You Still Need To Carry the Popular Vote

Like most progressives, I’m not a big fan of the Electoral College, and an a supporter of the National Popular Vote initiative, which would effectively eliminate the odds of an anomalous result like the one that occurred in 2000 (or 1876, or 1888) by interstate compact, without the necessity of a constitutional amendment.

But that doesn’t mean I think anomalous elections are likely. Unfortunately, that is the implication of the loose talk you often hear about a “Blue Wall” that guarantees Democrats an advantage in the Electoral College based on the observation that states with 242 electorate votes have gone Democratic in every election since 1992. Even if Democrats lose the popular vote, you are expected to understand, they “start” with nearly enough EVs to win, which means Republicans have to sweep nearly every state where they have a chance.

In setting out to demolish the “Blue Wall” myth, Nate Silver quite appropriately starts with its mirror image: the “Republican Electoral College Lock” myth of the 1980s that seemed true until it clearly wasn’t. It really doesn’t have much to do with the Electoral College at all:

[W]hen commentators talk about the Democrats’ “blue wall,” all they’re really pointing out is that Democrats have had a pretty good run in presidential elections lately. And they have, if you conveniently draw the line at 1992 (it doesn’t sound so impressive to instead say Democrats have won five of the 12 elections since 1968). During that time, Democrats have won four elections pretty clearly, lost one narrowly and essentially tied the sixth. This has been evident from the popular vote, however. The one time the Electoral College really mattered — that was 2000, of course — it hurt the Democrats.

Nate goes on to demonstrate pretty convincingly that if Mitt Romney had won the popular vote in 2012, he would have almost certainly won the Electoral College. Certainly if he had won by the same margin Obama actually achieved, the Blue Wall would have crumbled, with Mitt taking ten more states, including three (MN, PA and WI) always counted as part of the “Blue Wall.” In the end, any ostensible EV/PV split is only going to matter in the rarest of elections:

Our Election Day forecast in 2012 estimated that there was about a 5 percent chance that Obama would win the Electoral College but lose the popular vote (and about a 1 percent chance that Romney would do so) So if you want to argue that Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the popular vote next year are 50 percent but that her Electoral College chances are more like 53 percent or 55 percent instead, go ahead — that’s probably about what the “blue wall” amounts to. (And even that advantage is tenuous, possibly reflecting Obama’s superior turnout operation in swing states — an edge that Clinton might or might not replicate.)

Nate does note that polarization means Electoral College blowouts like 1984 as less likely; you have to lose the popular vote by a vast margin to lose “base” states like those in the Deep South and Rocky Mountains for the Republicans or the northeast and northwest for Democrats. The tendency to ignore states already in the bag or already lost is an enduring effect of the Electoral College system that may have recently gotten worse. But let’s forget about “locks” and “walls.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.