The Electoral College, Not that Crucial

Politico’s Glenn Thrush had a long story yesterday about the Obama team’s state-by-state plans for contesting the 2012 election. If you’re an operative who is wondering whether you’ll wind up in North Carolina or Ohio in October 2012, or a local TV station wondering about ad buys, I don’t blame you for paying a ton or attention to even very speculative articles right now.

For the rest of us, it’s just a waste of time. The early predictor modes do indicate that 2012 is apt to be a close race, but even then the odds are still pretty good that it will only be moderately close, in one direction or the other. And if that’s the case, the electoral college will follow the popular vote (indeed, once it gets beyond a couple of percentage points, the electoral college tends to amplify the popular vote).

Sure, it’s interesting to speculate whether Arizona or Georgia or Indiana is closer to flipping to the Dems if they have a good year. But it really isn’t important for the big question of who will win. Any time you hear someone speculating that it’ll be hard for one of the parties to win the presidential race because they would need to win some seemingly difficult state to do so, just remember: it always seems that way, until that party takes the overall lead. After the Republicans won three consecutive presidential election in the 1980s, people started mistakenly believing there was an electoral college “lock”; that lasted only until the incumbent Republican became unpopular, and lo and behold what that happened he was also unpopular in Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and New Mexico, and lots of other states. If things go well for Barack Obama and he wins solidly next year, you’ll probably start hearing the same stuff in the other direction, and it’ll be just as much nonsense that way, too.

If you’re trying to figure out who will win the presidency, my advice is to pretend the electoral college doesn’t exist until around Labor Day (of the election year, that is) at the earliest.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.