Your Electoral-College Primer for 2016
We must be in the presidential election cycle now, because people are writing wildly premature articles about the electoral college. So back to basics.
Unless you’re making resource allocation plans for a campaign, the best thing to do from now until about October 2016 is to assume the popular vote, not the electoral one, is all that matters. In almost every case, this is the truth, 2000 notwithstanding.
What changes election to election is the popular margin, with most states moving mostly with this national swing. That is, when Democrats went from losing the popular vote by 2.4 percent in 2004 to winning it by 7.2 percent in 2008, they also improved by similar margins in most states. So whichever party does well in 2016 will almost certainly win the electoral college, too.
Pundits go wrong when they look at past elections and project state results forward. But a true electoral-college advantage would give a party a significant edge even if the overall national vote was dead even. No, the Republicans didn't have an lock in the 1980s, for example. Their three consecutive big wins in the popular vote produced three electoral-college landslides; as soon as Democrats had a good year in the national vote, the electoral votes followed.
The Democrats may now have a very slight advantage: The distribution of votes across the states may make it more likely they would win a close race. But only if the election is very tight. No need to think about that until after the political conventions, when national polls begin to be good predictors of the outcome.
It's a different story if you're allocating resources for a presidential campaign. In that case, you need to weigh the advantages of putting (even more) resources into the likely tipping-point states against the utility of including additional long-shot states. Given how much money both parties should have available in fall 2016, it makes sense for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, for example, to sprinkle some money into less likely Democratic states.
It's even more sensible for all candidates this far out to pretend that they plan to “expand” the “electoral map,” even if they don’t believe it. For that (non)investment, they might gain the goodwill of local party actors -- the politicians, campaign professionals, party officials and staff, activists and party-aligned interest groups -- who collectively have the biggest say in nominations and other party decisions.
For the rest of us, meanwhile, it's more fun to spend time pretending we’ll have a deadlock at the nominating convention when the Rand Paul and Ted Cruz delegates refuse to break the four-way tie among John Kasich, Mike Pence, Mike Huckabee and Marco Rubio. At least that one makes for good stories.
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