May 8, 2012 An American Truism & the Path to 270
When it comes to presidential politics, nothing is more certain than the importance of the Electoral College. So what is it; why is it confusing, controversial, and a bit mind numbing at times? And what made 270 into an American truism?
The Electoral College: A Brief Overview
In 1804 Article II of the Constitution established a precedent for electing the President of the United States. While over 90 million Americans cast a ballot every fourth November for their presidential pick, it is not until mid-December that the president and vice-president are actually elected by the votes of a mere 538 citizens—the “electors” of the Electoral College. So when you vote for a presidential candidate your vote is simply used to instruct the electors from your state to cast their votes for the same candidate. For example, if you vote for the Republican candidate, you are really voting for an elector who will be pledged to vote for the Republican candidate. Once it’s been determined which candidate won the majority of your state’s popular vote, the electors release all those pledged votes and award them to the candidate. Thus the popular vote, which is made up of all those individual votes cast by millions of voters within your state determines how the electors will vote.
So why does all this matter? Well to the average American it really doesn’t, but for a Presidential campaign, the Electoral College is the ultimate numbers game. It dictates how a candidate will campaign, what issues to focus on, which states to target, and where to allocate resources.
All states are not created equally:
Think back to your junior high civics course; remember that there are 435 seats in the House of Representatives, proportional to a state’s total population, and 100 seats in the Senate. Based on these numbers we arrive at 538 members of the Electoral College: 100 senators plus 435 representative, and 3 members allocated to the District of Columbia.
Here is where it gets interesting—the 11 most populous states (below), representing over 50% of the population, carry an “Electoral Majority:” enough votes to elect the President of the United States!
Most Populous States & Electoral Count
1. California – 55
2. Texas – 38
3. New York – 29
4. Florida – 29
5. Illinois – 20
6. Pennsylvania – 20
7. Ohio – 18
8. Michigan – 16
9. Georgia – 16
10. North Carolina – 15
11. New Jersey – 14
The Path to 270 in 2012:
So we’ve established what the Electoral College is, and I’ve provided a basic framework for how it works and why certain states are more crucial than others. Now lets take a look at how this applies to the 2012 presidential race and why the Obama Campaign has good reason to be confident.
As noted, presidential politics is all about the Electoral College. Forget the pundits, talking points, and stump speeches for a moment and look at the facts, which are in the numbers. It is absolutely indisputable that the Romney Campaign has a paper-thin margin of error to hit the magical 270 mark, and they know it. This is not a talking point or partisan rhetoric, it is a fact, and while you will never hear anyone from the Romney camp admit to this, the Romney people are acutely aware that the numbers are not in their favor. So while the issues, talking points, and polls will change with whatever way the political winds blow between now and election day, this arduous path to 270 remains.
Take a look at the Electoral Map below, which is a modified version of the 2008 map. Obama carried the popular vote in 28 states and the District of Colombia to capture 365 electoral votes. John McCain won the popular vote in 22 states, but was defeated with only 173 electoral votes. President Obama defeated John McCain in all but two of the most populated states: Texas and Georgia. Now fast forward to 2012— while the President is not likely to hold all the states he won in 2008, historical precedent, current polling, and a little common sense tells us that he will win California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New Jersey. Some may argue that states like Michigan and Pennsylvania are toss-up states this time around, but given the President’s record in those states, particularly with the auto bailout and union support, its safe to say that these states will remain blue. The real toss up states this time around will be North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, and Ohio.
A Narrow Path to Victory:
Its accurate to say that Governor Romney’s only shot at victory is the economy; however, President Obama continues to pull ahead in three key swing states despite recent polls indicating the President trailing Romney on this single strength. In Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio President Obama continues to outpace his opponent in a head-to-head match up. Thus, simply running even, or outpacing the president by a few points will not be sufficient for the former Massachusetts Governor and will not yield victories in states won by Obama in 2008. One of the key factors behind Romney’s disadvantage is his unprecedentedly low favorability rating. Recent polls indicate anywhere between a 20-30 point advantage for the President in this category. Moreover, Mr. Obama leads 55-27 among woman voters; 51-33 among the middle class; 50-34 in leadership abilities, and 50-29 in “standing up for what he believes in.”
So here is what I’m getting at…
Despite what many would have you believe elections are not determined by the economy, or any single issue for that matter. Yes, issue specificity is becoming increasingly important among the younger generation of voters, but a majority of Americans still base their vote on the person. For better or worse, we want our President to not only get the job done, but we want “Joe six-pack.” Americans want to be able to relate to the man in the oval office. This notion harkens back to the founding of this country and a sense of rugged individualism. Remember when George W. Bush campaigned as the guy you could invite over for a beer?
Not only is President Obama a very likable figure—even if you don’t agree with all his policies, he has embraced and mastered his celebrity status. Americans are far more likely to vote for someone they can at least trust and understand…not to mention a guy that shoots hoops, slow raps the news on late night TV, and is on a first name basis with Lady Gaga…than a guy that can’t have a beer because of his religious beliefs. So while a sizable portion of Americans are dissatisfied with a variety of issues facing the nation, history has shown time and time again that Americans don’t back a candidate they don’t know, like, or trust. Especially when the incumbent President has taken unemployment from 14% to 8%, saved the American auto industry, killed the most notorious terrorist in American history, and as recent as yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office declared a $58 billion budget surplus for the month of April—a result of tax cuts and decreased spending. These are among the many challenges making it extremely difficult for the Romney campaign to reach 270.
Even in the extremely unlikely event that Mitt Romney were to win Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, and Ohio, the last being a state he must win to win the election, he would still lose — Romney 266 / Obama 272.