Plan of Attack: Obama, Romney and the Electoral College

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The London Olympics isn’t the only venue for world-class sport this year. Political gold is waiting to be won in November, and the only way to grab the top U.S.A. medal is to master Electoral College math. It is both deceptively easy and maddeningly complex. A candidate has to accumulate 270 votes in a tiny universe of 538, but those 538 will be generated by 130 million votes cast in 51 separate entities. A game that looks like checkers is really multi-dimensional chess.

Still, the deep polarization of party politics has simplified the process somewhat. Remarkably, about 40 states — and maybe more — have almost no chance of flipping from one party to the other in the 2012 Electoral College. If President Obama gets his way, the electoral map will look very close to the way it did four years ago; on the other hand, Mitt Romney needs to flip a relative handful of states to take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Obama’s 2008 performance was close to the high-water mark for a modern Democrat: 365 electoral votes (359 under the new 2010 census apportionment). Obama did the seemingly impossible by very narrowly pulling two long-time Republican states, Indiana and North Carolina, to his column and even winning an electoral vote in Nebraska’s Second Congressional District, while narrowly losing Missouri and Montana. Those latter two states are widely believed to have moved out of his reach for 2012.

It is a little-known Electoral College tidbit that a president reelected to a second term has always added a state to his coalition that he did not win during his first successful run. Sometimes, in the early days of the Republic, it was a state that didn’t exist during a president’s first bid. But it appears that Obama, if reelected, will break this trend. The only state John McCain won that Obama appears to have a chance of flipping is Arizona, but that is a long shot that would require a massive turnout effort by the Obama campaign among Hispanic voters.

To compare 2012 politics to war for a moment, the current electoral map is akin to World War I’s Western Front trench warfare: Massive amounts of manpower and resources will be needed to move the frontlines even a smidgen. And the less the lines move, the better it is for Obama.

At the starting block

Based on our analysis, Obama starts with a presumed base of 247 electoral votes, just 23 short of the magic number of 270 — but not all of them are truly secure. Romney starts with a much firmer but not ironclad 206. The election will be decided mainly in seven states with 85 toss-up votes.

To show how little the presidential campaign turf has changed since 2008, all seven of the toss-ups are states that Obama won in 2008. Obama captured 28 states then (plus the District of Columbia), and in only eight of those did he win by less than 10 percentage points. Given Obama’s middling approval ratings this year and the uncertainty in the economy, the two states where his 2008 triumphs were closest — Indiana and North Carolina — are now favored to go to Romney, and the other six states where Obama won by less than 10 points are toss-ups. Obama won the seventh toss-up, Nevada, by about 12.5 percentage points.

Map 1: Updated Crystal Ball Electoral College ratings

How the states fall

The states are generally stable enough in their political leanings that we can roughly rank them in order of how Democratic or Republican they are.

Read more

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Curt served in the Marine Corps for four years and has been a law enforcement officer in Los Angeles for the last 24 years.

11 Responses to “Plan of Attack: Obama, Romney and the Electoral College”

  1. 1

    Nan G

    What’s Obama going to do?
    Only 56 percent of people between ages 18 – 29 will even bother to vote, according to the latest Gallup Poll.
    That’s Obama’s biggest demographic.
    On the other hand, every other age group surveyed–30 to 49, 50 to 64 and 65 and over– had a yes I will vote response rate of 80 percent or more!

  2. 2

    Nan G

    Pollsters also went to 11 battleground states to host focus groups of independent and swing voters, mostly Democrats, who voted for President Obama in 2008 but who are now on the fence.

    Guess what?
    All those expensive Obama vacations?
    They didn’t poll well.

    Blue collar Democratic voters, stuck taking depressing “staycations” because they can’t afford gas and hotels, are resentful of the first family’s 17 lavish vacations around the world and don’t want their tax dollars paying for the Obamas’ holidays, according to a new analysis of swing voters.

    Many in the group volunteered criticism of the presidential vacations as something that should be cut. Among the lines one pollster wrote down was one from a Democratic woman who said,

    “Michelle Obama spends $1 million to take the kids to Hawaii,”
    and another who said,

    “President Obama was the only president to take so many trips.”

