Monday, May 21, 2007

Basic Civics: The Electoral College

On the way home from work today, I heard a few minutes of the Laura Ingraham show; she's a conservative talk-show host who has replaced Dave Ramsey's financial show on my local AM station (full disclosure: I prefer Dave). She was interviewing someone on the still-far-off 2008 election, and was pointing out how likely it is that Hillary Clinton will be our next President. Although I can't say I am very happy about that, it makes good math sense. As I'm in the process of writing my final exam, and as there are a couple of questions on it about the electoral college, here's a brief synopsis for those who haven't had a civics class in a while.

Contrary to popular belief, getting the most votes won't make you President. The magic number is a majority of electoral votes. Every state gets a number of electoral votes equal to its number of senators (always 2) plus its number of congressional representatives (from 1 in sparsely-populated states like Wyoming up to 53 in California). If you win the popular vote by even a one-vote plurality in a state, you pretty much get all those electoral votes. With 100 senators and 435 congressional districts, that makes 535 total votes, plus the 23rd amendment gave Washington, DC 3 votes to equal the smallest state. So that's 538. Half of 538 is 269, and a majority is 270. So if you get 270 electoral votes, you win. Simple enough!

But there's more--in a 3-or-more-way race, you can win the electoral vote without winning half the popular vote. A plurality still counts. Further, about 40% of the population tends to vote Democrat, about 40% Republican, and the other 20% or so are generally in play. That's why our biggest popular-vote landslides are always around the magic 60% mark. So it's possible, when a party is not united (like when two Democrats faced Lincoln in 1860, or Teddy Roosevelt took votes away from Taft in 1912, or a Ross Perot steals votes from George H.W. Bush in 1992), the other guy (Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, or Bill Clinton, respectively) can pick up the electoral majority while only winning around 40% of the popular vote.

It's even better than that. Four times in our history, the guy with the second-most overall popular votes has still won the electoral vote (in 1824, 1876, 1888, and most recently in 2000--and, trivia time: 3 of the 4 had a father or grandfather who had also been President--post a comment if you know who didn't). But that makes sense. The electoral college measures breadth of support across all the states instead of depth of support in just a few. If you can imagine someone winning California by a million votes, but losing each of the other 49 states by maybe 10,000 each, you can see how it's supposed to work--the winner of 49 states deserves more to be President, even though he or she "lost" the popular vote by half a million.

But why does all this mean we're looking at Bush-Clinton-Bush-CLINTON? Demographics. If you look at the map of the 2000 election county-by-county, George W. Bush painted the whole map bright red. But there were small patches of intense Al Gore blue along both coasts, up and down the Mississippi River, and in big urban areas. Yet Gore won more popular votes, and the electoral college came down to 600 votes in Florida. Urban voters, who tend to be younger, more often single, more often from minority backgrounds, socially more liberal--they break far more heavily Democrat than "red states" do Republican. And they are much more densely populated than much larger swaths of the country. So New York City dominates NY state politics. "Blue" LA, San Francisco, and other cities dominate the rest of "red" California. And so it goes across the country.

If you look at the 2004 map, it's hard to pick out any state John Kerry won that Hillary Clinton (or Barack Obama) would expect to lose. And let's not forget, Kerry ran a woeful campaign against an incumbent President, long before the Iraq war began to sour like it has recently. Add to that the fact that much of the "red state" base is less-than-in-love with the GOP frontrunners. I've already alluded to the fact that I won't be happy with Giuliani. Now that the immigration bill has hit the fan, McCain is hemmoraging base voters even worse than he was before. And Romney has yet to break out of third place behind those two. If a party can't even get all of their base, they can't win the electoral college.

Of course, there's lots of time between now and then--many GOP'ers think that a Fred Thompson candidacy might change the calculus, plus provide crossover potential to pick up some of that elusive 20% in the middle. Others think that this immigration bill might upset the apple-cart. And of course, as Dewey proved in 1948, the guy who is "guaranteed" to win can still be upset (by my favorite Democrat, Harry S Truman, who saw his party split three ways and still won). But if you're among those who says, "Hillary can't possibly win," think again.


