Let the electoral-college-reversal scenarios begin

Marc Ambinder outlines a scenario in which Barack Obama could win the popular vote while losing (legitimately) the electoral vote. Basically, the scenario rests on the assumption that Obama will turn out legions of new voters in safe Republican states like Mississippi and Texas, but not enough to swing such states. Thus he will build his national total without augmenting his electoral votes. (Meanwhile, presumably he will win the safe Democratic states by larger margins than Gore or Kerry did, which has the same effect on the outcome.)

I do not find the scenario plausible, even if it is theoretically quite possible. I find it implausible for two reasons. First of all, if there is any partisan bias in the electoral college over recent cycles, it is not clear to me that said bias does not favor the Democratic party. It is easy to forget, but in the 1990s, there was a lot of talk about the “Democratic lock” on the electoral college. The lesson of a stolen swing-state outcome and judicial coup d’etat in 2000, followed by an extremely narrow squeaker in 2004 (that was very close to a reversal in favor of the Democrat) should be a lesson in how fundamentally hard it is for the Republican to overcome that lock, rather than a lesson in how likely the Democrats are to fail to win electoral college majorities. Thus, if either candidate is more likely to win the popular vote but lose the electoral college in a close race, it is McCain. Quick: really, which states won by either Kerry or Gore do you think McCain is going to pick off? No, really? ((Nate’s simulations agree that a reversal favoring Obama is somewhat more likely than a reversal favoring McCain. He also notes that part of the reason is that while population shifts favor Republican-leaning states, the electoral college apportionment for 2008 is based in the 2000 census. Thus, Nate reasons, McCain will suffer from malapportionment that will cost him around 5 electoral votes. My “favors Democrats” (I would not say “lock”) argument does not depend on the lag in apportionment; rather, it stems from the tendency of larger states to be somewhat more likely to be Democratic leaning because they are more urban. That favors a Democratic candidate in the electoral college in a close race.))

That the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000 saw a reversal against it as more likely than one favoring their ticket seemed to me likely at the time from their strategic behavior late in the campaign. They were on the air in California, a state they had no chance to win, but where a higher Republican turnout would increase their chances of winning the popular vote even if (as expected) Gore-Lieberman ran the table on the relatively large swing states, including Florida. ((It was also plausible, given that Ralph Nader was expected to win more than the paltry 2.7% of the vote that he did win nationally. Of course, much more and he might have “spoiled” Oregon and Wisconsin. The point simply is that Gore, late in the campaign, was moving into pretty good position in the electoral college, even as the popular vote remained tight. See the discussion and my comment at Brendan Nyhan.))

Ambinder suggests that the Democratic party and the public might not take a reversal against the Democrats so passively as in 2000 if it happened again. ((Even if it happened legitimately, as his scenario outlines.)) He asks, “can the two-party system sustain another disparity?” I would most certainly hope not!

But there is a more fundamental reason why I do not find plausible Ambinder’s scenario. I do not find the scenario plausible for a very simple reason: I think Barack Obama is likely to win at least 53% of the two-candidate vote. ((No simulations, no models. Just a gut feeling. Check back later.)) That will produce, if not quite the blowout that a large popular-vote margin would produce in the past, a resounding win in the electoral college.

0 thoughts on “Let the electoral-college-reversal scenarios begin

  1. Unless my information is out of date, support for the National Popular Vote plan in state legislatures is coming almost entirely from Democrats and opposition almost entirely from Republicans. What do they know that the the conventional wisdom of the 1990’s and/or Nate’s simulation model don’t know? Or, conversely, are they putting partisan self-interest aside to do what they think is right?

  2. The issue remains that with the winner-take-all rule which awards all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state, even if a candidate gets the most popular votes nationwide, the other candidate can win the Presidency.

    Every vote in every state should be politically relevant in a presidential election. And, every vote should be equal. We should have a national popular vote for President in which the White House goes to the candidate who gets the most popular votes in all 50 states.

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC). 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). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The other major shortcoming of the current system of electing the President is that presidential candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or worry about the voter concerns in states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. The reason for this is the winner-take-all rule which awards all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state. Because of this rule, candidates concentrate their attention on a handful of closely divided “battleground” states. Two-thirds of the visits and money are focused in just six states; 88% on 9 states, and 99% of the money goes to just 16 states. Two-thirds of the states and people are merely spectators to the presidential election.

