Love the Tracking? Hate the College (Redux)

National numbers can overstate regional preferences.

I noted earlier this month that anyone buoyed by Governor Romney’s showings in the tracking polls might want to rethink their position on the electoral college, since the tracking polls track the likely national popular vote outcomes, not the potential electoral college outcomes.

The current Gallup daily tracking poll, which has Romney up by seven point (Romney 52% v. Obama 45%) is another chance to point out the distortions created by the electoral college.  Specifically it highlights the degree to which the EC walls off voters from the process because it doesn’t matter if a candidate wins a state by 1% or 15%, all of that state’s electoral votes (save in Maine and Nebraska, which allocate some votes by congressional districts) go to the winner of the state.  As such, it is possible for a candidate to win a lot of popular votes (as Romney will in California, for example) and yet win zero electoral votes.

The internals of the Gallup poll show a clear regional edge for Governor Romney, as Ezra Klein noted this morning:

Dig into the poll, and you’ll find that in the most recent internals they’ve put on their Web site  — which track from 10/9-10/15  — Obama is winning the West (+6), the East (+4), and the Midwest (+4). The only region he’s losing is the South. But he’s losing the South, among likely voters, by 22 points. That’s enough, in Gallup’s poll, for him to be behind in the national vote.

Here’s a handy bar graph of the numbers:

All of this leads Klein to note, correctly, “it’s hard to see how that puts him behind in the electoral college.”

Here’s the deal:  the only southern states that are true toss-ups are Virginia and Florida, and under any plausible EC scenario President Obama can lose them both and still win the electoral vote.  Governor Romney, however, can not.

Imagine a world in which all of those extra Southern voters mattered and imagine how differently the candidates would be behaving if that were the case.  As it stands, all of that Romney support is contained almost exclusively in places where extra support has no marginal value.  Each extra voter in Alabama who decides to vote for Romney simply doesn’t matter.  An Ohio voter, however, matters an awful lot.

A grand irony here is that a standard pro-EC argument is that it protects the states against national sentiment.  However, if the Gallup poll is correct and Romney wins the popular vote by a large margin due to overwhelming support in southern states, but still loses the electoral college, the fact of the matter will be that the EC actually diminished the significance of those states.

So, again, to my Republican-oriented friends who are also supporters of the electoral college, I say:  love the tracking?  hate the college.

I find myself semi-rooting for a the 2000 election all over again? but with the parties switched this time so that both sides will have had the experience of having their candidate win the most votes, but lose the office.  Maybe then we can have a serious discussion about reform.  However, if it happens I don’t want it to be in the context of a close state and a recount, as we need to avoid the rancor that that would create.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Geek, Esq. says:

    The problem is that the Gallup poll is nonsense. It shows Obama winning the East states by a mere 52-48 margin, despite the fact that he’s up double digits in just about all of them, including +25 in New York, +20 in Massachusetts, +14 in New Jersey, etc.

    The Electoral College should go, because it tends to screw over red state cities and rural areas in blue states.




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  2. KariQ says:

    http://www.nationalpopularvote.com/index.php

    Under the U.S. Constitution, the states have exclusive and plenary (complete) power to allocate their electoral votes, and may change their state laws concerning the awarding of their electoral votes at any time. Under the National Popular Vote bill, all of the state’s electoral votes would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes—that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538).




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  3. Jeremy says:

    I go for a middle ground reform myself: make the Electoral College based on Congressional districts, with the 2 senate votes going to the candidate who won the most popular votes in the state. That seems sensible to me.




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  4. Gustopher says:

    I think there is something positive about having a President who has to appeal to a large chunk of the country, rather than just a fervent base of support in one area, and lesser support elsewhere.

    I wish we would cut the number of electors to states down to just the number of Representatives, to stop propping up the least populous states though.




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  5. Matt W says:

    @Jeremy:

    I go for a middle ground reform myself: make the Electoral College based on Congressional districts, with the 2 senate votes going to the candidate who won the most popular votes in the state. That seems sensible to me.

