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.
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?