    The theme is that the first family “is out of touch” with working class voters.
    Ironically, Obama’s own rhetoric attacking ”the rich” is backfiring.
    These blue-collar Dems and Indys lump the Obama’s vacations spending with things like the GSA scandal and those tax dollars wasted on people who aren’t even looking for work.

    One other point came across: these people pay taxes.
    There are things they could have done with their tax money.
    Seeing the Obamas spending their tax dollars so lavishly on themselves causes resentment.

    And here I thought these Obama supporters were so stupid they enjoyed Obamas vacations as a sort of vicarious pleasure.

  3. 3


    @Nan G:

    Those people you are talking about, Nan, are the true blue-collar workers, many from the industrial states. Many of them have voted Dem for their entire lives, either because their parents did, or their union tells them so, or they have, or had, one of the few good Dems that don’t really resemble their national party anymore. As to if they will vote D this year, who knows. But the polling you speak of seems to be an indication that they aren’t going to be too excited to vote for Obama again. We can only hope.

  4. 4

    Richard Wheeler

    The map shows the problem for Romney. He must take Florida and Ohio to win.His Veep will be Portman( Ohio) or Rubio( Fla.) Too bad he can’t have two veeps.

  5. 5


    Presidential elections don’t have to be this way.

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    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 â�� 68%, FL â�� 78%, IA 75%, MI â�� 73%, MO â�� 70%, NH â�� 69%, NV â�� 72%, NMâ�� 76%, NC â�� 74%, OH â�� 70%, PA â�� 78%, VA â�� 74%, and WI â�� 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK â�� 70%, DC â�� 76%, DE â�� 75%, ID â�� 77%, ME â�� 77%, MT â�� 72%, NE 74%, NH â�� 69%, NV â�� 72%, NM â�� 76%, OK â�� 81%, RI â�� 74%, SD â�� 71%, UT â�� 70%, VT â�� 75%, WV â�� 81%, and WY â�� 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR â�� 80%,, KY- 80%, MS â�� 77%, MO â�� 70%, NC â�� 74%, OK â�� 81%, SC â�� 71%, TN â�� 83%, VA â�� 74%, and WV â�� 81%; and in other states polled: CA â�� 70%, CT â�� 74%, MA â�� 73%, MN â�� 75%, NY â�� 79%, OR â�� 76%, and WA â�� 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

  6. 6

    Richard Wheeler

    Popular vote election would have changed only one outcome in 20th century. Gore over Bush in 200o.

    I think each states electoral votes awarded by % of popular vote the way to go. Dems did this in 2008 Primary.

  7. 7


    @Richard Wheeler:

    The precariousness of the current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes is highlighted by the fact that a shift of a few thousand voters in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in 4 of the 13 presidential elections since World War II. Near misses are now frequently common. There have been 6 consecutive non-landslide presidential elections (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008). 537 popular votes won Florida and the White House for Bush in 2000 despite Gore’s lead of 537,179 (1,000 times more) popular votes nationwide. A shift of 60,000 voters in Ohio in 2004 would have defeated President Bush despite his nationwide lead of over 3 million votes.

    Any state that enacts the proportional approach on its own would reduce its own influence. This was the most telling argument that caused Colorado voters to agree with Republican Governor Owens and to reject this proposal in November 2004 by a two-to-one margin.

    If the proportional approach were implemented by a state, on its own, it would have to allocate its electoral votes in whole numbers. If a current battleground state were to change its winner-take-all statute to a proportional method for awarding electoral votes, presidential candidates would pay less attention to that state because only one electoral vote would probably be at stake in the state.

    The proportional method also could result in third party candidates winning electoral votes that would deny either major party candidate the necessary majority vote of electors and throw the process into Congress to decide.

    If the whole-number proportional approach had been in use throughout the country in the nation’s closest recent presidential election (2000), it would not have awarded the most electoral votes to the candidate receiving the most popular votes nationwide. Instead, the result would have been a tie of 269–269 in the electoral vote, even though Al Gore led by 537,179 popular votes across the nation. The presidential election would have been thrown into Congress to decide and resulted in the election of the second-place candidate in terms of the national popular vote.

