tariffs on American agricultural products.

If the national popular vote were relevant to choosing the American president, farmers as a block of voters, regardless of where they live, would be important to the outcome. They number about 30 million and if their votes counted in a national tally no candidate for president in the general election could do without a coherent farm policy. Under the electoral college system such a policy is unimportant, and as farmers may have noticed the general election never features much discussion of farm policy.



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.



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. 



The Electoral College Makes Him Do This

According to this article, the President will push "divisive" issues, particularly immigration, in order to win re-election. What is left out, because it is assumed wrongly to be as unchangeable as the weather, is that the Electoral College system makes not only the incumbent running for re-election but also all candidates push issues that can win a mere plurality in the swing states of the Midwest. 

If President Trump had to win a national plurality he would have overwhelming incentive to propose reasonable compromises on immigration. 

It is too easy to criticize the president for taking a position unpopular with most Americans when that same position is quite in accord with his likely voters in the few states that will probably pick the president in 2020: Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. 

Anyone in elected office or who seeks elected office should realize that if the national vote does not choose the president then all candidates in 2020 and forever will shape their policies, promises, and conduct to accord with the views of a small fraction of Americans in a handful of states.



Victims of the Electoral College

Farmers have been doubly hit this year by a trade war with China and extreme flooding. All the states afflicted by this catastrophe are taken for granted in the general election because of the Electoral College. There are 60 million Americans in rural counties. They would have real clout if all their votes were added together in a national tally.  

Because they are not, the trade war and the lack of investment in infrastructure are a pair of punches in the gut. 



Our Towns

Among the many evils of the electoral system is this: it divides the votes in small towns by partitioning them into 50 states. These towns' citizens are then outvoted by the citizens of the larger towns and cities in each state. 

But the interests of small towns are distinctly different. As explained here, small towns in the West have figured out how to have vibrant economies, to attract young people and immigrants, to balance opportunity with quality of life. In the Midwest, small towns have lagged behind. Federal policy should learn from successful small towns and try to repeat these successes elsewhere.

There are more than 18,000 small towns (population less than 25,000). They contain more than 30 million people. This huge voting block would be important to any party's nominee if only the national vote mattered. Instead, with the winner-take-all curse and the disregard of runner-up votes that are both part of the electoral system, the small town voting block isn't a block at all. It is just an outvoted minority in virtually every state.

Some defenders of the current system conjure up the notion that small towns and rural interests are advanced by the electoral college. The exact opposite is the case. 

Some also claim that presidential candidates would ignore small towns. That is what they do now. If every vote mattered, candidates in the presidential election would advertise in small town newspapers, on small town radio, and on the nearest broadcast TV station carried by the small town cable system. They would use email and social media to reach small town voters everywhere in the country. They might even have a bus tour through small towns a la Clinton-Gore in 1992. 

The importance of swing states in the existing system sucks attention from small towns. The pluralities in the swing states are won by urban and suburban turn-out. 

Nothing about the current system motivates candidates in the general election to pay attention to the 30 million small town voters. So they are angry with reason, and democracy is in their interest. Not that politicians are telling them that. This truth would threaten the political power structure in every state. 

Nor do commentators explain to small town citizens that the current system hurts them. 

Why not? Because historians and law professors do not understand the perniciousness of the existing system; political scientists since the death of Robert Dahl have burrowed into intellectual tunnels and left democracy poorly examined; and presidents and their media followers prioritize urban and suburban viewers over small town audiences.