Don’t Mean A Thing

Coal? Solar, maybe. Natural gas, even methane gas, would seem more obvious responses to the question. But coal? Bush sounded like John Lewis rallying mine workers in the 1950s.

Of course, nothing in the canned televised debates could be that extemporaneous. No, Bush’s solution to the nation’s energy woes was a calculated response, targeted not at the 30 million or so Americans who may have been watching the debates, but the 951,000 registered voters in the heart of the nation’s coal country: West Virginia.

It’s hard to imagine that little old West Virginia could hold such sway in the presidential election. But if you think back to the debate, you probably won’t recall either candidate stumping for, say, more earthquake-victim relief funds or subway-token subsidies for seniors—goodies that might appeal to the residents of more populous states like California or New York.

In fact, for the Republican candidate, West Virginia, with its five votes in the Electoral College, is one of a handful of battleground states where this year’s election is likely to be decided. The other states up for grabs are Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Washington, and Wisconsin.

If you live in one of these states, the political parties care about your opinion and have worked hard for your vote. If your state is not on that list, the parties think your vote won’t impact the election. And they are right.

If you don’t believe that statement, consider this: In 1992, the Clinton campaign targeted 80 percent of its $37 million advertising budget to the states it had identified as battleground states. In this year’s race, the two parties have run television ads exclusively in the states listed above.

Campaign appearances are just as targeted. Al Gore and Joe Lieberman kicked off the fall campaign with appearances in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, and Illinois over a 27-hour marathon. Bush responded with appearances in Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Since then, campaign appearances by the presidential candidates outside of the battleground states have been rare indeed.

Much as I enjoy the geography lesson on small towns in the Midwest every four years, when I find myself stuck reading about the candidates’ political ads in the Boston Globe (because the candidates rarely advertise in Massachusetts), I am left to wonder why my vote, which would count so much if I lived in Cleveland, counts for so little in Boston.

In 1956, Nixon wanted to campaign for vice president in all 50 states. Eisenhower’s campaign staff vetoed the idea because they thought Nixon’s show of youthful vigor would contrast poorly with Eisenhower, who was still recovering from a heart attack. In 1960, when he was running his own show, Nixon—against all sound political advice—pledged to do what he had been prevented from doing four years earlier.

As part of his effort to fulfill that pledge, on August 26, 1960, he made a triumphal campaign appearance in Atlanta. Atlantans lined Peachtree Street, according to Theodore White in The Making of the President, 1960, “not in the twos and threes of ordinary, orderly political demonstrations, but … in ranks five deep, six deep, eight deep that blotted the sidewalks and then, as one approached the center of the city, choked the streets themselves.”

Speaking to an overflowing crowd in Hurt Park, Nixon told them, “In the last quarter century there hasn’t been a Democratic candidate for president that has … bothered to campaign in the state of Georgia. I don’t think that’s a good thing. The people of this state, the people of all our country should have a choice … in selecting the man who is going to lead the nation.” White says Nixon later remarked that this “was the most impressive demonstration he had seen in 14 years of campaigning.”

What’s striking 40 years later is that Richard Nixon was ever received this enthusiastically. More pertinent is what happened next. Nothing happened next. When the election campaign began in earnest after Labor Day, Nixon did not return to Georgia. There was simply no point. He did not stand a chance in Georgia, and on election day, Kennedy walloped him.

This episode illustrates one of the principle rules of presidential campaigning: If a state is sure to vote for one party, neither candidate has an incentive to campaign there. That’s because the current rules award the winning candidate all the electors from that state. Even if Nixon had made more of an effort in Georgia, he would not have netted a single elector unless he somehow overcame his 25-point deficit. By the same token Kennedy, with such a huge lead, was going to get all the electoral votes available. He, too, had nothing to gain from campaigning in Georgia, and he only stopped there briefly for part of a day.

Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign in California followed a similar pattern. Clinton started the campaign nearly 30 points ahead in the state, which has 54 electoral votes and is the biggest prize in the electoral sweepstakes. But as the election neared and George Bush gained in the polls, Clinton’s lead dipped to 15 points. Still, the Clinton campaign decided not to run television ads there, gambling that he could hold on—and he did.

Almost half the states are sure wins for one of the parties. In the last six competitive presidential elections since the Kennedy-Nixon race in 1960, eight states voted all but once for the Democratic presidential candidate; 15 states did the same for the Republican candidate. Only one of these states, Pennsylvania, is a battleground this year.