    The National Popular Vote bill has been approved by 18 legislative chambers (one house in Colorado, Arkansas, Maine, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Washington, and two houses in Maryland, Illinois, Hawaii, California, and Vermont). It has been enacted into law in Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland. These states have 50 (19%) of the 270 electoral votes needed to bring this legislation into effect.

    See http://www.NationalPopularVote.com

  3. An idea out of left field… I don’t particularly endorse it, but float it for debate:

    Allocate Electors within each State by “reinforced PR” – ie, deduct from each ticket’s total a number of votes equal to (say) 10% of the total turnout.

    So, if the Dem – Rep – Green – Lib totals are 45%, 42%, 9% and 4% in a State with 15 Electors, instead of the Electors being allocated either —

    (a) 7 (7.2), 6 (6.72), 1 (1.44) and 1 (0.64) [that’s assuming Droop quota with largest remainders], or

    (b) 15, 0, 0, and 0 (under the status quo),

    they would be allocated 8, 7, 0, 0 (in proportion to adjusted totals 35, 32, 0 and 0).

    This would actually make every state competitive, whether marginal or safe for its majority party.

  4. You’re the electoral math guy, not me, but at a gut level, it seems unlikely that the 50 state strategy increases the risk of this sort of popular vote victory/electoral vote failure. In scenarios where a small number of electoral votes decide the election, doesn’t it make sense to encourage even a small amount of extra effort and organization in the non-battleground states? Or am I being an electoral math tard?

  5. I actually might agree that the “50-state strategy” might increase the risk of a reversal, but only on a ceteris paribus basis. If it were either really close in the underlying national dynamics or there were a GOP bias in the electoral college, the “50 state strategy” might lift the overall Dem numbers without swinging the needed states. But neither condition holds.

    The 2004 strategies of the campaigns show the dynamic I am talking about. The Kerry campaign targeted swing states in a year that structurally favored the incumbent Republican. That’s an electoral-college strategy, and it almost worked. In that context, a 50-state strategy would have been foolish. All the campaign needed to do was swing Ohio and they win. In 2008, with the electoral college already favoring the Democrat, a 50-state strategy potentially gets the party states you don’t usually expect a Democrat to win, while also increasing the chances of bigger majorities in both houses of Congress via coattail effects.

    (Comment edited since original planting; I had misread what Kingdaddy said. Evidently, I am a reading tard.)

  6. We’ve just had Rob Richie, head of Fair Vote, over to my side of the pond to give a speech to interested MPs and politicos in Westminster. Great bloke. He was obviously very much promoting the National Popular Vote, but much more sceptical on the purported benefits of the 50 State strategy for meaningfully increasing turnout and engagement levels, and making people feel their vote counts.

    I’d love to do some work on this (to develop the early thoughts you’ve linked to above). Also have a few Labour MPs / activists and others interested to learn more too, and sure that number will grow through the year. I’m planning to come out to the States in October to see the presidential campaigning in action and – depending on opportunities -generally observe what’s going on. But before then am keen to build up as much research and commentary on this as possible. Would you know of any places to start / useful contacts? Cheers.

  7. Boy, do I think this misses the point. It makes **no difference whatsoever** whether the EC favors Democrats or Republicans. The President of the United States should be elected by popular vote, it’s as simple as that. Am I missing something?

  8. Jim, yes, you are missing the many plantings here that agree entirely with your (normative) point. (Granted, those plantings are somewhat older.)

    This particular planting was making an analytic point about the rules in place for this election, rather than advocating a change in the rules (which certainly will not happen for the 2008 election).

  9. Jim, the analytic point is important both as a matter of scientific interest and as a matter of strategic interest to reformers. We can speak truth to power about the need for direction election of the President (and for a majority voting method!) from now until doomsday. But we aren’t going to get any results unless we are clear about the power we are speaking truth to. This includes understanding how the powerful perceive their own interests.

    Speaking of which, I’m still curious about the question I raised in the first comment in this thread. It seems to me that there is a discrepancy between the academic conventional wisdom and the perceived self-interest of almost all of the legislators who have voted on the NPV compact so far. I think somebody is missing something. Who is the somebody (could be me) and what are they missing?

  10. Bob, in the electoral college/NPV thread somewhere back a while, I addressed your question. I am sure not in a satisfactory way, because, I am puzzled, too.

    By the way, I am not sure if there is an “academic conventional wisdom” on which (if either) party is benefited by the electoral college. But, as you note, there does seem to be a partisan conventional wisdom, and it is that Republicans perceive the current method of electing a president as in their interests and a direct election as against them. I do not think they are right. Then again, they probably spend a little more time pondering Republican partisan interests than I do.