    You call that a middle ground reform? That would be absolutely crazy! Texas and California get the same say as Rhode Island and North Dakota?




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  6. Curtis says:

    I knew that Lincoln won the election in 1860 despite getting just under 40% of the vote. I just always assumed that it was because it was a four-way election. But an interesting thing about that election is in winning his 40% with virtually no support in the South, Lincoln won an outright majority in enough states that he would have won the electoral college even if all three other candidates were consolidated into one candidate.

    Granted, that is an extreme example, but it shows just how far the electoral college could affect the outcome away from the popular vote.




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  7. Tsar Nicholas says:

    You know what’s really crazy about this whole shindig? And I mean crazy in the literal sense. It’s not at all outside the realm of distinct possibilities the entire presidency will come down to the State of Nevada.

    Well, have you ever been to Nevada? And by “Nevada” I don’t mean simply the MGM Grand or the Luxor.

    Searchlight? Pahrump? Sparks? Laughlin?

    Imagine “No Country for Old Men,” combined with the “Twilight Zone” or “The Outer Limits,” combined with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Seriously. NV is a spooky state. Large swaths of its populace literally twitch and foam at the mouth. And that’s when they’re feeling OK.

    If the election comes down to a single state, and if that state just so happens to be NV, then perhaps the Mayans were onto something.

    That all aside, I too am semi-rooting for a 2000-style election. For the same reasons why I semi-root for crashes when I watch auto races.




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  8. Curtis says:

    @Matt W: I think you are misunderstanding what Jeremy is saying. If I understand correctly, each state would allocate their electoral votes the same way that Nebraska and Maine do already. The winner of the whole state gets 2 votes, and then the winner of each Congressional District would get the electoral vote for that district. There would still be 538 electoral votes, and they would be allocated exactly the same to the states, but each state with more than 1 congressional district could then split its vote. So instead of Wisconsin being ten votes to the winner, you could see Obama win the state and four congressional districts, while Romney won the other four. And so Wisconsin’s electoral votes in that case would be split 6-4.

    I don’t know that this solves much. I would much prefer the national popular vote initiative myself. My Congressional District is as blue as the state is red, and so while for me, this would be a good change, but it is not like the candidates would care any more about our district than they do now.




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  9. PD Shaw says:

    @Matt W: No, under his proposal, California would still get 55 electoral votes, they would just be distributed among the 53 Congressional districts to the winner of each district, and the final two would be to the overall winner of the state.




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  10. @Curtis:

    I don’t know that this solves much

    It really doesn’t because it still walls off voters from the overall process, just in smaller units. Further, given that most congressional districts have been been gerrymandered to be noncompetitive means that even more problems are introduced into the equation. Indeed, noncompetitive congressional districts is a bigger problem than the EC IMHO, but that is another topic for another time.




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  11. mantis says:

    @Matt W:

    You call that a middle ground reform? That would be absolutely crazy! Texas and California get the same say as Rhode Island and North Dakota?

    I don’t think so. House seats are apportioned by population, same as electoral votes.

    Texas has 36 congressional districts, and California has 53. Rhode Island and North Dakota have 3 each. You add in EVs for each Senate seat and you have a total of 38 for TX, 55 for CA, and 5 each for RI and ND.




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  12. mantis says:

    @mantis:

    I see I was late to the party, and Steven has already addressed some problems I have with this plan, so I’m just going to shut up.




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  13. PogueMahone says:

    Dr. Taylor,
    You most certainly know more about this than I do so correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s been almost 700 legislative initiatives to reform the EC – and only a few times have they even gotten close – notably in 1950 and 1969.

    IMHO, even if we get another 2000 (although this time in reverse), I don’t think we’ll get close again either.

    What it would take is if the President were to win the EC but lose the popular vote AND the EC elected president then have an incredibly disastrous term in office, only then would public outcry be great enough to either amend the Constitution or get enough states to buy on to any kind of allocation system.