The candidates usually focus on big states, a strategy that seems to defy logic, considering that the Electoral College has a small-state bias. States that warrant only one representative in the House of Representatives nevertheless have three electoral votes a piece because a state’s electoral total is the sum of its representatives and its two senators. In contrast, California, with its 52 representatives, gets little extra push from its two additional votes in the Electoral College.

Still, California looms larger than most of the smallest states put together again, because of the winner-takes-all nature of the vote. Only California offers the promise—or the danger—of 54 votes at one time. In 1960, Nixon identified New York, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Texas, and Michigan as battleground states. To this list Kennedy added New Jersey and Massachusetts. These states, in that order, were the nine states with the most electoral votes.

This year’s list of battleground states is considerably different, thanks in part to Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” By moving the Republican party in a more conservative direction as the Democratic party’s Southern support started to fracture, Nixon threatened to turn the South from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican in presidential elections and also knocked away some of the Republican party’s Northern support.

The Democratic party responded in 1976 by nominating former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter. The election revealed that even when the Democrats nominated a Southerner, a Democratic party victory in the South could no longer be guaranteed. Ford lost Mississippi, for example, by only two points. As a result, the focus of presidential campaigns has shifted southward.

For example, the current list of battleground states includes a number of Southern and border states, from Florida (whose 25 electoral votes make it the fourth biggest prize), to Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, and even Georgia, which Nixon lost so badly in 1960. As these states have moved into play, other states have moved out. This time around, for example, five of the 10 largest states, including California and New York, are noticeably absent, the latest victims of the winner-take-all electoral system that compels the parties to look to a minority of states for victory.

New York is easiest to understand. Despite the Republican party’s best efforts, the state has voted for the Democratic party candidate in the last six close elections. In 1996, it handed Clinton a victory over Bob Dole by nearly 29 points. California voted for the Republican candidate in four of those same six elections, but voted solidly for Clinton in the last two.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention hardly had this kind of system in mind. In fact, as part of the compromise that resulted in the creation of the Electoral College, the delegates left the method of selecting electors up to the state legislatures.

The states devised numerous schemes. Legislative selection predominated early on, but the public tired of leaving the choice of electors up to legislatures that, on occasion, ignored the popular will and, by 1828, all but two states had abandoned this method.

Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Daniel Webster, and Andrew Jackson supported choosing electors by dividing states into districts in which each elector would be chosen by popular vote. In 1820, six states did so, but this method soon faded because the winner-takes-all method consolidates a state’s voting power. Once adopted by some of the states, it was, as Jefferson phrased it, “folly or worse for the other[s] not to follow.”

That system isn’t likely to change any time soon, since the party in power in each state benefits heartily from it. Besides, voters act as if the Electoral College does not even exist. Potential voters are more likely to vote if the race is close nationally, regardless of how close the vote is in their state, according to data from the last elections. In Washington, D.C., the only jurisdiction where Walter Mondale won electoral votes besides his home state of Minnesota, voter turnout climbed to 48 percent during the hotly contested race of 1992 and then dropped to 44 percent in 1996, even though there was never a doubt which way the city would vote.

You can hardly blame the voters. Not once in the 20th century did the Electoral College winner differ from the popular vote winner. This confluence of electoral and popular winners is to some extent unexceptional; a victorious candidate must stitch together a broad, national coalition to win an Electoral College majority. Yet it masks the Electoral College’s impact on every presidential election, and the profound differences in the campaign between the states that are battlegrounds and the states that are not.

That every vote does not count equally in the presidential election is a sad commentary on the present state of affairs. There has been a little movement towards changing the system of late, the most notable being an October op-ed piece in The New York Times by journalist Michael Lind advocating a district method for picking electors and a Boston Globe editorial advocating the abolition of the Electoral College. I am not as convinced as Lind is that such a change would make the candidates’ discussion of the issues any more profound, but it would at least compel the candidates to try to pick up votes throughout the nation and thereby involve more of the public in the process of choosing a president.

For better or worse, the Electoral College has the potential to become an important issue after the election because, for the first time since the 1888 election of Benjamin Harrison, the winner of the electoral vote may differ from the winner of the popular vote. Indeed, Bush is leading in at least some of the national opinion polls, but Al Gore has more electoral votes in his corner.

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James P. Rooney

James P. Rooney is an attorney in Boston and the president of Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty.