National Popular Vote: Profoundly Meaningless!

The Sunday morning news shows offered some much-needed amusement following the thorough elephant stomping my beloved Gators suffered in the SEC Championship game Saturday afternoon. At least it was expected this year. For some deeply psychological reasons, that made it easier to take.

Before I expand on the Sunday follies, I’d like to divulge the defense mechanism that my son and I engage to cope with such disappointing defeats. It’s simple, we have several teams and sports we follow, so at least one of the favorites is bound to win just enough to keep us happy. By winning on Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers salvaged an otherwise miserable sports weekend. They could even make the playoffs this year if they hold together for their final four games. Fingers are crossed. Now, we need the FGCU eagles, both Gator basketball teams, and the Miami Heat, among others, to save us from a highly possible and historically common collapse of the Bucs.

img_0407Back to my Sunday morning amusement. Almost all the talking heads obsessed somewhat apologetically about the national popular vote won decisively by their favorite presidential candidate. Of course, they ignored the overwhelming electoral defeat at the hands of the much derided rival candidate. Does this seem analogous to my coping mechanism? I suppose it’s like looking for the silver-lining.

My amusement at this untethered rationalization is just this. The national popular vote is profoundly meaningless. (Oxymoron intended.)

Who received the most votes in a national election makes as much sense as claiming the Gators won the SEC Championship because they possessed the ball for 35 minutes compared to only 25 minutes for elephants from Alabama. You see, neither team was trying to possess the ball to win the game just as neither candidate was trying to win the national popular vote. You can’t change the rules after the game is over.   Different rules would result in a different game and a completely different election outcome. We will never know who would win a different game or election. It was never contested.

In a national popular vote election, how often do you think the candidates would hold rallies in New Hampshire? Rarely! They’d be vying for every possible vote in the population centers. It wouldn’t make any difference that California, New York, or Illinois would support one candidate over the other, because in a national popular vote contest, state election victories would be irrelevant. There would be incentives for wooing everyone in those big one-sided states.  On the other hand, the voters in New Hampshire, Wyoming, Alaska, Hawaii, North Dakota, etc. could be largely ignored by the candidates. Campaigning in those states represents a colossal waste of time. Most importantly, how much incentive would the candidates have for focusing on the interests and needs of these small states? Very little, indeed. We’d soon experience the Tyranny of the majority, something our Founders and our Constitution strived mightily to prevent.

We live in a republic, the United States of America, for which our American Flag stands tall and proud. Elections are held in the states by the states for the people of the states. We elect a president for all the states by an indirect method, called the Electoral College.  It takes into consideration both the number of states won and the size of each state. The candidate that wins most votes in a state or the District of Columbia gets all the Electoral votes of that state (with two usually unimportant exceptions).  The margin of victory in each state makes no difference.  Winning by one vote out of 10 million in a state is the same as winning by 3 million votes.  How much time did the candidates spend in the three biggest states of California, New York, and Texas?  Almost no time at all, because the candidates knew they had a majority of the popular vote, and getting more would make no difference.  Ironically, in this election each candidate ended up with about ten million votes they did not need.  For the losing candidate, nearly all of these surplus votes were in California and New York where they did no good toward securing an electoral victory.

A national popular vote election would result in different campaigning patterns by the candidates and different turnout by the voters. It’s a different election and it never occurred.  I find it absurd to surmise what might have been, and amusing to witness the obsession of the disappointed losers.

About DocStephens

Retired college professor of science and mathematics, academic administrator, and president (emeritus).
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18 Responses to National Popular Vote: Profoundly Meaningless!

  1. Support for a national popular vote is strong in every smallest state surveyed in recent polls among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group

    Among the 13 lowest population states, the National Popular Vote bill has passed in 9 state legislative chambers, and been enacted by 4 jurisdictions.

    Now political clout comes from being among the handful of battleground states. 80% of states and voters are ignored by presidential campaign polling, organizing, ad spending, and visits. Their states’ votes were conceded months before by the minority parties in the states, taken for granted by the dominant party in the states, and ignored by all parties in presidential campaigns.

    State winner-take-all laws negate any simplistic mathematical equations about the relative power of states based on their number of residents per electoral vote. Small state math means absolutely nothing to presidential campaign polling, organizing, ad spending, and visits, or to presidents once in office.

    In the 25 smallest states in 2008, the Democratic and Republican popular vote was almost tied (9.9 million versus 9.8 million), as was the electoral vote (57 versus 58).

    In 2012, 24 of the nation’s 27 smallest states received no attention at all from presidential campaigns after the conventions. They were ignored despite their supposed numerical advantage in the Electoral College. In fact, the 8.6 million eligible voters in Ohio received more campaign ads and campaign visits from the major party campaigns than the 42 million eligible voters in those 27 smallest states combined.

    The 12 smallest states are totally ignored in presidential elections. These states are not ignored because they are small, but because they are not closely divided “battleground” states.

    Now with state-by-state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), presidential elections ignore 12 of the 13 lowest population states (3-4 electoral votes), that are non-competitive in presidential elections. 6 regularly vote Republican (AK, ID, MT, WY, ND, and SD), and 6 regularly vote Democratic (RI, DE, HI, VT, ME, and DC) in presidential elections.

    Similarly, the 25 smallest states have been almost equally noncompetitive. They voted Republican or Democratic 12-13 in 2008 and 2012.

    Voters in states, of all sizes, that are reliably red or blue don’t matter. Candidates ignore those states and the issues they care about most.

    • DocStephens says:

      A national popular vote election sounds like a good idea when compared to the Electoral College system and I’m not surprised that people would support it in surveys. The problem is education! If people don’t understand the reasons behind our current system, they might prefer something else that seems more straight forward. Fortunately, people who did understand designed a better approach.

      Battleground states change from election to election. California was a battleground state only a few decades ago, but the demographics change and will continue to change in the future. I don’t believe the states you correctly identified are “ignored”. It is more likely they are taken for granted in the general election because the vote is predictable. People in these states still pay attention and vote in large numbers but in predictable ways. Furthermore, states that are taken for granted in the general election receive enormous attention during the primaries and it is all part of the election of a POTUS. It would be silly to spend money in this general election advertising in California if you are a Republican, but both parties campaigned there in the primaries. But gobs of money were spent in that state in the 1980’s and before. I expect California will change in the future, depending upon events and candidates.

      • Unable to agree on any particular method for selecting presidential electors, the Founding Fathers left the choice of method exclusively to the states in Article II, Section 1
        “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors….”
        The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as “plenary” and “exclusive.”

        Neither of the two most important features of the current system of electing the President (namely, universal suffrage, and the 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method) are in the U.S. Constitution. Neither was the choice of the Founders when they went back to their states to organize the nation’s first presidential election.

        In 1789, in the nation’s first election, a majority of the states appointed their presidential electors by appointment by the legislature or by the governor and his cabinet, the people had no vote for President in most states, and in states where there was a popular vote, only men who owned a substantial amount of property could vote, and only three states used the state-by-state winner-take-all method to award electoral votes.

        The current winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes is not in the U.S. Constitution. It was not debated at the Constitutional Convention. It is not mentioned in the Federalist Papers. It was not the Founders’ choice. It was used by only three states in 1789, and all three of them repealed it by 1800. It is not entitled to any special deference based on history or the historical meaning of the words in the U.S. Constitution. The actions taken by the Founding Fathers make it clear that they never gave their imprimatur to the winner-take-all method. The winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes became dominant only in the 1830s, when most of the Founders had been dead for decades, after the states adopted it, one-by-one, in order to maximize the power of the party in power in each state.

        The constitutional wording does not encourage, discourage, require, or prohibit the use of any particular method for awarding a state’s electoral votes.

        States have the responsibility and constitutional power to make all of their voters relevant in every presidential election and beyond. Now, 38 states and their voters are politically irrelevant in presidential elections.

      • From 1992- 2012
        13 states (with 102 electoral votes) voted Republican every time
        19 states (with 242) voted Democratic every time

        Until 2016, some states have not been or were not competitive for more than a half-century and most states now have a degree of partisan imbalance that makes them highly unlikely to be in a swing state position.
        • 41 States Won by Same Party, 2000-2012
        • 32 States Won by Same Party, 1992-2012
        • 13 States Won Only by Republican Party, 1980-2012
        • 19 States Won Only by Democratic Party, 1992-2012
        • 7 Democratic States Not Swing State since 1988
        • 16 GOP States Not Swing State since 1988

      • Non-battleground states do not get “enormous attention during the primaries.” It seemed to me that, at most, candidates swooped in just days before each primary.

      • Because of state-by-state winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution. . .

        Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015 was correct when he said
        “The nation as a whole is not going to elect the next president,”
        “The presidential election will not be decided by all states, but rather just 12 of them.

        Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind.

        With the end of the primaries, without the National Popular Vote bill in effect, the political relevance of 70% of all Americans was finished for the presidential election.

        In the 2016 general election campaign

        Over half (57%) of the campaign events were held in just 4 states (Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Ohio).

        Virtually all (94%) of the campaign events were in just 12 states (containing only 30% of the country’s population).

        In the 2012 general election campaign

        38 states (including 24 of the 27 smallest states) had no campaign events, and minuscule or no spending for TV ads.

        More than 99% of presidential campaign attention (ad spending and visits) was invested on voters in just the only ten competitive states..

        Two-thirds (176 of 253) of the general-election campaign events, and a similar fraction of campaign expenditures, were in just four states (Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Iowa).

        Over 87% of both Romney and Obama campaign offices were in just the then 12 swing states. The few campaign offices in the 38 remaining states were for fund-raising, volunteer phone calls, and arranging travel to battleground states.

      • Because of state-by-state winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution. . .

        Issues of importance to non-battleground states are of so little interest to presidential candidates that they don’t even bother to poll them individually.

        Charlie Cook reported in 2004:
        “Senior Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd pointed out yesterday that the Bush campaign hadn’t taken a national poll in almost two years; instead, it has been polling [the then] 18 battleground states.”