Paul Murphy said...

So what was the closest election in US history??? And what about the Free Soil Party with Polk and Nader with Gore?

Anonymous said...

"And Romney has yet to break out of third place behind those two."

If you were writing that about 6 months back, you would be correct. Since then Romney has acheived sizable leads over both the others:

"Romney's on a roll, in the money
By Jill Zuckman
Chicago Tribune

May 21, 2007, 7:12 PM CDT

BOSTON -- For Mitt Romney, the multimillionaire venture capitalist turned Olympic savior turned politician, all is going according to plan.

With an eye-popping $21 million raised in the first quarter of this year for his presidential campaign and a steady stream of television advertising, the one-term former governor of Massachusetts has caught the attention of both voters and political insiders. Star turns at the first two Republican debates gave his candidacy yet another shot of credibility.

And now, recent polls in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire show Romney surging with a double-digit lead over Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The Des Moines Register put Romney's standing at 30 percent, 12 points ahead of McCain and 13 points over Giuliani. A Zogby poll in New Hampshire shows Romney at 35 percent, with both McCain and Giuliani at just 19."

Your thoughts, while interesting, would seem to be in need of updating.

Coach Sal said...

Paul, the "closest election" depends upon what criteria you use, same as "biggest landslide." The closest electoral-college win was Ruherford B. Hayes over Samuel Tilden by 185-184 in 1876. Popular votes are iffier because you would have to include all four times the EC was won by a "negative number." Closest percentage of votes separating winner and loser when the winner won both popular and electoral vote was 1960 (JFK over Nixon). And 2000 can count, too. As for Nader, there is little doubt that had he not run, we'd be complaining about President Gore right now. To a certain extent, Nader is a fringe example of my 40-20-40 rule; he took away from Gore's slice of the "Democrat 40." Sorry, I've got nothing in my head about the free-soilers, and I'm too lazy to kook up relevant facts to amaze you with.

Coach Sal said...

And to my new anonymous friend, don't get me wrong--I hope that Romney winds up beating both McCain and Giuliani. But Iowa and New Hamshire are not national indicators for Romney any more than they are for John Edwards. I do feel like McCain's support for the current amnesty bill will help Romney in the long run, and I also agree that things are going "according to plan" for Mitt--that if he continues to show credibility, he will eventually be seen as one of the electable alternatives to whoever the Democrat nominee is. But he's not there yet, and all the wishing in the world won't make it so sooner.

Anonymous said...

"And to my new anonymous friend"


"don't get me wrong--I hope that Romney winds up beating both McCain and Giuliani. But Iowa and New Hamshire are not national indicators for Romney any more than they are for John Edwards."

But they're the only indicators of any real consequence we have from which to extrapolate where the "Mo" seems to be headed. Also, the other "Mo" - Money donated -is trending to favor Romney.

I think it would help establish your point on Romney if you incorporated supporting stats/polls/etc.

I suspect you're right the Amnesty issue will erode support for those in favor of it.

If the Romney "surge" continues, I'm guessing that it'll force Fred to formally announce before all the air gets sucked up by Mitt.

Good "primer' post on the Electoral Vote; it's especially difficult to explain to non-Americans. Moreso when you get into the minutae of how the whole Electiral College process goes about. (But that all makes most Americans heads spin too!)

Coach Sal said...

Thanks. I aim to please. Not to quibble, but I wasn't trying to predict the GOP nominee anyway. The point was that a divided party rarely beats a unified one, electorally speaking--so the GOP can't afford to spilt and have any chance at all. I do think that Mitt (or Fred) has the best chance to unite the base. It's my bet that lots of us would stay home before we'd fall in smilingly behind Rudy or McCain.