    Sadly, I think the EC is here to stay for a while.

    Cheers.




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  14. mantis says:

    I will just link to a tweet from Nate Silver from today:

    National polls published in past 24 hours: Obama +3.2, Obama +3, Obama +3, Obama +1, Obama +0.6, Obama +0.5, TIE, Romney +7.

    One of these things…is not like the other…




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  15. MBunge says:

    “Imagine a world in which all of those extra Southern voters mattered and imagine how differently the candidates would be behaving if that were the case.”

    I’m imagining it. Now maybe you should do the same. If you think this sort of regional hyper-polarization and the racial and non-rational demagoguery that produces it is a good thing (assuming Gallup’s numbers are reliable), you might want to broaden your imagination.

    Mike




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  16. @PogueMahone:

    Sadly, I think the EC is here to stay for a while.

    This is likely true.




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  17. @MBunge: The point is that the candidates would then have an incentive to appeal to voters across the country, including the ones locked behind state lines instead of, you know, focusing on Ohio.

    It strikes me that that is an even more hyper-regionalization than anything the popular vote situation creates.




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  18. Gromitt Gunn says:

    An alternative to Jeremy’s plan that reduced the influence of gerrymandering would be to base the EC on the popular vote, but still split out the two Senate electors from the remainder:

    a. the two “senate-based” electors both go to winner of the popular vote in that state/district
    b. the “house- based” electors get apportioned based on percentage of popular vote in the state

    Take Texas, for example, a state where a 60/40 R/D split is not uncommon. And where congressional districts are torturously gerrymandered.

    Under the existing plan, all 38 of Texas’s EC votes are going to go to Romney, even though 40% (roughly) of voters prefer Obama.

    Under Jeremy’s plan, roughly 10 would go to Obama, and 28 to Romney.

    Under my plan (assuming a 60/40 split), .60*36=22 go to Romney and 0.40*36=14 would go to Obama. Add in the 2 for the Senate, and it is 24 Romney / 14 Obama.

    That still gives some advantages to small rural states, as Wyoming would still have 3 votes for Romney, while still making it advantageous for Romney to go into blue states and vice versa. And I feel pretty certain that it would increase voter participation rates, since right now any one persons vote in Texas or Utah or Massachusetts or California literally does not matter when it comes to the presidential race. At all.




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  19. @Gromitt Gunn: I understand where you are coming from. I can’t help but think in response, however, that we could just, you know, add up all the votes to see which candidate the citizen preferred. 😉




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  20. gVOR08 says:

    Steven says he might like having a 2000 style split, Obama winning the EC and losing the popular vote.

    Maybe then we can have a serious discussion about reform.

    Seriously, Steven, how many of your Republican friends would react to the election of Barack Obama with a minority of the popular vote by wanting to have a serious discussion?




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  21. @gVOR08: There would be a freak-out, but sometimes reform requires a freak-out.

    Indeed, I think that since Republicans are less likely to want to change the constitution that it will take a Republican loss in the EC to foment a movement to change.

    Although I will grant that even with 2000 Part II that the odds are that nothing changes.




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  22. PogueMahone says:

    A winner-take-all national popular vote system is the only way to go. I wrote this a while back but I think it’s appropriate to re-post here.

    The smaller states are guaranteed at least three electoral votes regardless of how small their population is. The net result is that the voters in the smaller states have a greater influence over the apportionment of their electoral votes than voters in larger states. According to a 2006 census estimate, North Dakota has a population of 635,867 and California has a population of 36,457,549. North Dakota has three electoral votes and California has fifty-five. Dividing the populations by the number of electoral votes for each state – using this example in 2006 – reveals that North Dakota has one electoral vote for every 211,956 citizens, while California has one electoral vote for every 675,140 citizens.

    It simply isn’t fair that voters in states like North Dakota and Wyoming have a greater influence on the outcome than voters in states like California and Texas.

