Monday, November 14, 2016

Who Benefits from a National Popular Vote?

Hillary Clinton will win the national popular vote.

This is a lot less relevant than it seems. Legally, of course, it's entirely irrelevant: we elect our President through the electoral college system, not the popular vote. And even as a talking point, its bark is worth more than its bite. Just because Hillary Clinton won the popular vote under  the system we have (where the popular vote isn't the prize) doesn't mean she would have won had a popular vote plurality been the deciding factor. Both candidates' strategy would have been very different had the popular vote been the deciding factor; perhaps if Trump had an incentive to focus on ginning up more votes in, say, Los Angeles, the numbers would work out differently. It's not implausible that Clinton would have won the popular vote anyway, but it's a hypothesis supported by moderate -- not overwhelming -- evidence.

Nonetheless, the fact that we've now had two elections in 16 years where the popular vote winner was the electoral college loser has put our status quo system under unprecedented scrutiny. My inclination is to support reform: it's hard to justify the electoral college (particularly since it is about to fail at one of its original justifications -- ensuring that a wave of populist demagoguery doesn't put a manifestly unqualified hack in the oval office).

Perhaps the only plausible contemporary justification for the electoral college I've seen is that it forces candidates to appeal to a wide range of Americans, instead of just concentrating on big cities. Who would spend time in rural states like Iowa or New Hampshire were it not for the electoral college incentive? The claim is that, if we only decided things by the popular vote, our presidential election campaigns would be fought out only in our biggest cities, leaving many Americans on the outside looking in.

I don't find this objection compelling for two reasons. First, the electoral college also very obviously causes large swaths of America to be overlooked. "Safe states" like California or Texas (or Delaware or Wyoming) are entirely ignored. And if certain regions have to be ignored in a democratic system, in a democracy it seems like "having fewer people" is a pretty decent metric for allocating our attention.

But second, I'm actually unconvinced that we'd see widespread neglect of rural America in a popular vote model. The way actual presidential campaigns operate in swing states is illustrative. In Wisconsin, for example, it's not like Democrats and Republicans spend all their time fighting for votes in Milwaukee and Madison, and ignore the rest of the state entirely. Rather, there is plenty of attention paid to the outlying regions -- particularly by Republicans, who try to drum up support from many smaller counties to counteract huge Democratic margins in the cities. This seems to be pretty standard across most contested states. So why wouldn't we see the same dynamic play out nationwide: Republicans rallying many small-population regions to try to overcome large Democratic margins in cities?

And this brings me to my final observation. I support a national popular vote model because it seems more democratic than our status quo. But I think people are being mislead in thinking that it necessarily benefits the Democratic Party. Many large urban centers are in blue states that are not currently contested. Many rural areas, by contrast, are in purple states which are absolutely contested. In other words, our political system right now has Democrats and Republicans nip-and-tuck in a situation where Democrats do try to appeal to rural and exurban voters, and Republicans basically don't try to appeal to urban voters. It seems like the GOP has a lot more room to grow if, as it'd have an incentive to do in a popular vote system, it starts making a serious play for city votes (it's also true that in doing so it may have an incentive to moderate itself by appealing to a more diverse constituency that it currently ignores).

Again, my small-d democratic preferences aren't based on what helps the large-D Democratic Party. But this is a note of caution about thinking that a popular vote model will necessarily be a boon for progressives. It may well help the GOP more (though it also might help the GOP break out of its increasingly radical shell).


toto said...

Because of state-by-state winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution. . .

In the 2012 presidential election, 1.3 million votes decided the winner in the ten states with the closest margins of victory.

Candidates had no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they were safely ahead or hopelessly behind.

With the end of the primaries, without the National Popular Vote bill in effect, the political relevance of 70% of all Americans was finished for the presidential election.

In the 2016 general election campaign

Over half (57%) of the campaign events were held in just 4 states (Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Ohio).

Virtually all (94%) of the campaign events were in just 12 states (containing only 30% of the country's population).

In the 2012 general election campaign

38 states (including 24 of the 27 smallest states) had no campaign events, and minuscule or no spending for TV ads.

More than 99% of presidential campaign attention (ad spending and visits) was invested on voters in just the only ten competitive states..

Two-thirds (176 of 253) of the general-election campaign events, and a similar fraction of campaign expenditures, were in just four states (Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Iowa).

Issues of importance to non-battleground states are of so little interest to presidential candidates that they don’t even bother to poll them individually.

Charlie Cook reported in 2004:
“Senior Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd pointed out yesterday that the Bush campaign hadn’t taken a national poll in almost two years; instead, it has been polling [the then] 18 battleground states.”

Bush White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer acknowledging the reality that [then] more than 2/3rds of Americans were ignored in the 2008 presidential campaign, said in the Washington Post on June 21, 2009:
“If people don’t like it, they can move from a safe state to a swing state.”

Over 87% of both Romney and Obama campaign offices were in just the then 12 swing states. The few campaign offices in the 38 remaining states were for fund-raising, volunteer phone calls, and arranging travel to battleground states.

toto said...

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.

The biggest cities are almost exactly balanced out by rural areas in terms of population and partisan composition.

16% of the U.S. population lives outside the nation's Metropolitan Statistical Areas. Rural America has voted 60% Republican. None of the 10 most rural states matter now.

16% of the U.S. population lives in the top 100 cities. They voted 63% Democratic in 2004.
The population of the top 50 cities (going as far down as Arlington, TX) is only 15% of the population of the United States.

Suburbs divide almost exactly equally between Republicans and Democrats.

toto said...

Support for a national popular vote is strong in rural states

None of the 10 most rural states (VT, ME, WV, MS, SD, AR, MT, ND, AL, and KY) is a battleground state.
The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes does not enhance the influence of rural states, because the most rural states are not battleground states, and they are ignored. Their states’ votes were conceded months before by the minority parties in the states, taken for granted by the dominant party in the states, and ignored by all parties in presidential campaigns. When and where voters are ignored, then so are the issues they care about most.

toto said...

The National Popular Vote bill is 61% of the way to guaranteeing the majority of Electoral College votes and the presidency in 2020 to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by changing state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), without changing anything in the Constitution, using the built-in method that the Constitution provides for states to make changes.

All voters would be valued equally in presidential elections, no matter where they live.

Every vote, everywhere, for every candidate, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election.
No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of predictable outcomes.
No more handful of 'battleground' states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support among voters) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ predictable states that have just been 'spectators' and ignored after the conventions.

The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

The bill was approved this year by a unanimous bipartisan House committee vote in both Georgia (16 electoral votes) and Missouri (10).
The bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 261 electoral votes.
The bill has been enacted by 11 small, medium, and large jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the way to guaranteeing the presidency to the candidate with the most popular votes in the country