Will the electoral college survive 2012?

The celebrated election-whisperer Nate Silver now says there is nearly a 4% chance that Barack Obama will win another term, even though most voters in the US want Mitt Romney to be their president.

As I’ll explain below, I think Silver understates the risk of a “false positive” in America’s most important election system.

But even if his number is correct, it strikes me as unacceptable for there to be a 1-in-25 chance of our democracy being led by a politician that loses the popular vote.

The culprit here, of course, is the creaky, 19th-century political apparatus known as the electoral college.

Our system distributes voting power in our presidential races not by the principle of one-person-one-vote, but instead uses a quirky system that distributes lopsided political power to different states.

It is a leftover from a time when communication was far slower and when the states were far more like separate federated nations than members of a permanent, integrated union.

In the past, Republicans enjoyed a distinct advantage in the electoral college system, because their candidates tended to fare well in low-population rural states that are “gifted” extra power.

But in recent political contests, Democrats have erased that edge.

They’ve done so first by dominating the biggest states in a way that gave them an easy pool of electoral college votes (a big strategic advantage) and then by capturing their own cadre of small states:  Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington DC.

This has leveled and even tilted the playing field.

The potential for this tippy system to actually “throw” an election has felt tangible all year.  Romney and Obama have been essentially tied in the national polls, with one or the other occasionally eking out a narrow lead.

But Obama has dominated in the electoral college standings.  Even now, following Romney’s recent surge, Obama leads in states that give him 294 electoral college votes — 24 more than he needs to win a second term.

As noted, Romney has eked out a lead in the horse-race poll.  If the election were held today, he might very well win the popular vote while still falling 26 electoral college votes short of a win.

To put that in perspective, to make up that extra ground, Romney would need to flip Iowa, New Hampshire, and Ohio.  A pretty sizable and unfair burden for a guy who’s already “winning.”

Before talking about the extra risks that exist now — new weaknesses in the electoral college system — let me point out that this isn’t theoretical stuff.  In 2000, it wasn’t hanging chads in Florida that doomed Al Gore, or even the Supreme Court.

It was our long-established system that redistributes political power.

Gore beat George W. Bush by roughly half a million votes, but in our weird wonky system, the Democrat was doomed by the 7,000 vote spread in tiny New Hampshire.

Bush won there, earned a lopsided 3 electoral college votes, and that tipped him the race.

In theory, tis kind of thing is a rare, once-in-a-lifetime anomaly.  Most pollsters expect that the electoral college numbers will fall into line with the popular vote near the end of most campaigns — because that’s what has happened historically.

But things are changing in American politics.  The states are more polarized, less fluid.  It’s much, much harder for Romney to “convert” Pennsylvania, or for Obama to capture a state like Indiana.

What’s more, a growing number of states are moving toward early voting and absentee ballot systems that could weirdly skew outcomes.  Consider this dispatch from today’s Wall Street Journal.

Nearly one in five Ohio poll respondents had already cast their ballots—and they favored Mr. Obama by a 63%-37% margin. People who haven’t yet cast their ballots favored Mr. Obama by 48%-46%.

Which means that even if Romney makes a strong closing argument, a big, cornerstone state like Ohio could in theory be off the table by late October.

What would it mean if we stumbled into a four-year stretch with an “accidental” president?  George W. Bush pulled it off, managing to govern in his first term with panache that suggested a popular mandate.

Especially if Democrats hold control of the Senate, Obama might be expected to do the same, though Fox News and Rush would have a field day.

Hopefully, the bigger and more enduring impact would be a move to seriously question the value and appropriateness of an antiquated system that both the left and the right would have good reason to distrust.




62 Comments on “Will the electoral college survive 2012?”

  1. Paul says:

    It will.

  2. dbw says:

    The Electoral College will survive because things are so closely divided now. Both parties have their solid bases. The Democratic Party can count on the larger states, as Brian mentioned, and the Republicans start out with 106 electoral votes. For the sake of the country, I hope one of the candidates wins both popular and electoral college. Everyone knows how the system works but a divided result would add further political discord at time we have multiple crises just over the horizon.

  3. JDM says:

    The electoral college favors smaller population states. A quick look at the red-blue states shows that many are red.

    Blue-state advocates would love to do away with electoral college and let California and New York decide every election.

    By the way, RealClearPolitics shows Obama just dropped 60 electoral points in the past two weeks.

  4. hermit thrush says:

    you know who would really like to do away with the electoral college?

    people who believe in fairness.

  5. JDM says:

    hermit thrush: fairness is quite a word. Care to give us your definition.

  6. JDM says:

    RCP has Pennsylvania back in play.