  11. A comment on this post by Rob Richie at FairVote Blog adds another variable to the calculation of partisan advantage.

    a National Popular Vote would increase turnout – and Republicans tend to do better when voter turnout is low. I suspect that this is the real reason that the bill has been vetoed by four Republican Governors..


  12. A reform for the Electoral College would be the following:

    In 2000, Nader decides to talk to Gore and Buchanan decides to talk to W. They say they will use the other party’s slate of electors.

    So, we have Nader+Gore vs. Buchanan+W.

    Faithless elector states would be ignored by both third party candidates, while faithful elector states would be focused by them.

    Maybe a case for Nader or Buchanan to have great numbers in either safe Dem or safe GOP states would be the plan in faithless elector states, since in theory, the Dems would win their safe states and the GOP would win their safe states, unless Buchanan or Nader would be able to realize a great “Get out the Vote” grassroots plan with the nonvoters.

  13. There are problems with a semi-divine constitution. The Philadelphia delegates did not believe in a semi-divine constitution. They expected amendments to be necessary and frequent. Jefferson, although he was not a delegate, was particularly outspoken on the subject. The NPV would be better than the present situation where there is some chance of another presidential election miscarrying.

    The better solution is to revert to what the founders of the US actually expected and amend the constitution now and then.

  14. Actually the 12th Amendment itself was supposed to a temporary fix to the fact that the original system for selecting the President simply didn’t work if the elections were actually contested.

    Even at the time the 12th Amendment was passed, it was assumed that most candidates for President would be favorite son types who would carry their state, and maybe a few other states in their region, but that was it. No national parties waging national campaigns, and the electors picked by the state legislators anyway. One or at the most two elections, 1824 and maybe 1860, worked this way. Both are portrayed in history books as anomalous electoral failures, 1860 for obvious reasons, but in the case of 1824 the system really did work as intended.

    If this dumb system can’t be amended away, the least the US could do would be to have a convention that all electors vote for whoever won a plurality of the national popular vote, regardless of which party they belong to or who carried their state. I realize there is a movement, which is getting no media coverage, to do what I am suggesting by means of an interstate compact. On election night, the popular vote runner up would give a concession speech and ask his electors to vote for the popular vote winner, regardless of the electoral college result. In the cases of a disputed national popular vote, a very fragmented election where the plurality winner wins an usually low percentage of the vote, or if the popular vote winner is someone like Pol Pot, technically the old system would still be in place as something of a fail-safe.

    * Justice Scalia was derided in some quarters in 2000 for pointing this out. He was right. The original idea was that the state legislators would pick the electors, and this was never formally changed, its a convention of the unwritten constitution that the electors are picked by pluralities of voters state by state.

  15. It may be worth going through the actual instances of popular vote-electoral vote reversals in US elections. I’m relying on Wikipedia for the underlying data, but not the interpretation (Wikipedia has proven to be pretty reliable for data).


    Jackson 151,271 votes 41.7%
    JQ Adams 113,112 votes 30.9%

    No candidate got a majority of the electors. Jackson had 99 electors and Adams had 84. Other candidates had 78. The election was decided by the House of Representatives as per Article 12, which picked JQ Adams.

    There were two other candidates, Crawford who got 11.2% of the popular vote and Clay who got 13% of the popular vote. Crawford had been the consensus choice for President before the election but he had a stroke, and his health really disqualified him, which blew the election wide open. In a sort of mini-reversal, he got more EVs than Clay, meaning according to Article 12 the House of Representatives could elect Jackson, JQ Adams, or Crawford, but not Clay who had the most influence in the national legislature.

    Clay through his support to JQ Adams (“the corrupt bargain”), and the Adams-Clay combination had 43.9% of the popular vote as opposed to 52.9% for Jackson/ Crawford. As it happens, the next election was a straight up rematch against JQ Adams and Jackson. JQ Adams got 43.6% of the popular vote and Jackson 56%, as you would expect from the 1824 returns.

    In six states the electors were chosen by the state legislature, with the public playing no role in the selection. This included the largest state, New York, whose electors mostly went to Adams.

    The point of going through all this complexity is that the 1824 election was conducted in conditions where terms such as “electoral vote-popular vote reversal” are meaningless, for a whole host of reasons. As I stated earlier, this was the only presidential election in U.S. history where the 12th Amendment (not Article as I incorrectly stated) worked something like it was originally envisaged. For reasons of length I will use separate posts to discuss the other reversals.