    Cheers.




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  23. MBunge says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: “The point is that the candidates would then have an incentive to appeal to voters across the country”

    I don’t care about your pet theory. Look at the numbers. What the hell would or could Barack Obama do to address that -22 in the South? Is there a perfectly good argument that Obama should not be re-elected? Sure. Is there any reasonable justification for that -22 in the South? No.

    Mike




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  24. Liberty60 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Somewhere in America a black man will be photographed wearing a black leather jacket and beret to the polling place.

    Based on this, South Carolina will secede from the Union.




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  25. MBunge says:

    @PogueMahone: “It simply isn’t fair that voters in states like North Dakota and Wyoming have a greater influence on the outcome than voters in states like California and Texas.”

    But it’s fair for the particular issues important to people in those states to be completely ignored? ‘Cause that’s what would happen. Why would any candidate for President spend 2 seconds on North Dakota and Wyoming without the Electoral College? Without the EC, simply changing the margin of defeat or victory in either California or Texas by just a percent or two would produce far more votes than blowouts in either smaller state.

    The United States is not a small fishing village in New England. If you think our electoral process should be run like it is, you’re not as smart as you think you are.

    Or do you think the U.S. as a whole should adopt the referendum procedures they have in California?

    Mike




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  26. PogueMahone says:

    Why would any candidate for President spend 2 seconds on North Dakota and Wyoming without the Electoral College?@MBunge:

    But they don’t spend 2 seconds in ND and WY anyway. So how is that helpful?

    Besides, states like ND and WY have representation in the Senate, so their concerns are represented there. Meanwhile, states like California and Texas are underrepresented in the Senate per capita.

    The United States is not a small fishing village in New England. If you think our electoral process should be run like it is, you’re not as smart as you think you are.

    Who said anything about a small fishing village in New England??? WTF are you talking about?

    Or do you think the U.S. as a whole should adopt the referendum procedures they have in California?

    Winner-take-all presidential election does not equal government by referendum. So again, how is that helpful?

    Cheers.




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  27. PogueMahone says:

    Here’s another factor.
    How many Republicans in CA stay at home because they know CA will go Democratic? How many Democrats in TX stay at home because they know TX will go Republican?

    If, in a national winner-take-all system, a voter knows that their vote will count no matter where they live, then that has greater implications for down-ballot candidates.

    It would be more inclusive for all voters for all public offices if we got rid of the EC.




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  28. Mikey says:

    @MBunge:

    Why would any candidate for President spend 2 seconds on North Dakota and Wyoming without the Electoral College?

    They don’t spend any time in those states anyway, or in most of the others.

    2004 Campaign Attention

    Look at the map at the above link. A hand icon indicates a visit made by a Presidential or Vice-Presidential candidate to that state. A dollar sign indicates $1 million in TV ad spending in that state.

    Notice how many states–in fact, well over half–don’t have a hand icon. The Presidential candidates quite literally didn’t spend two seconds on more than half the country.

    Further, the Electoral College system guarantees the votes of California Republicans and Texas Democrats are entirely meaningless. I suppose if you’re a California Democrat or a Texas Republican, this pleases you, but it is fundamentally undemocratic and unfair.




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  29. Mikey says:

    @PogueMahone: Excellent point re: down-ballot elections. Getting rid of the EC would definitely boost the importance of get-out-the-vote efforts in what are currently considered “safe” states for the major parties.




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  30. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Oh, I do think it is an unnecessary relic. And it seems to me like parliamentary systems are preferable to presidential ones. But if we’re stuck with it – and for the sake of small-c conservativism, gradual change is preferable, then we might as well try to make it the most representative EC possible.




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  31. MBunge says:

    @PogueMahone: “But they don’t spend 2 seconds in ND and WY anyway. So how is that helpful?”

    Then why did you mention them? What was that example supposed to prove?

    Mike




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  32. MBunge says:

    @PogueMahone: “Who said anything about a small fishing village in New England???”

