Forget the national polls showing Obama ahead, sometimes by double digits. Ignore Intrade or the premature payoffs by Irish bookmakers. The fact is that a national plurality does not determine the winner in an American presidential election. Like all presidential contests, the current one will turn on a few swing states—Missouri, Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Colorado. The contest waged in the remaining states might be charitably described as the pro forma background for the campaigns in those states.
Under our constitution, the president and vice president are actually elected by an Electoral College in which each state has electors equal to its total representation in both houses of Congress. With three electors added for the District of Columbia, the Electoral College consists of 538 votes, with 270 needed to win.
Each state may determine the method of choosing its electors. In an attempt to maximize their own impact, all but two states have chosen to award electors through a winner take all system. The candidate with the largest number of votes, not necessarily a majority, wins all of that state’s electoral votes. The closest runner up gets nothing. The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, which choose two electors through a winner take all election, apportioning the remainder by House districts: Maine two, Nebraska three.
We learned in 2000 that the winner of the national plurality, Al Gore, would not necessarily win in the Electoral College. While such anomalies have been infrequent, the Electoral College profoundly affects the way in which all national campaigns are conducted, and in ways that continue compromise the democratic character of our presidential elections.
Initially, the Electoral College focuses campaign strategies on the larger states, despite the fact that the apportionment of votes over represents the smallest states. Vermont is a good example. Our three electoral votes (the absolute minimum) are proportionately a larger piece of the pie than our population would warrant, yet neither candidate has bothered to come to Vermont, nor address issues of particular interest to our state.
Maine and Nebraska are similarly ignored, which might explain their retention of apportioned Electoral votes. It is simply more efficient to concentrate campaign resources on the large states like New York (31), California (55), Ohio (20) or Texas (34), since even a slender victory in any one will deliver a large number of Electoral College votes.
It is, in fact, possible to win with only a slight majority in 11 states: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, New Jersey and North Carolina. If voter turnout in these states is low, a candidate could be elected with a small minority of the popular vote. Nor are the Electoral College’s distortions impartial. By overstating the votes cast in southern and western mountain states, the Electoral College over-represents rural and Republican interests.
More specifically, the Electoral College focuses campaign attention on the swing states, those in which the outcome is not seen as a foregone conclusion. Here again, Vermont tends to be overlooked. As the bluest of the blue states, Vermont is considered “in the bag” for Democrats.
Republican candidates know they are wasting time and resources by campaigning in Vermont, and so do Democrats. Similarly, Utah is so reliably Republican that neither party really bothers to contest it. Some large states are deemed reliable as well. California is highly likely to go Democratic, while Texas last voted for a Democrat in 1964 (for Johnson, a Texan, and before the impact of the Civil Rights Act of that year).
Not surprisingly, voter turnout tends to be lower in such states. Democratic voters in Vermont might rationally conclude that their vote will not affect the outcome, while Republican voters can complain that their votes simply don’t count. So why should they vote? And why should the candidates disagree and go out of their way to appeal to either voter?
For the next two weeks, expect to see the campaigns and the media obsessed with Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, swing states and each with a large Electoral College presence. With previously reliable Republican states beginning to lean towards Obama, voters here will determine our next president. The rest of us will be background players by this point, largely taken for granted.