  16. This continues a rather lengthy discourse on popular vote-electoral vote reversals in US history.

    Tilden 4,284,020 votes 51%
    Hayes 4,036,572 votes 47.9%

    Tilden received 193 electoral votes and Hayes received 166.

    The “reversal” was created by three Republican controlled state governments in the South submitting a second, concocted set of returns after earlier returns showing Tilden winning had been known. After much political manuevering, the Democrats went along with this in exchange for the withdrawal of federal military forces from the South and the cession of any attempts to enfranchise African-Americans.

    In one state, Colorado, the state legislature selected three Hayes electors and the public was uninvolved. Even accepting that Hayes legitimately carried Florida (!), Louisiana, and South Carolina, Tilden still won a majority of the electors selected by the public, 184 to 182. If only for this reason, this election isn’t a real “reversal”.

  17. I can cover the other three reversals in one post:


    Cleveland 5,534,488 votes 48.6%
    B. Harrison 5,443,892 votes 47.8%

    Harrison won 233 electoral votes and Cleveland won 168.

    Harrison carried New York, with 36 electoral votes, by less than 1% of the vote.

    Like in the case of 1824, there was a rematch four years later, and Cleveland again defeated Harrison, 46% to 43%, and this time carried New York and got an electoral college majority.

    Kennedy 34,220,984 49.7%
    Nixon 34,108,157 49.5%

    Kennedy received 303 electoral votes and Nixon received 219.

    These figures are from Wikipedia and this election would not appear to be a reversal. However, there is a complex issue stemming from a number of state Democratic parties in the South running slates of unpledged electors.

    In most cases, the slates of unpledged electors were distinct from Kennedy electors -in Mississippi the unpledged electors won- so separating votes for these electors from votes for Kennedy is not a problem. In Alabama there was a single Democratic slate of five Kennedy and six unpledged electors, all of which were elected.

    The difficulty is that the unpledged electors, where elected, did not vote for Kennedy! They voted for Henry Byrd, who did not campaign. Normally votes for the Democratic slate of electors are counted as votes for Kennedy, though a majority of Alabama electors did not in fact vote for Kennedy and never pledged to do so during the campaign.

    The national popular vote margin was so close that this becomes a reversal election if one reassigns the popular votes in Alabama for the Democratic slate of electors from Kennedy to Byrd (or “unpledged”), or splits these votes by a 5:6 or even 5:4 ratio. Some political scientists do this, and the approach makes sense to me. There were also more than the usual allegations of fraud, but these tend to surface in close races.

    Gore 50,999,897 48.4%
    GW Bush 50,546,002 47.9%

    GW Bush got 271 electoral votes and Gore got 266.

    This is fresh enough in most people’s memory that I am not going to describe this. People still argue whether the Bush slate of electors in Florida really got a plurality of votes in that state.

  18. The overall point is that popular vote-electoral vote reversals are really rare in US elections. There was has been only one relatively unambiguous reversal, in 1888.

    There are another three or four seeming reversals, but on close examination they turn out to be instances where the electoral college margin was provided by electors selected by state legislatures, not the voters (1824, 1876), and/or the validity of election returns from some states (usually Florida) was disputed (1876, 1960, 2000).

    In situations where pledged electors are selected from all the states by popular vote pluralities within the states, and the votes are counted reasonably consistently and cleanly, the winner of the plurality of votes nationwide should win at least an electoral college plurality in nearly all instances. Statistically we would expect this, and it would take either a really close election and/ or a really high standard deviation amongst the returns by state for this to be otherwise.

  19. If you exclude 1824 (I agree it is reasonable to do so), then logically you can only calculate reversals from 1828 at the earliest. I make that 46 presidential elections.

    Counting 1876, 1888 and 2000 as clear reversals, 3 out of 46 is not a happy proportion of institutional failures. The Twelfth Amendment was passed after a much smaller number of institutional failures.

    Moreover, 1876 and to a lesser extent 2000, speak really loudly about the urgent need for serious reform. At one point in 2000 the Florida legislature declared themselves ready to displace the popular election entirely and themselves appoint the Florida electors.

    Where a small number of states can act to rig the electoral college after the popular votes are counted, as was done in 1876 and threatened in 2000, you have a standing invitation to chaos. A popular election would not include that option.

    Moreover the provisions for resolving a tie in the electoral college are, if anything, even less adequate than the electoral college itself.

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