Electoral College Blues – and Reds

Every polling statistic I’ve seen about the 2012 US presidential election—whether emphasizing national popular opinion, demographic trends, or likely results in individual states—tells me the final vote will be very close. All three of these polling categories, along with strategic responses to all three by both campaigns, are of critical importance, especially if this election is truly up for grabs.

Matt Simon

Sadly, most people in a position to spend money and allocate resources and personnel, whether in the GOP or Democratic camps, are interested almost solely in the state-by-state statistics.

They suffer from Hayes-Tilden Syndrome, which is not a rare heart ailment, but simply a belief that Electoral College mathematics is more important than communicating the core beliefs and objectives of a candidate to the nation. (The syndrome name refers to the US election of 1876, in which Rutherford B. Hayes was elected President by the Electoral College, despite losing the popular vote to Samuel Tilden.)

There is a time for presidential campaigns to fixate in the extreme on key states; it’s called the “primary season.” Thereafter, if the party nominees fail to brand and market themselves nationally—and instead devise serpentine whistle-stop tours of supposed “swing” states—they have fallen victim to Hayes-Tilden Syndrome.

To help me define the pitfalls of Hayes-Tilden Syndrome, I must, for the second time in as many weeks, quote from the Cook Political Report—which leaves me only one point ahead of Sarah Palin in the “Magazines I Read” race.

In June, political forecaster Charlie Cook wrote, “It is a source of constant amusement to me that so many people obsess—as if fiddling with a Rubik’s Cube—over the various combinations of states that could get either President Obama or Mitt Romney to the magic number of 270 votes in the Electoral College . . . . The simple fact is that our nation has had 56 presidential elections. In 53 of them (94.6 percent), the winner in the Electoral College also happened to be the one with the most popular votes.”

I think Cook is actually being generous in his math. He counts the 2000 George Bush/Al Gore election as a failure of the Electoral College to mirror the popular vote. In truth, it was the US Supreme Court that vacated a lower court ruling to extend a deadline for recounting the Florida vote­­—essentially rendering any change in Florida’s Electoral College vote impossible. I chalk that election up to one decided by the Supreme Court, just as clearly as all historians credit the 1824 presidential election of John Quincy Adams to the US House of Representatives.

If you like my math, you acknowledge that 54 of 56 presidential elections have been decided by popular vote—yet you probably don’t bristle when you see the red state/blue state charts displayed on every television network to define the progress of the presidential race, and to shape your perception of it. You should bristle.

The fact is that neither campaign has mounted a defining national media campaign in 2012.

No one would contest that President Obama’s “Change” campaign in 2008 was both national and captivating. It is memorable enough that it is now frequently parodied at YouTube, partisan Web sites, and by comedians featured in national media—which essentially proves its 2008 popularity.

I believe the neglect of national and constituent-targeted campaigns, in favor of “swing state” media overkill, is a serious mistake.

Why? For now, let’s just look at one very important factor. The revolution in social media has taken place almost entirely since the 2008 presidential elections. The rise of social media has made the US a much smaller and well-connected nation—just as it has helped to enable successful revolutionary movements around the world since 2008.

Whether we look at the national electorate or the traditional constituent groups of either major political party, we find voters undecided and waiting for candidates to speak to them. On an optimistic note, the true inner circles of both Romney and Obama know this.

On a less cheery note, the leaders of super PACs and massive member-driven nonprofits that will spend copiously in this election cycle are generally amateurs at political action. From media reports, they are fashioning strategies guided almost entirely by Hayes-Tilden Syndrome, deploying staff to, and spending the most money in, Electoral College swing states. Their influence and efforts could make a greater difference elsewhere.

Take a simple example. Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff recently released a poll showing Obama with a 3-percentage-point lead over Romney. Nevertheless, a Gallup poll suggests that while Obama’s African-American constituency is very strong, and likely to vote, his support among Hispanics is marginal—despite his recent Executive Order on immigration.

In a world of sober-minded campaigning, this is a clear opening for grassroots organizations such as labor unions to mount a national “voter education” and get-out-the-vote campaign aimed at Hispanic voters. Instead, like other amateurs with fat wallets, they appear to be ignoring demographics and focusing on “swing states”—in a wired nation. Does it not occur to them that in a country utterly transformed by social media, any and all neglect of Hispanic voters in “safe” states like Illinois will quickly be communicated to Hispanic voters in swing states, red states, and other blue states?

Likewise, if GOP Tea Party operatives and super PACs spend their time and money numbing the ears of voters in Florida and along the north Mississippi River, they will squander a great deal. Romney currently has greater negative ratings than Obama—without having served four years as President. Do the GOP and its backers truly see no need to create a national identity for, and movement behind, their problematical candidate?

A constitutional amendment to replace the Electoral College with a new system was nearly put before voters by Congress in 1969. More recently, Gallup polls conducted in 2001 and 2004 indicated that a majority of Americans favor doing away with the Electoral College. To me, many of the arguments for replacing the College seem wise.

Nevertheless, I think what’s far more important to remember is that any presidential campaign that ignores the importance of the national popular vote, and favors a strategy with Electoral College probable outcomes as its centerpiece, is not only defying common sense but also making a 1-in-28 gamble on success.

Why not speak to America instead?

About Matt Simon

Matt Simon worked in Washington, DC, for 23 years as a political writer, magazine editor, and producer, including eight years as producer of "Face-Off," a national daily debate program featuring US Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain. He is founder of the Seattle-area Eastlake Digital Group, which specializes in social media marketing. Matt can be reached at [email protected]


  1. The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), ensures that the candidates, after the primaries, will not reach out to about 76% of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind.

    Presidential candidates concentrate their attention on only a handful of closely divided “battleground” states and their voters. There is no incentive for them to bother to care about the majority of states where they are hopelessly behind or safely ahead to win. 9 of the original 13 states are considered “fly-over” now. In the 2012 election, pundits and campaign operatives agree, that, at most, only 12 states and their voters will matter. They will decide the election. None of the 10 most rural states will matter, as usual. About 76% of the country will be ignored –including 19 of the 22 lowest population and medium-small states, and 17 medium and big states like CA, GA, NY, and TX. This will be more obscene than the 2008 campaign, when candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their campaign events and ad money in just 6 states, and 98% in just 15 states (CO, FL, IN, IA, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, PA, VA, and WI). Over half (57%) of the events were in just 4 states (OH, FL, PA, and VA). In 2004, candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their money and campaign visits in 5 states; over 80% in 9 states; and over 99% of their money in 16 states.

    More than 2/3rds of the states and people have been merely spectators to presidential elections. They have no influence. That’s more than 85 million voters, 200 million Americans, ignored. When and where voters are ignored, then so are the issues they care about most.

    The number and population of battleground states is shrinking as the U.S. population grows.

    Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

  2. The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the
    candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC), without needing to amend the Constitution.

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in more than 3/4ths of the states that now are just ‘spectators’ and ignored after the primaries.

    When the bill is enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes– enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President.
    Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the
    President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote
    is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as
    every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in
    closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%,, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 states. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions possessing 132 electoral votes – 49% of the
    270 necessary to go into effect.


    Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via NationalPopularVoteInc

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