    Obama will probably go down in history as a lousy president and the worst debater ever.

  7. hermit thrush says:

    as far as voting goes, it means that my vote counts exactly the same as yours. not more and not less. a vote in texas or california should count just as much as one in ohio.

  8. dbw says:

    I think Republicans would love to keep the Electoral College due to demographic shifts towards Latinos and African-Americans, that could impact the popular vote.

  9. JDM says:

    hermit thrush: I agree, the electoral system allows some votes (in smaller states) to count “more” than the same votes in larger states.

    The alternative is for the larger states (the most populist states) elect the president and the smaller states sit back and watch.

  10. JDM says:

    hermit thrush: Therefore, I would call the electoral system “fair”, because it keeps all the states in play.

    I understand your definition, however.

  11. Pete Klein says:

    As long as the rich have the ability to fund more political ads than the poor, neither the electoral vote nor the popular vote will be fair.

  12. PNElba says:

    Blue-state advocates would love to do away with electoral college and let California and New York decide every election.

    JDM – will you still feel the same if Obama wins the electoral college vote but not the popular vote? If that happens, conservatives will go ballistic.

  13. Paul says:

    If a person that gets fewer votes wins the election then the system is weird. I think part of the reason many people don’t vote is because of the electoral college system. One person one vote is a better system. The primary system is a bigger problem if you ask me. Those start the media frenzy and screw up the whole process.

  14. Paul says:

    I don’t have a problem with letting NY decide every election. When I lived in Colorado I might have felt differently.

  15. Larry says:

    The Electoral College is part of a system that maintains a delicate balance between large states and small states and between the states, the Federal Government and the American people. It also provides an element of protection against potential abuse of the presidential election process.

    The suggestion that Bush was an “accidental” president is absurd and misleading. He was a minority (elected with less than 50% of the popular vote) president, as were John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and quite a few others. Hard to argue with some of those “accidents”.

  16. Walker says:

    Whoa, we’re not talking about getting less than 50% of the vote and winning. We’re talking getting fewer votes than your opponent but winning.

    Only four presidents have done that, and Adams is the only one of your list in that situation.

    Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote but lost the election to Rutherford B. Hayes (1876);

    Grover Cleveland won the popular vote but lost the election to Benjamin Harrison (1888);

    Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election to George W. Bush (2000). (Infoplease.com)

    Not quite such stellar company.

  17. Larry says:

    Correct Walker, but I was focusing on all “accidental” presidents.

  18. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    The Electoral College system was conceived at a time when the Colonies were much more independent than states are and fresh off of the rejection of the Articles of Confederation. They are an anachronism but they’re here to stay for a long time after this election if the winner of the popular vote and the winner of the electoral vote are the same because demographics are working to make popular vote and electoral vote converge.

  19. hermit thrush says:

    Therefore, I would call the electoral system “fair”, because it keeps all the states in play.

    but the whole point is that very few states are in play! it’s not fair at all!

  20. Larry says:

    What do you mean “very few states are in play”? Very few are up for grabs? Very few matter? Very few will decide the election? I’m curious.

  21. “The alternative is for the larger states (the most populist states) elect the president and the smaller states sit back and watch.”

    Nonsense. Since every person’s vote would count the same, candidates would have more incentive to go to smaller states because, for example, Obama winning Vermont or Romney Wyoming 65-35 rather than 58-42 might be the difference between them winning the overall popular vote.

    Right now, they only concentrate on a handful of narrowly divided states, almost all of them populous. California is as irrelevant in this process as Texas.

  22. A reverse of 2000, with the Republican winning the popular vote and the Democrat winning the electoral vote, is the only chance of this anachronism finally being eliminated. Only when both major parties get screwed by it is there a chance it might hear its long overdue death knell.

  23. “The Electoral College is part of a system that maintains a delicate balance between large states and small states”

    That’s exactly the point. I want a system where the interests of the people are above the interests of “states”. I want a system where the president represents the AMERICAN people, not just people of certain states.

  24. hermit thrush says:

    i mean that few states are up for grabs, and very few will have a chance to decide the election.

  25. Peter Hahn says:

    The electoral college will survive if only because it is too much of a bother to change

  26. Newt says:

    I kind of hope that Obama wins a la W. in 2000, with a popular minority. Why? It would be nice payback, and the shrieks of the outraged right would be so delightful (NO FAIR! Only WE get to steal elections!).

    Also, this might result in reforms to finally correct the Electoral College system, AS CURRENTLY PRACTICED.

    Why the caps? Brian failed to mention that what makes the Electoral College so undemocratic is not really part of the U/S/ Constitution The winner-take-all aspect for states’ electoral votes did not originate there, and you can’t find (I looked many years ago) If every single voter in the North Country voted for Romney, and if Romney only lost New York by a single, solitary vote, Obama would get every single one of NYs 31 (I think) electoral votes. Winner take all.

    But winner-take-all is NOT enshrined in the Constitution. It was established by states, which, of course, are allowed tremendous latitude in their rules for elections. In fact, two states do not have winner-take-all, Maine, and, I think, Arkansas. Under their systems, a separate Presidential election takes place in each Congressional District in the state. Who wins that CD, gets an Electoral vote. That leaves two votes left over, since each state gets a vote for each CD, and one for each Senator. I believe the candidate winning the majority of CDs gets the extra two, tie in CDS mean each candidate gets one. If NY had a system like this, you might have Romney winning the 21st CD, and getting it’s electoral vote in the College.

    Just imagine if New York had such a system. Instead of being flyover country, our 21st CD might be hugely important in the election, as would every other District in New York, and California, and Texas, and Alabama. Instead of visiting Ohio and Florida 500 times, and us never, we might get a little respect from candidates.

    The legislature could change this, if it wanted to, but won’t as long as pols influencing who wins control things, and there is no reason beyond simple justice, decency, and fairness to do so.

    And they are right. If NYS changed to electoral votes by CD winner, and no other state did, it would unfairly advantage the Republicans, who would still have winner-take-all states united while New York split it’s vote. The Republicans actually tried this in Cali in 2008, but, surprise!, were unsuccessful.

    A Constitutional Amendment mandating Electoral Voting by CD would maintain the Electoral College, but make it fairer to all the states. And I couldn’t agree more with the commenter who said winner-take-all suppresses turnout. Every so often when I was teaching in Government class about the system a smart student would ask, “Then why even tell us we should vote? Aren’t are votes for President almost meaningless?” And I’d say, “Yup. They are, you are wasting your time voting for President in New York, and any non-battleground state. But if it makes you feel good, do it. And remember, your vote for U.S. and State Senators, U.S. and State Representatives, Township Supervisors, and the rest of them are important. But President? Yeah. meaningless.” Probably discouraged a few 18-year-olds from voting over the years, but I wasn’t teaching “Modern Fairy Tales”

  27. Larry says:

    Nobody’s getting “screwed” and “fair” has nothing to do with this process either. Indirect election of the President is one of several ways a country can choose its leader. In the UK, for example, the Prime Minister is chosen by the Queen (technically) and is usually the leader of the party with a majority in the House of Commons. Talk about indirect! I guess they are doing OK with it though. The point is, there’s nothing inherently unfair or prejudiced about the Electoral College and it has a lot to recommend it.

  28. Larry says:

    “…and between the states, the Federal Government and the American people.”

    Good enough for you, Brian (MOFYC not NCPR)? Probablynot, but what the hell.

  29. Paul says:

    newt, sorry you exceeded the word maximum for a comment!

  30. The EC is one of several election reforms that need to happen including spending limits. I’d like to see a ban on all donations to legislators from outside the district they will represent. I’d like to see federal standards for voting, not state by state. That would end things like the effort to split the electoral vote in California. It may have failed in the first try but I’m sure someone who’d like to skew an election will try again especially if they have billionaires from outside the state to fund the campaign.

  31. mervel says:

    Why not just make the electoral votes proportionate to the population of the state?

    The winner take all idea is the problem, not the electoral college.

    But it will be interesting to see the attitudes when and if Obama wins the electoral college and possibly loses the popular vote.

    We are not competent enough to know who would really win an election that was down to a couple of thousand votes, which is why I say possibly.

    To me a bigger issue is our ragged, incompetent, underfunded, joke of a national system to consistently count our votes. We should have a paid, well staffed, national system to run all of our elections consistently and fairly. It amazes me that we claim Democracy as our founding birthright and we are so bad at the basic mechanics of it.

  32. mervel says:

    No election is ever decided by one vote, none, zero, if there really was a one vote election it would be thrown to the courts, in that regard our individual vote, truly does not matter.

  33. Larry says:

    What an awful, cynical thing it is to encourage people not to vote. And to suggest that the current system is in place only because of a lack of justice, decency and fairness is even worse. Liberals don’t have a monopoly on justice, decency or fairness but it seems they do have one on cynicism. God help the students of whatever school you taught in.

  34. Newt says:

    Larry this is where folks like you and folks like me disagree, and it is critically important.

    I never told them not to vote. I told them the truth about the reality of voting, including the importance of voting down-ballot elections.

    You believe voting is a fundamental good, regardless of whether it is based on a solid foundation of truth, which, in non-battleground states like New York is not the case. You believe If this is false that your vote means anything, teach that it is good nevertheless because voting is “good” The same argument is no doubt made by the political elites of Iran, Zimbabwe, and any number other nations. For, apparently to you “the Good” is more important than “the True”

    I believe that the True, not your, or my, or Obama’s, or Romney’s understanding of ” Good” , is the fundamental product that teachers provide. ” Good” can only proceed from what is True, determined from objective evidence. Teaching students to respect truth above all, and how to best find it, is the fundamental job of all teachers. It is also the fundamental value of the Enlightenment philosophy that the United States was founded upon.

    If I taught them to seek the truth (in this case, about politics) and that truth leads not to vote, too bad, maybe. But it might also lead them to demand reforms that might make voting truly meaningful, or at least understand the world as it is, and make judgements based on this. If I did that, I did my job.

    Yes Paul, I exceeded the comment limit, probably not the first, or worst, time for me. I should have broken it into short segments, each one beginning “And furthermore……..”

  35. Larry says:

    No vote is wasted, ever, in a democracy. Why encourage people to give up because you think their votes are “meaningless”? Should we also encourage people to only vote for “winners” because, after all, what point is there in voting for “losers”? If you concede your state’s electoral votes by not voting, nothing will ever change. If you think the Electoral College should be reformed, OK, make it happen. The trouble is, no change will ever take place in a climate of political apathy created by folks like you who teach cynicism instead of activism. Political activism begins with voting.

  36. mervel says:

    Sure voting is a civic duty it is part of our process and part of our responsibility as citizens.

    But I would say we could largely fix the problem of the electoral college by getting rid of the winner take all system. Of course the most logical thing to do is have a true national popular vote for President. Our smaller states are well protected in the Senate and I do believe in providing voice to the States as well as to individual voters. But I honestly think this is accounted by the Senate; a very powerful body in the US, which gives equal voice to Wyoming at 500,000 people and California at 30 million people. I think Wyoming and Vermont are well protected in this process, there is no need to further give them protection in the national election for President.

  37. Newt says:


    NEVER did I say “Don’t vote”. I just told the truth about voting. I gave the facts, and let them decide. I happen to believe a vote made under false understanding is worse than wasted, it is perverted.

    In fact, if people really cared enough about this, an organized and effective boycott of voting by people from all sides would probably be the most effective means of bringing about change, since it would finally threaten the pols with consequences for distorting the system. If 10% of eligible voters, equally spread across the political spectrum, told pollsters and reporters “I’m not voting for President until they change the winner-take-all system that makes my vote nearly meaningless”, winner-take-all would disappear from the landscape in short order .Corrupt regimes in other nations (Iran comes to mind) go absolutely ballistic when voters start boycotting their already-stolen elections. I’m not saying this could, or even should, happen here, but if people cared enough, it would be a path to change. Voting is too important to be based on myths.

    And, even though I know my vote for President in this state is nearly meaningless, I will do it anyway. Because it makes me feel good, and because there are some important, possibly close, national and state races to get me in the booth.

  38. Larry says:

    There’s no mythology or lack of truth at work here: the Electoral College has been in place for over 200 years and its operation and rationale is easily understood by anyone who cares to investigate. Don’t like it? No problem there; not everyone does. Read Mervel’s post above; it’s a reasoned, well thought out objection to the EC that makes sense even if you don’t agree with it.

    Also, let’s not mince words: you clearly think people shouldn’t vote because you don’t agree with the established system. There isn’t a serious person in politics who would tell, hint, suggest or in any way encourage people not to vote. Why take a position and then, when challenged, claim you’ve been misunderstood?

    Do you seriously think that boycotting a political process can motivate a government to change that process? You are incredibly naive to think that corrupt regimes are bothered that people don’t vote? They could care less. Political apathy helps get them into power and helps them stay there.

  39. Larry, I totally agree… except with a caveat. There is one to waste your vote: by voting against your conscience and values. That’s why I’m voting for the Green candidate Dr. Jill Stein even though according to my tribe’s norms, I’m supposed to vote for a human rights abusing, drone strike loving, militaristic, hypersecretive , corporate tool named Barack Obama.

  40. Larry, I don’t agree with the established system. The idea that we’re a two-party system is custom, not law. And as such, it can be changed to multipartyism simply if good chunk of the citizens, particularly those who whine about how awful Democrats and Republicans are, choose to vote for candidates outside the two corporate parties. We don’t need a revolution or a constitutional convention to establish effective multipartyism. We just need people to consider and exercise choices that are already available.

