Electoral Math Problems

My presidential campaign epiphany of the week:  It’s over.  The election is over.  Democrats can get their bottles of Korbel in position.  Republicans might as well begin Monday morning quarterbacking now.  The president will be re-elected on the sixth of November.  Not a doubt in my mind.

This moment of clarity occurred with a studied gaze at the electoral map.  To coin a phrase:  It is a simple matter of arithmetic.

You begin with the map as it looked in 2008, when Barack Obama walloped John McCain by a score of 365-173.  Concede that, unlike McCain, Mitt Romney will win Indiana, as practically every poll suggests.  Despite the DNC’s flag-planting in Charlotte, Romney is likely to carry North Carolina as well.

The third surprise of 2008 was Obama’s victory in Virginia.  While the numbers show him likely to win the Old Dominion a second time, for the purposes of this exercise we’ll move it into Romney’s column anyway.  Finally—just for yuks—we will do the same with Ohio and Florida, the two biggest prizes of all, which, at the moment, are leaning very definitely in favor of the incumbent.

The result of this electoral tweakage, in which we give Romney every plausible benefit of the doubt?  Obama still wins, albeit by a razor-thin margin of 272-266.  So there you have it.

The presidency, as everyone knows, is not determined by which candidate receives the most votes, but rather by which candidate receives the most votes in a combination of states whose cumulative number of senators and representatives exceeds that of the states won by the other candidate.  As God intended.

I speak, of course, of the Electoral College.  There is a time in every cycle to reexamine its usefulness in our democratic system, and as Robert Plant so pungently crooned, “Now’s the time; the time is now.”

My favorite piece of revisionist history from 2004 concerns the state of Ohio, which George W. Bush carried by 119,000 votes, a margin of 2.1 percent.  Had those votes swung to John Kerry, Kerry would have won the state, the Electoral College and thus the election, while trailing Bush in the national tally by nearly three million votes—six times the margin by which Al Gore led Bush in 2000.

What does this mean?  Constitutionally speaking, not a damn thing.  No president has ever been elected by national popular vote, and our system used to be far less democratic than it is now.  (For instance, U.S. senators were not elected by popular vote until ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913.)

Yet somehow it just feels wrong that, as in the above hypothetical, a man could become president with three million fewer votes than his opponent.  In fact, it is theoretically possible for a candidate to win 72 percent of the national popular vote and still lose the election in the Electoral College.  (This would entail winning 100 percent of the vote in small states and a hair under 50 percent in big states.)

You could argue from dawn to dusk that such a ridiculous outcome will never actually come to pass—and you would be correct—but that is pure evasion.  It could happen, and there would be nothing we could do about it.  Those are the terms from which we must begin this debate.

The debate itself, once it does commence, can spin off into a thousand possible directions.  Some considerations are more a matter of opinion than objective fact, as one weighs the relative importance of competing American values, chief among these being the perennial argument over federalism.  It began amidst the drafting of the Constitution itself and it has never quite abated.

Make no mistake.  More than anything, the Electoral College has endured because the country began with it.  There may be no more powerful force in American government than that of precedent.  An entire wing of judicial theory, known as stare decisis, is based upon it.  The essence of conservatism (at least on a good day) is to err on the side of long-established tradition and to alter or abolish such traditions with the utmost care and skepticism.

You don’t need me to point out that the “we’ve always done it this way” argument has occasionally led the U.S. astray.  Pick your favorite example; there are many from which to choose.

As far as the Electoral College is concerned, the smart money would say that if the 2000 election failed to generate a robust movement to abolish it, we just might need to accept that we’re stuck with it for as long as most of us will live.

For those made unhappy by this state of affairs, I hope some solace can be found in how very entertaining the prognosticating profession has been made by the system’s existence.  You wouldn’t want Nate Silver out of a job, now, would you?


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