    In arguing against the EC you are advocating for direct democracy. If you don’t understand the implications of that, I’m not sure why you’re chiming in.

    Mike




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  33. Coop says:

    The Gallup Poll also suggests that without the EC, each of the candidates would be far less moderate – with Obama trying to appeal to liberal voters in California and the northern cities, while Romney would try to appeal to the conservative base in the south and midwest. The polarization of US politics is bad enough as it is even with the EC.




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  34. MBunge says:

    @Mikey: “it is fundamentally undemocratic and unfair.”

    What is either “fair” or “democratic” about allowing the irrational,hateful partisanship one one region of the country to overwhelm the more reasonable thinking of everyone else?

    Let me put it this way. Without the EC, the Republicans have even less incentive to worry about appealing to black, Latino or female voters. Given their existing electoral base, it would make far more sense to try and further polarize white and male voters. Whites will remain the majority in the U.S for a while and the biggest plurality long after that. Without the intervening structure of the EC, why would Republicans have to change their approach?

    Mike




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  35. PogueMahone says:

    @MBunge: Then why did you mention them? What was that example supposed to prove?

    That the voting populations in small states like WY and ND are overrepresented in our presidential election process… you know, the election that effects everyone.

    In arguing against the EC you are advocating for direct democracy. If you don’t understand the implications of that, I’m not sure why you’re chiming in.

    So, national winner-take-all presidential elections = direct democracy = small fishing village in New England? I must have missed that day in Social Studies. Care to fill me in?




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  36. Mikey says:

    @MBunge:

    What is either “fair” or “democratic” about allowing the irrational,hateful partisanship one one region of the country to overwhelm the more reasonable thinking of everyone else?

    And what is fair or democratic about essentially disenfranchising tens of millions of voters in the two most populous states in America?

    Contra your claim re: the GOP and minority voters, eliminating the EC would give the GOP MORE incentive to appeal to those voters, because every voter’s vote would count the same. Today, they don’t have to worry about appealing to minorities in Texas, because Texas is theirs no matter how the Hispanic vote goes. Conversely, they have little incentive to appeal to female voters in California, because they know they’ll lose California even if they sway a few California girls into their column.

    When you look at the Campaign Attention map to which I linked, you see two hand icons in California, none in Texas, and no dollar signs in either. Can you believe a state as populous as Texas wasn’t worth two seconds of either candidate’s time? How is that at all advantageous to the American republic?




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  37. john personna says:

    I’m not particularly concerned about the electoral college. I think if we were inventing things today we’d go direct, just because we now have high speed national media. On the other hand, the college has tradition going for it. So, keep it or get rid of it, I don’t care.

    (I’m sure parties would not just change strategies but also policies in response to a direct vote … and that would probably be a mildly good thing.)




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  38. Davebo says:

    @MBunge:

    Why would any candidate for President spend 2 seconds on North Dakota and Wyoming

    Neither candidate does now.




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  39. Anderson says:

    Barring a constitutional convention (which, god forbid), you’ve got to have 3/4 of the Senate approve an amendment doing away with the EC.

    The Senate is of course dominated by the small states that thrive on the EC system.

    Ain’t nothing gonna change that.




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  40. gVOR08 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: At this point Democrats would have to switch position. Instead of feeling the EC unfairly favors small states at the expense of large urban Democratic states, we would see the EC as a necessary protection against a Republican Party that had become a small, but monolithic in their region, southern rump party.

    I see this morning that self identification as Republican is down to 27.5%. Half a point over the Crazification Factor. Scarey. Half a point would be what, you, James, Doug, and about another half million voters?




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  41. Andre Kenji says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The point is that the candidates would then have an incentive to appeal to voters across the country, including the ones locked behind state lines instead of, you know, focusing on Ohio.

    That would be impossible, specially in a large country like the United States. And Popular Vote would not make this happen.