  41. Newt says:

    I’m done arguing hypotheticals about voting.

    Voting, fixed or honest, is the lifeblood of most political systems, fixed or honest, and pols can’t stand the idea of the folks rejecting them by rejecting it. Third parties

    (I’d vote for a single issue “Proportional Representation” Party, that led to non-partisan redistricting, and, possibly, fairer Electoral College voting)

    A teacher’s job is to provide students with the objective truth, and the means to find it for themselves should they choose to. It is not to give them happy stories about how important their vote is when it is not, anymore than it is to tell them that cavemen used to ride around on dinosaurs, simply because some folks think we should (Larry, I am not accusing you of the latter, it just falls into the same category of teaching values and beliefs before evidence. Values and beliefs, in public schools, anyway, can and should only be derived from demonstrable conclusions based on demonstrable facts.

  42. Larry says:

    Brian (MOFYC not NCPR),
    It is no secret that you and I do not agree on much, but in this instance I think you are absolutely correct. This is the beauty of our system. We now have universal adult suffrage and every one of us is free to vote our conscience without conditions or restrictions. Legitimate change can only come if people exercise their voting rights and that’s the way it should be.

  43. Larry says:

    Newt, there’s nothing hypothetical about the value of exercising the right to vote. It’s not a “happy story”, it’s a fact. What do you think would have happened if voters had boycotted the election of 1860? I don’t even want to speculate what this country would look like if enough people hadn’t voted for Lincoln. What you should have told your students is that as soon as they are able, and at whatever level attracts them, they should find, support and VOTE for candidates whose beliefs match their own. That’s how things get done.

  44. Larry says:

    By the way, Newt, a teacher’s job is most certainly not to infect students with bitterness and cynicism. To do so, especially under the guise of “truth”, is to devalue the efforts of all who honestly practise the profession.

  45. JDM says:

    hermit thrush: “but the whole point is that very few states are in play! it’s not fair at all!”

    What are you talking about? RCP has 156 electoral points in the “toss up” category. (thanks to the Obama non-debate).

    Obama has a lock on only 37 electoral points.

    Romney has a lock on 74 electoral points.

    What do think about Uncle Joe? Help or hinder?

    Note to Obama/Biden. “warm up the bus”

  46. Newt says:

    At what point did I argue against voting across the board?

    I don’t know if New York, or any state, had winner-take-all in 1860 (I’m guessing most did), but I don’t see the problem with pointing out the limitations of the system.

    I doubt very much that many of my former students would accuse me of inciting bitterness and cynicism in them. I did hear over the years from current and former students, parents, and other teachers, that they appreciated the fact that I often challenged the conventional wisdom, and made them think.

    In my experience, people become bitter and cynical not from being told uncomfortable truths (though this may provoke defensiveness and other negative emotions), but from finding out that the truths they were taught were patently false and deceptive. I heard such a person on Morning Edition today. He had been a soldier during the above-ground nuclear tests Nevada in the ’50′s He was told the tests were totally safe. He believed the Army, and apparently has paid a price for his trust, though he at least is still alive, and eventually got some compensation. But he sure was bitter and cynical.

    I tried to teach my students to use critical thinking in dealing with info they are given. I think that is the best way to prevent the collapse of beliefs that leads to bitterness and cynicism.

  47. Newt says:

    I also think of the millions of ex-Roman Catholics who were told to trust in the Church hierarchy to do the right thing when they reported disturbing stories of what some priests were doing with their children behind closed doors.

    Lots of cynicism and bitterness there.

  48. Larry says:

    I thought you were done, but as long as you’re not, I’ll reply. You said:

    “you are wasting your time voting for President in New York, and any non-battleground state. But if it makes you feel good, do it.”


    “But President? Yeah. meaningless. Probably discouraged a few 18-year-olds from voting over the years”

    Being told something is meaningless by a teacher is generally a pretty strong argument against doing it. That you acknowledge it proves it.

    I’m unsure what your comment about the Catholic Church means.

  49. Walker says:

    JDM says:

    “Obama has a lock on only 37 electoral points.

    Romney has a lock on 74 electoral points.”

    Uh, not really. Look again: Obama “has a lock” on 142 EC votes to Romney’s 76.

  50. hermit thrush says:

    that makes only 12 out of 50 states that rcp considers genuine toss-ups. that’s terrible.

    also, you misread the rcp graph. according to it (and of course other analysts will come out with different numbers), obama has a lock on 142 electoral votes, and romney has a lock on 76.

    i would rate biden as a solid “help,” but unfortunately i couldn’t pay much attention to the debate last night since i had work to do. rest assured, no mooching here!

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