The next time you read a story about the strategy of the candidates in this year’s presidential election, before you get caught up in whether the Ron Paul-aligned Republican party in Nevada will affect Mitt Romney’s ability to win that state or whether the selection of Paul Ryan as a vice-presidential candidate will hurt Barack Obama’s chances in Wisconsin, stop for a moment and think about the premise that underlies all such discussion: only a few states count in determining who will be the next president. The premise is treated as natural, but it is wholly artificial, a byproduct of one of the oddest features of the Constitution, the Electoral College. Unlike any other general election, the winner of a presidential election is not the candidate with the most votes, but the candidate who wins the most states, and because virtually all the states have adopted a winner-take-all method of determining the winner, the candidates fight over only the states in which each side stands a chance, and ignore all the rest.
The battle for president will be fought in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Virginia, and possibly in Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. For all the effort put into these states, it’s not as if they were carefully selected as stand-ins to represent adequately the views of the country as a whole. Rather, some states simply have to be in the middle. How they get there is due more to the vagaries of national politics and demographics than to anything else. In 1968, that group included California, New York, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, and Texas, and of this year’s potential battleground states, only Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Texas has long since become solidly Republican, while Maryland is so predictably Democratic that Mitt Romney’s political director Rich Beeson, when discussing his candidate’s road to the White House, could say, “it’s not like we have to go out and win Maryland.” New Hampshire, Virginia, and North Carolina, which have voted fairly consistently Republican in contested elections since 1960, have recently become battlegrounds because each has seen a substantial influx of new residents.
Of those states in this year’s middle politically, are they really representative of the center of American life? Not exactly. Ohio makes the best case for being representative because it has voted for the winning presidential candidate in 25 of the last 27 presidential elections; the last time it failed to vote for the winner was when it picked Nixon in 1960. Although Ohio would appear to represent the middle ground of national opinion, the candidates will focus on local distinctions that could lead to victory. A pertinent distinction is that one out of every eight jobs in Ohio is connected to the auto industry. As a consequence, the attitudes of Ohioans about the auto industry bailout are likely to be more personal, and to play more of a role in picking a candidate, than in other parts of the country. Any doubt that the bailout would play a significant role in the general election campaign in Ohio was quelled within one week of Mitt Romney winning the Ohio primary, when Joe Biden showed up in the state to remind Ohioans that Romney opposed the auto industry bailout.
Swing state attitudes about national issues, great or small, have played a significant role in the past in turning elections. Take the 2000 election and Florida. As excruciatingly close as the vote in that state was, it would not have been had Al Gore received the same level of support from the Cuban-American community that Bill Clinton had four years previous when he took Miami-Dade County by 117,000 votes. But Elian Gonzalez’s intervened. Although immigration officials’ decision to send the ten year old boy back to his father in Cuba did not receive Gore’s support, he took the blame for it in the Cuban-American community and as a result carried Miami-Dade by only 39,000 votes, a net loss of 78,000 votes. Thus, an issue that had little effect on votes nationwide played a key role in the one state that mattered in the end.
Worse still, attitudes in swing states can be decisive even when they are inconsistent with nationwide opinion. Had Al Gore won West Virginia, he would have been president. He lost because of fears that as an environmentalist he was opposed to mountaintop coal mining. His middle-of-the-road gun control position also hurt him in a state that has the fifth highest percentage of gun owners. An ad blitz by the NRA and rallies in West Virginia and Tennessee led by Charlton Heston helped sink Gore in both states.
This year, as before, the candidates will try to find any angle that works in the particular politics of each state in play. Even when the candidates focus on national issues, they do so because something makes the issue particularly important in a given state. The campaign in Florida, for example, with has the highest percentage of senior citizens of any state, will inevitably focus on issues significant to the elderly. So it was no surprise when soon after he was introduced as Romney’s choice for vice president, Paul Ryan went to Florida to claim that the president’s health care bill would take $700 million from Medicare. Obama forces quickly responded with television ads damning Ryan’s own Medicare proposals.
And legitimate voter opinions aren’t all that count anyway. Don’t forget about hardball efforts to win states, which have their own long history. In the disputed Hayes-Tilden election of 1876, one Florida Democratic club made sure black sharecroppers knew that their credit would be affected if they voted for Hayes, while a state-run railway fired employees who attended a Democratic rally. Nothing so blatant is likely this year, but the spate of voter ID laws passed in the last few years in various swing states shows an astounding willingness to try to win elections suppressing the vote of eligible voters. What would happen if these efforts really affected who won? Nothing good, if the 1876 election is any guide. At the very least, fraud in vote counting put Hayes in office, but undermined his authority, and left Tilden, the winner of the popular vote who had promised to clean up government from the corruption plagued years of Ulysses S. Grant, on the sidelines. Worse, the deal that made Hayes president led to the end of reconstruction and then to Jim Crow and all its evils.
And it won’t end when the election is over. The parties begin almost immediately to jockey for position in the swing states for the next election, and that can affect policy. Karl Rove, for example, convinced George W. Bush in his first term to support a tariff on imported steel in order to take Pennsylvania from the Democrats in 2004. It didn’t work, but consumers of cars and other products made of steel had to pay higher prices for this electoral ploy.
For a people who broke away from the British more then two centuries ago because we would not put up with decisions being made about us when we were not represented, it’s hard to fathom how we have for so long tolerated a method of selecting a president that pushes so many voters to the sidelines. The absurdity of relying on a few states to decide the presidential race is made even more ridiculous when considering that only around 8 percent of voters in swing states are still undecided. Even assuming all 11 states in play now are still close in November, which is unlikely, the total undecided electorate in these states makes up at most 2 1/2 percent of all voters nationwide. With a total cost of the election projected by the Center for Responsible Politics at $6-7 billion, the candidates will end up spending at least $2,100 to capture each one of these votes. How much more sensible it would be, and better for country, if the candidates had to persuade voters nationwide rather than leave most citizens on the sidelines to watch the spectacle?