Barack and Mitt’s Really Awesome & Excellent Electoral College Adventure

I was trading emails with some long time, very good friends last week.  They are all political junkies, all very much ginned up with this election.  But I was a little surprised to find several of them did not actually understand how the American electoral college system works, why it was designed the way is it and by whom.  So.  Basics first.  Then on to Romney and Obama.

The November 6th election for president is a numbers game, first and foremost.  The game board is the Electoral College (EC).  The magic number to win in this game is 270.  This is because there are 538 total votes in the EC.  There is one vote for each of the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives, one vote for each of the 100 seats in the US Senate, for a total of 535 EC votes covering all 50 states.

The three additional votes come from the city of Washington, DC.  The “DC” stands for District of Columbia, which is technically not a state of the union.  The residents until 1961 were denied a vote, leaving them disenfranchised.  Three EC votes, the minimum number all states have with one House representative and two senators, were given to the residents there by passage of the 23d Amendment to the US Constitution.  538 total electoral college votes.

Each state has the number of votes in the EC that equals the number of House districts it has plus two senators.  Since House districts are population based, where 435 seats must always equal 100% of Americans, the larger the state population the more EC votes it has.  California is the largest with 55 EC votes, followed by Texas with 38.  New York and Florida have 29 each.  Illinois and Pennsylvania have 20.

Political Junkie’s note:  The Obama administration’s one-party rule, czar-based federal-autocracy ideology aside, the US is a state-centered Constitutional system.  The 57 50 states have unlimited power to rule within their borders.  The federal government is constitutionally limited in the range of its authority.  48 of the 50 states work on a “winner takes all” system of awarding EC votes.  Win the state, get all the votes.  Maine and Nebraska are the exception and have every right to be.  These two states award one EC vote to the winner in each of the House districts discreetly, with the two senatorial votes going to the winner statewide. 

One of the questions that arose in the email exchange was why the Founding Fathers wrote this system into the US Constitution.  Why not just go with winning the majority of the popular vote?  The answer is “legitimacy”.  The Founders did not want either of two things to happen.  They didn’t want a few very populous states to essentially own the federal government.  IOW, they wanted small, thinly populated states to have a meaningful voice.  And they didn’t want a 50.01% to 49.99% popular vote to negate the legitimacy of the elected party.  They didn’t want a stalemate; gridlock.  The EC was designed to empower small states and confer a clean win, with the legitimacy that creates.

OK, all that said, what are Obama’s and Romney’s chances of winning the presidency in the Electoral College vote.  It all depends on the voting tendencies of the 50 states.  Real Clear Politics does the best job of detailing this mathematical jigsaw puzzle.  As I write this they have assigned 201 EC votes to Obama, from states that are indisputably Democrat strongholds, few of whom have voted for a Republican candidate since 1984, when Ronald Reagan won 49 states (OK, Ron won all 50, but he let Mondale steal the win in his home state of Minnesota by 3761 votes so as not to embarrass the man completely).  Romney is given 206 EC votes from solid Republican states.

201 to 206 sounds close.  There are 131 EC votes up for grabs.  Well, if you take a look at the history of the states comprising that 131 votes, it’s not that close.  Of the states in the “toss up” group Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania between them have gone Republican exactly once (Michigan for Bush41 in 1988) since 1984.  Otherwise they went to Dukakis, Clinton twice, Gore, Kerry and Obama.  If any of these three were won by Romney it would be astounding; indicative of a landslide for him nationally.  Add 46 EC votes for Obama.

Now it’s 247 to 206, Obama.  270 is the goal.  Obama has to win 23 more EC votes.  Romney pretty much needs to run the table.  In the remaining group is the “Big Three”:  Ohio, Florida and Virginia.  Lose any of these three and Romney is a footnote in Obama’s second term autobiography.  But assume for a moment Romney does win in these three states.

Admittedly, this is a big assumption.  But all three of these states have voted for both Democrat and Republican candidates in the last six presidential elections.  In fact lately the three of them have tended to vote as a bloc.  Bush won all three of them in 2000 and in 2004.  Obama swept them in 2008.  So a sweep for Romney, however improbable, is possible.  Add 60 EC votes to Mitt’s total.

Now it’s 247 to 266, Romney.  270 is still the target, with 25 EC votes yet to be decided.  And troops, this is exactly why the Founders created the Electoral College, because those 25 votes are found in four small states.  4 votes in New Hampshire, 6 each in Iowa and Nevada, 9 in Colorado.

These four truly are swing states.  Each one has voted for a Republican and a Democrat presidential candidate in the last three elections.  New Hampshire, Iowa and Nevada each have one Republican and one Democrat in the US Senate.  New Hampshire has two Republicans in the US House.  Nevada’s got two Republicans and one Democrat in the US House.  Iowa has three Democrats and two Republicans.  Colorado has two Democrats in the US Senate, with four Republicans and three Democrats in the US House, but polls say it is the most likely of these four states to vote for Romney.

Romney could take all four of these states, for an EC maximum possible vote of 291.  He could lose New Hampshire, Iowa and Nevada, win Colorado, and still win with 275.  OTOH, Obama could take all four, and in addition could take all three of the “Big Three” as he did in 2008, for a maximum possible vote of 347.

Seen from the perspective of potential maximums, it’s Obama’s game to lose.  All Obama has to do is win Ohio or Florida and the rest of the map doesn’t much matter; he’s on his way to a swearing-in in January.  Romney has to be nearly perfect to win.  Obama just has to be pretty good.  This is why most political pundits still see Obama as the odds-on favorite to win.  Even if Romney wins the popular vote, which he could.

The final irony here is that since Al Gore’s EC loss to George Bush in 2000, despite Gore having won the popular vote 50.5% to Bush’s 49.5%, the Loud Left has been screaming for an end to the Electoral College.  Could it be that history has a morbid sense of humor, and a way of balancing things out?


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