Why the Electoral College Won’t Help President Obama

William A. Galston

Writing in the Wall Street Journal this week, Gerald Seib rightly reminds us
that presidential campaigns are won and lost state by state in the
Electoral College, not in the nationwide popular vote. (Once in a while,
this turns out to be a distinction with a difference; just ask
not-quite President Gore.) Based on state results from the past five
elections, Seib argues that the Electoral College gives Democrats a
distinct advantage: They’ve won the same 18 states plus the District of
Columbia, totaling 242 electoral votes, in each of those elections,
compared to only 13 states with 102 votes for the Republicans. I can’t
argue with Seib’s math, but the question is whether it leads all the way
to his conclusion.

Strictly speaking, one party enjoys a structural advantage in the
Electoral College if its popular votes are distributed more efficiently
than the other’s. If so, that party should be able to win an Electoral
College majority with less than 50 percent of the two-party popular
vote. We can test that proposition by applying the vote efficiency
metric to the actual 2008 results.

In 2008, Barack Obama beat John McCain by 365 electoral to 173. Now
let’s do an alternative history based on two assumptions: (1) the
two-party popular vote was evenly divided; and (2) Obama’s margin of
victory in each state was reduced by the same amount—7.26 percentage
points—yielding an equal division of the popular vote. Under that
scenario, Obama would have lost five states that he actually
won—Indiana, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia, which total 86
electoral votes—but still would have prevailed in the Electoral
College, 279 to 259. That would seem to validate the hypothesis that
Democrats enjoy a structural edge: They get 10 more votes than an even
split would yield.

But not so fast: The 2008 presidential election was the last to be
carried out based on the 2000 census, and the distribution of electoral
college votes did not reflect population shifts that had occurred in the
ensuing years. The 2012 presidential election, on the other hand, will
reflect those shifts, and it makes a difference. Reapportionment shifted
six electoral votes from Democratic to Republican states. If we rerun
the 2008 election with the 2012 electoral vote allocation plus an even
split of the popular vote, Obama wins by a very narrow margin—273 to
265. So the current Democratic structural advantage is four electoral
votes—not nothing, but not much either. The probability that Obama could
win reelection without a majority of the popular vote is

Readers who haven’t lost patience with this jeu d’esprit might
be interested in the end of the story. Given the assumptions underlying
the math, the state that Obama carries most narrowly and that puts him
over the top is … Colorado, which he would have carried by 1.7
points—50.0 percent to 48.3 percent—with an even division of the popular
vote that reduced his margin in every state by 7.26 percent. (For the
mathematically challenged: subtract 3.63 percent from the 53.66 percent
of the vote Obama won in Colorado in 2008 and add it to McCain’s 44.71
percent.) Indeed, Seib singles out Colorado as a state Obama must win in
the event that he loses Ohio, and David Axelrod has publicly identified
that state as a key electoral template for the president’s reelection

Now back to the real world. The last Democrat to win the White House
without carrying Ohio was John F. Kennedy, who pulled off the feat with
73 electoral votes from south of the Mason-Dixon line and another 26
from the border states of West Virginia, Missouri, and Arkansas. Obama’s
likely haul from that territory: zero. And as Seib points out, the
president is facing an uphill climb in much of the Midwest and
Mid-Atlantic region—including Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, all
of which went his way by larger margins than did Ohio. (For more
evidence, see the latest Pennsylvania survey,
which finds that 54 percent of registered voters disapprove of Obama’s
performance and 51 percent don’t think he deserves reelection, while it
has him running even with Romney in a state he carried by 10.3 points in
2008.) In short, the president won’t have the luxury of building his
campaign on a solid-blue foundation of 242 electoral votes in 2012.

So what does this all mean? Barring unlikely circumstances, the core
challenge facing the Obama campaign is not to execute a
thread-the-needle Electoral College strategy. It is rather to spend the
next thirteen and a half months giving the people credible reasons to
believe that the economy will fare better in a second Obama term than it
did in the first.