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  42. Coop says:

    The main argument popping up on this thread by critics of the EC is that the EC forces candidates to focus too much on swing states, while ignore the interests of voters in safe states, like CA. (what S. Taylor refers to as hyper-regionalization).

    This is only partly true. The fact that safe states don’t receive attention isn’t because their interests are not represented, it’s because their interests are already adequately represented by the candidate. To the extent that any candidate begins not to adequately represent the interests of voters in a safe state, those voters can change allegiances. And this has happened. WV was commonly regarded as a “safe state” by Democrats for decades. Bush was able to capitalize on discontent within the state towards the democratic party, and win it for the first time in years.

    Such opportunities also present themselves to Democratic candidates, especially if the Republicans were to nominate someone too far to the right (not a remote possibility).

    It should also be noted that the alleged “disenfranchisement” of voters within those states is not a fundamental feature of the EC. States are free to proportionately allocate their electoral votes by congressional district, like Nebraska and Maine.




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  43. superdestroyer says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Popular election would cause the Democratic candidate to focus on maximizing turnout in about 30 large metropolitan areas. The Democratic candidate would focus on broad media and could basically from NYC or DC while doing media interviews and mass media appearances.

    In a popular vote election being on NYC based talk shows would be more important than any form of election rally. Many people believe that if the U.S. went to popular election then candidate would have to campaign all over. But in reality, candidate would get off the road and focus on other forms of media. Better to Skype with a dozen local media stations rather than spend one minute on an aircraft flying to a rally.

    If anyone was interested in fixing a real election problem, why not try to dislodge Iowa and New Hampshire from being the first two elections of the primary system. In 2016, if the same Democrat wins the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, everyone will know who will be the next president almost a full year before the inaugural.




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  44. Console says:

    @superdestroyer:

    I think you sell what would happen short. People underestimate the extent to which the narrow interest of swing states drive national policy. We get ethanol because of Iowa (and that effect is magnified by the Iowa primary). We get our Cuba policy from florida. When Obama wins, it will be almost entirely because of the auto bailout (which bush was smart enough to support).

    A direct vote would at least broaden those interests a bit. Or at the very least, at the narrow interests will have broader support.




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  45. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @PogueMahone:

    How many Republicans in CA stay at home because they know CA will go Democratic? How many Democrats in TX stay at home because they know TX will go Republican?

    So why should I bother going to the polling place on the first Tuesday following the first Monday every 2 years Pogue?

    My district will never go Democratic (Joann Emerson) and Missouri will never vote for a black man for President (not in my lifetime anyway). Oh… wait a minute, Gov., Sec of State, Auditor, State Sen, State Rep, Judges, County officials, state amendments, ballot initiatives, etc etc etc…

    Anybody who has ever been in a voting booth knows there is more than just one issue on the ballot. T o whatever extent your scenario plays out, maybe those voters should stay home.




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  46. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Mikey:

    And what is fair or democratic about essentially disenfranchising tens of millions of voters in the two most populous states in America?

    A Republican in CA or a Democrat in TX is disenfanchised? Really? I think you are getting a little hyperbolic here.




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  47. Mikey says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Hyperbolic? Maybe, but only partly. Obviously those voters aren’t disenfranchised for their local and state elections, and for their congressmen and senators. But for President, the EC model means their votes are utterly meaningless. They might as well not show up to the polls at all.




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  48. @Mikey: I would agree that disenfranchised is too strong a word–after all, they can vote within their state EV contest. The problem becomes that the system walls them off from the ultimate tally. They don’t count when the EC votes(and perhaps in that case I could talk myself into calling them somewhat disenfranchised…hmm. Something to ponder in terms of how to talk about that…).




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  49. Trumwill says:

    I’m cool with getting rid of the EC, but that the current system allows both sides to pivot away from the South (for the most part) isn’t too much of a drawback, in my view. (I have a theory that it is in part the complete and utter loss of the south by the Democrats that helped push the Confederate Flag to disrespectability – mainstream liberals had little or no reason to play nice anymore).




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