…but don’t come crying to me when you realize what you’ve done. If you want to increase the bitterness, brutality, and extremism of American politics, by all means, eliminate the Electoral College. Otherwise, think again.
People get all surprised when I say this out loud. Two of the least popular things in America are the bitter tone of our political discourse and the Electoral College. The people, by and large, would love to be rid of both. Moreover, I’m too lazy to go find polls to back this up, but I seem to recall reading that decrying the bitterness of politics correlates with favoring a national popular vote (and being a less informed and engaged voter, and voting for Democrats, incidentally; zing). Now that there is a plausible anti-Electoral College campaign underway that is, at this writing, a little more than halfway to its goal of a national popular vote, it’s time to discuss the relationship between the College and the health of our politics.
Purple America, and the relatively moderate practical politics Washington actually ends up adopting, are artifacts of an electoral system that rewards the dogged pursuit of a relatively small group of swing voters, usually concentrated in a handful of states where they are highly concentrated. You win a presidential election today by adopting a broad platform that appeals to a plurality of voters in a broadly diverse coalition of states, and the need to win moderate or divided states outright is a powerful leverage that keeps the candidates themselves from floating away into the airy ideological space espoused by the party platforms.
Eliminate the electoral college and you eliminate the need for geographic or ideological diversity in your voting coalition. You can make up for any nearly any loss of independent and moderate voters by running for your base. In fact, in most scenarios, that’s the optimal strategy. In an election where the goal is to collect as many votes as possible, it’s a lot easier to win votes from your base than from those fickle independents.
An example: Mitt Romney is widely expected to lose this election because he is likely to lose the key swing state of Ohio. Under the electoral college system, Romney’s options are limited. He can try to expand the Republican vote in Ohio (and certainly will), but, in a state where Republicans are substantially outnumbered by non-Republicans, that has limited payoff. Ultimately, he has to persuade independent voters to change their minds and back him instead, using arguments that appeal to independents without being too moderate to lose the conservative base. If he wins the election, it will necessarily be because Romney has built a broad coalition that won him majority support in one of the most closely divided states in the Union.
Now, suppose we have a national popular vote instead. Ohio remains divided and leaning Democratic, of course. So Mitt Romney, seeing that he doesn’t have much chance of making up his (projected) 363,008-vote deficit (margin of victory -4.5%), decides to head south, to Texas, a vastly larger, vastly more Republican state, where he is already expected to win by 1,958,133 votes (margin of victory +14.1%). If he can just increase the overall voter turnout in Texas from its current level (54.8%) to Ohio’s level (66.9%), keeping current ratios of independents to Democrats stable, then he wins an additional 1,866,311 Texan votes, while President Obama nets 1,402,534 additional Texan votes. For the Romney campaign, that’s a net gain of 463,777 votes, more than making up for the loss of Ohio by campaigning more heavily in his base states. But it gets worse: those margins would almost certainly not remain stable, as we at first assumed. Mitt would not be trying to turn out independent and Democratic Texan voters. He’d be trying to get discouraged or lazy Republicans out to the polls. If Romney could raise Republican participation to 66.9%, while leaving Democratic turnout where it is, those 1.8 million votes would make up for Romney losing every single 2012 battleground state by the currently-projected margins. If his campaign worked to actively discourage Democratic turnout, through negative advertising or otherwise, Texas would only become more valuable to him.
(I will not even discuss the point that base-state turnout is already artificially depressed by the fact that the electoral college eliminates the marginal impact of additional votes beyond the threshold of majority, making them even more fertile ground for turnout-growth and margin-expansion than average.)
President Obama could continue to try to court Ohioans under these circumstances, but, ultimately, it would be more valuable for him to spend the final six weeks of the election in New York City and surrounds (pop. 25 million) trying to raise his take among the overwhelmingly Democratic bastions there. On a per-voter basis, it is cheaper in terms of both time and effort to win over those already inclined to support you than it is to convert moderates. It is also more natural to the campaigns (overwhelmingly staffed by partisans) and is expected by partisan bases that vote in the primaries.
And how do you win partisan votes? By playing partisan. Run to the extremes. Promise to ban all guns and to bomb Iran on Inauguration Day. Promise top tax rates of 70% or to repeal the 16th Amendment altogether. Dump the moderates; they’re wishy-washy. Forget election-by-consensus; your goal is to get out your base vote! Destroy your opponent, because you need to depress his turnout and it hardly matters whether you alienate the middle, so long as you make up for it with your own partisans! Candidates would no longer pay attention exclusively to battlegrounds, but that would not instigate a national campaign. It would instigate a base-oriented campaign centered around major base-states. And that would only further polarize our nation along our increasingly sectional lines.
I’ll put it another way: under the electoral college, you have to win 50% + 1 in a majority of states. Under a popular vote system, you could still win that way — but it’s a lot easier to win with 75% of the vote in 6 or 10 states and bupkis (aka 25%) in the rest.
There is already a certain amount of this going on in each state. Any political analyst will tell you that an Ohio victory for Obama would be built largely on his running up his margins in the big metro areas, especially Cleveland, while merely holding Romney to lower-than-usual margins of victory in rural areas. Turnout will be a very important factor. However, both candidates still have to remain highly competitive for independent voters, because there just aren’t enough high concentrations of partisans in Ohio for either candidate to withdraw from the battleground suburbs and focus on turnout.
Even so, it is worth noting that the Founding Fathers did not plan for the presidential elections to be even statewide affairs. Always seeking to minimize the influence of faction and find true consensus, the Founders established a presidential election system where electors were either chosen district-by-district, which amplified the focus on moderate voters in swing districts, or were appointed directly by the state legislature, which had the same effect (because a legislature is a representative body where a party’s ability to build a broad coalition is more important than the intensity of its base).
One of the ironies of the national popular vote movement is that it is supported by many of the same people who support changing to a ranked-choice voting system. I approve of ranked-choice voting for many of the same reasons I support the Electoral College: ranked-choice elections ensure that the eventual winner is the candidate supported by the broad consensus of the electorate, rather than by an intense plurality. Under both systems, indirect election is employed to bypass candidates who may be more popular in an absolute sense, but who fail to be sufficiently representative of their constituencies.
So, if you want to make elections uglier and more partisan, abolish the Electoral College. If you want to make them prettier and more moderate, abolish at-large electoral apportionment and return to district-by-district elections or legislative appointment of electors.