Forget the Electoral College, Fix the Primaries

There’s a whiff of a possibility that in ten days President Obama wins the electoral college but loses the popular vote, as George W. Bush did in 2000. If he does, the conservative outcry to abolish the electoral college will likely be faint. Long-run demographics favor Democrats right now; it makes sense for Republicans to compete in a handful of states, rather than all of them. Indeed, only eight very blue states and the District of Columbia have passed the National Popular Vote amendment. Whatever happens this time around, it would make sense for Dems to keep pushing back against the electoral college.

That said, the electoral college doesn’t in fact do such a bad job of reflecting the concerns of the country at large. In Virginia, the looming sequester is getting a lot of play for what it might to do military and contracting jobs. In Ohio, the EPA’s coal regulations and Obama’s auto rescue are dominating the airwaves. New Hampshire and North Carolina don’t have much in common, but are both coveted by the Obama and Romney campaigns. Besides, as Josh McCrain pointed out at Ten Miles Square yesterday, swing states change from year-to-year, ensuring that a different set of issues and voters play pivotal roles each cycle.

Our primary system, on the other hand, remains stagnant. Like clockwork, New Hampshire and Iowa appear first on the calendar, and play an outsized role in determining the party nominees. In a 2011 column about this problem, the New York Times’ David Leonhardt cited a study that found that “an Iowa or New Hampshire voter had the same impact as five Super Tuesday voters put together.” Why is this a problem?

Because Iowa and New Hampshire don’t reflect the direction the country is moving in. From Leonhardt’s column:

Their populations are growing more slowly than the rest of the country’s. Residents of Iowa and New Hampshire are more likely to have health insurance. They are older than average. They are more likely to work in manufacturing. Above all, Iowa and New Hampshire lack a single big city, at a time when large metropolitan areas are crucial to lifting economic growth…Yet metro areas are also struggling with major problems. The quality of schools is spotty. Commutes last longer than ever. Roads, bridges, tunnels and transit systems are aging.

To some degree, the Tea Party has actually helped mitigate some of the rural/age bias baked into the NH/IA primaries. Medicare and Social Security were not sacred cows this primary cycle, and the federal ethanol subsidy expired just days before the Iowa primary. Still, Leonhardt’s idea of a rotating primary schedule could do more to diversify the range of issues prioritized by political candidates than would a National Popular Vote presidential system.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.