Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Big Split Scenario

Everyone seems increasingly worried about an election resolution in which President Obama wins in the electoral college, and thus secures a second term, while losing the popular vote. Notwithstanding the possible implications for electoral reform--the option I think I'd like to see is adding an electoral vote  bonus for winning the popular vote--and putting aside the fact that I clearly am hoping for the president to be returned to office anyway, I decided I'm fine with this, should it come to pass. Here's why.

In 2008, Obama won the Democratic nomination over Hillary Clinton in a somewhat similar way. His campaign organized the hell out of early caucus states, which generally saw turnout of fewer registered Democrats, claimed a disproportionate share of delegates and built up a large lead. That lead held even when Hillary beat him soundly in primary states, in part because you did better, delegate-wise, by losing 55 percent to 45 percent in California or Texas with a few million Democrats voting, than losing 70-30 in North Dakota caucuses. (I'm pulling these numbers and states at random, but pretty sure the argument holds.) Obama won enough primaries to have an argument for popular legitimacy among registered Democrats who cast votes that winter and spring, but he and his team built their strategy to win the contest according to the rules clearly set forth by the Party.

Same deal here. Barring something crazy happening, Obama won't come close to his popular vote margin from four years ago because in pretty much every large safe Democratic state--New York, California, probably Illinois--his percentage win will be much smaller as disaffected or lazy Democrats rightly conclude their votes aren't "needed," and will stay home. (The same is true of Republicans in safe red states, but other than Texas there just aren't very many big ones--plus I suspect that there's more impetus to vote out an incumbent, even in a state you know will go that way, than to return one.)

Knowing that 270 electoral votes, not 50.1 percent of ballots cast, is what matters, the Obama campaign has thrown everything in the small number of states where the outcome is in question. It logically follows that turnout will be higher in those states than in the noncompetitive ones. Were the rules different--if popular vote was the determinant--the campaign (both campaigns) would look to run up their margins in the large safe states, and given what we know about the efficacy of their Obama campaign, they'd probably be able to do so. In the scenario we're considering, it can and would be argued, plausibly, that millions of non-voters favored the president; were they "needed," he probably could have had most of them. (Again, this is also true for Romney and the Republicans, but there seem to be fewer of them.)

Obama's team matches its strategy to the rules of the game. The resentment that will attach to him and the Democratic campaign apparatus if he wins the electoral college while receiving fewer votes would be more properly directed toward the Founders.

There's a second component to my thinking here, less important but probably worth noting. If Romney does get a popular vote majority while losing the electoral college, my strong guess is that it will be closer to the half-million votes of Al Gore's plurality in 2000 than the two and a half million vote advantage George W. Bush had in 2004. Bush in 2001 was a minority president, but just barely. (The problem I and, I think, millions of other Democrats had with the outcome in 2000 wasn't so much that Bush lost the popular vote, but that we think he really lost Florida under a fair count, which never actually happened.) Had 50,000 Ohio votes switched in 2004, John Kerry would have won the presidency despite a much larger popular disadvantage.

As Josh Marshall and others have noted, concerns that Obama would "lack legitimacy" in the eyes of Republicans if he won a second term despite losing the popular vote are risible mostly because they didn't grant his legitimacy even when he won big in 2008. ("ACORN stole it for him!") Given everything at stake in this election--whether we'll retain the near-complete social safety net reinforced with Obamacare, whether we'll continue moving toward full equality based on sexual orientation, whether we get back on a path toward fiscal sanity through devastating cuts alone or a blend of spending reductions and tax adjustments--it's tempting to say that an Obama win in any form is acceptable. But the inevitable efforts to deny his win if he draws fewer popular votes are specious anyway, and should draw no response other than "don't hate the player, hate the game."


The Navigator said...

Absolutely. We've learned things in the last 15 years that necessarily affect how we view politics and political outcomes. A reasonable person might have thought, in 1997, that impeaching a president was a really big deal that would permanently ruin that presidency even if the Senate didn't vote to convict, and conversely that if the House were seen to impeach on transparently political, non-high-crimes grounds, the House members would be severely rebuked by the voters. Neither turns out to be true - turns out the president can be impeached on transparently political grounds, and both he and his impeachers can more or less go on as though nothing had happened.

Similarly with the electoral college. A reasonable person might have thought, circa 2000, that any president coming in second in the popular vote, the biggest referendum we have on the executive branch, would have felt pressures to stock his cabinet liberally with the opposite party and make dramatic compromises. But that's not what I remember from Dubya (NCLB arguably aside). 9/11 skews how we read the meaning of the 2004 election but, at least, there's no affirmative evidence that Bush paid a price for acting as though he'd been a majority president.

Anonymous said...

The bigger problem with any change to the current electoral college system is the parties themselves. The current system leaves the two parties in the driver's seat; third parties or independent candidates for the presidency have an impossible hill to climb (think Ross Perot: 20% of the vote, nothing in the electoral college). An electoral college bonus for the popular vote winner could eliminate presidents winning without the majority vote, but I suspect most Americans would cry foul about not switching to a straight up national majority vote (which would, of course, leave both parties wide open to some celebrity - or even somebody not beholden to either party, but with good ideas - becoming president). The bonus system you've discussed here has been proposed by academics since the 70's, I think - but it would lay bare both party's hypocrisy about being willing to live with the will of the people.