    A system in which electoral votes are divided proportionally by state would not accurately reflect the nationwide popular vote and would not make every vote equal.

    It would penalize states, such as Montana, that have only one U.S. Representative even though it has almost three times more population than other small states with one congressman. It would penalize fast-growing states that do not receive any increase in their number of electoral votes until after the next federal census. It would penalize states with high voter turnout (e.g., Utah, Oregon).

    Moreover, the fractional proportional allocation approach does not assure election of the winner of the nationwide popular vote. In 2000, for example, it would have resulted in the election of the second-place candidate.

    A national popular vote is the way to make every person’s vote equal and matter to their candidate because it guarantees that the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states and DC becomes President.

  8. 8

    Richard Wheeler

    With every vote equal candidates will spend most of their time in the big cities. As it is now most of their time spent in 10-12 swing states ignoring the solid blue and red states Proportional E.C. would make it possible for Repubs to campaign in and secure votes in N.Y and Ca.Same for Dems. in the deep South.

  9. 9


    @Richard Wheeler:

    With National Popular Vote, every vote would be equal. Candidates would reallocate the money they raise to no longer ignore 2/3rds of the states and voters.

    16% of Americans live in rural areas.

    With National Popular Vote, big cities would not get all of candidates’ attention, much less control the outcome.
    The population of the top five cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia) is only 6% of the population of the United States and the population of the top 50 cities (going as far down as Arlington, TX) is only 19% of the population of the United States.
    Suburbs and exurbs often vote Republican.

    If big cities controlled the outcome of elections, the governors and U.S. Senators would be Democratic in virtually every state with a significant city.

    A nationwide presidential campaign, with every vote equal, would be run the way presidential candidates campaign to win the electoral votes of closely divided battleground states, such as Ohio and Florida, under the state-by-state winner-take-all methods. The big cities in those battleground states do not receive all the attention, much less control the outcome. Cleveland and Miami do not receive all the attention or control the outcome in Ohio and Florida.

    The itineraries of presidential candidates in battleground states (and their allocation of other campaign resources in battleground states) reflect the political reality that every gubernatorial or senatorial candidate knows. When and where every vote is equal, a campaign must be run everywhere.

    With National Popular Vote, when every vote is equal, everywhere, it makes sense for presidential candidates to try and elevate their votes where they are and aren’t so well liked. But, under the state-by-state winner-take-all laws, it makes no sense for a Democrat to try and do that in Vermont or Wyoming, or for a Republican to try it in Wyoming or Vermont.

    Even in California state-wide elections, candidates for governor or U.S. Senate don’t campaign just in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and those places don’t control the outcome (otherwise California wouldn’t have recently had Republican governors Reagan, Dukemejian, Wilson, and Schwarzenegger). A vote in rural Alpine county is just an important as a vote in Los Angeles. If Los Angeles cannot control statewide elections in California, it can hardly control a nationwide election.

    In fact, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland together cannot control a statewide election in California.

    Similarly, Republicans dominate Texas politics without carrying big cities such as Dallas and Houston.

    There are numerous other examples of Republicans who won races for governor and U.S. Senator in other states that have big cities (e.g., New York, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts) without ever carrying the big cities of their respective states.

    The main media at the moment, TV, costs much more per impression in big cities than in smaller towns and rural area. Candidates get more bang for the buck in smaller towns and rural areas.

    The National Popular Vote bill would not change the need for candidates to build a winning coalition across demographics. Candidates would have to appeal to a broad range of demographics, and perhaps even more so, because the election wouldn’t be capable of coming down to just one demographic, such as soccer mom voters in Ohio.

  10. 11

    Richard Wheeler

    Kohler Thanks for your well researched argument. Fact remains results of only ONE Pres. election since 1888 would have changed. Al Gore would have beaten “W” in 2000.

    Come to think of it not a bad thing.

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