        Bush White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer acknowledging the reality that [then] more than 2/3rds of Americans were ignored in the 2008 presidential campaign, said in the Washington Post on June 21, 2009:
        “If people don’t like it, they can move from a safe state to a swing state.”

      • Because of state-by-state winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution. . .

        Policies important to the citizens of non-battleground states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

        “Battleground” states receive 7% more presidentially controlled grants than “spectator” states, twice as many presidential disaster declarations, more Superfund enforcement exemptions, and more No Child Left Behind law exemptions.

        Compare the response to hurricane Katrina (in Louisiana, a “safe” state) to the federal response to hurricanes in Florida (a “swing” state) under Presidents of both parties. President Obama took more interest in the BP oil spill, once it reached Florida’s shores, after it had first reached Louisiana. Some pandering policy examples include ethanol subsidies, steel tariffs, and Medicare Part D. Policies not given priority, include those most important to non-battleground states – like water issues in the west.

        The interests of battleground states shape innumerable government policies, including, for example, steel quotas imposed by the free-trade president, George W. Bush, from the free-trade party.

        Parochial local considerations of battleground states preoccupy presidential candidates as well as sitting Presidents (contemplating their own reelection or the ascension of their preferred successor).

        Even travel by sitting Presidents and Cabinet members in non-election years is skewed to battleground states

      • Most Americans don’t ultimately care whether their presidential candidate wins or loses in their state or district . . . they care whether he/she wins the White House. Voters want to know, that no matter where they live, even if they were on the losing side, their vote actually was equally counted and mattered to their candidate in every presidential election. Most Americans think it is wrong that the candidate with the most popular votes can lose. We don’t allow this in any other election in our representative republic.

        We have 2nd place presidential candidates elected by 537 votes in 1 state, or less than 90,000 votes in 3 states. If any other country elected their chief executive like this, Americans would not regard the result as normal or proportional.

  2. Now, a presidential candidate could lose despite winning 78%+ of the popular vote and 39 states.

    With the current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), it could only take winning a bare plurality of popular votes in only the 11 most populous states, containing 56% of the population of the United States, for a candidate to win the Presidency with less than 22% of the nation’s votes!

    But the political reality is that the 11 largest states, with a majority of the U.S. population and electoral votes, rarely agree on any political question. In terms of recent presidential elections, the 11 largest states have included five “red states (Texas, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Georgia) and six “blue” states (California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New Jersey). The fact is that the big states are just about as closely divided as the rest of the country. For example, among the four largest states, the two largest Republican states (Texas and Florida) generated a total margin of 2.1 million votes for Bush, while the two largest Democratic states generated a total margin of 2.1 million votes for Kerry.

    In 2004, among the 11 most populous states, in the seven non-battleground states, % of winning party, and margin of “wasted” popular votes, from among the total 122 Million votes cast nationally:
    * Texas (62% Republican), 1,691,267
    * New York (59% Democratic), 1,192,436
    * Georgia (58% Republican), 544,634
    * North Carolina (56% Republican), 426,778
    * California (55% Democratic), 1,023,560
    * Illinois (55% Democratic), 513,342
    * New Jersey (53% Democratic), 211,826

    To put these numbers in perspective,
    Oklahoma (7 electoral votes) generated a margin of 455,000 “wasted” votes for Bush in 2004 — larger than the margin generated by the 9th and 10th largest states, namely New Jersey and North Carolina (each with 15 electoral votes).
    Utah (5 electoral votes) generated a margin of 385,000 “wasted” votes for Bush in 2004.
    8 small western states, with less than a third of California’s population, provided Bush with a bigger margin (1,283,076) than California provided Kerry (1,235,659).

    • DocStephens says:

      There are important differences among the “big” states. Florida and Texas, for instance, have large rural and suburban populations that equal or exceed the urban vote. New York and California have significantly more urban voters. According to exit polls, the Democrat candidate won the urban vote 59% to 35%, but the Republican won the suburban, small city, and rural vote and by a similar margin. Party affiliation is difficult to assign. Many states, such as Illinois do not require a party designation when people register to vote. Florida does, but it is fairly easy to change.

      Income is also important in predicting how someone votes. In this election, the Republican gained 16 percentage points over the 2012 election among people earning less than $30 thousand annually, but still lost this demographic 53% to 41%.

      My primary point is this: the current Electoral College system is flawed and subject to justified criticism, but what would be better? A national popular vote has flaws as well and I would argue the issues would be even more problematic. Candidates would likely pander to urban needs instead of considering what is best for the nation as a whole. My other point is that the election is “played” by a set of rules and the candidates campaign and voters vote based on those rules. A national popular vote total is meaningless because there was no incentive to win that vote under the current rules.

      • With the National Popular Vote bill guaranteeing the majority of Electoral College votes and the presidency to the candidate with the most national popular votes, big cities would not get all of candidates’ attention, much less control the outcome.

        The population of the top five cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia) is only 6% of the population of the United States.

        Voters in the biggest cities are almost exactly balanced out by rural areas in terms of population and partisan composition.

        16% of the U.S. population lives outside the nation’s Metropolitan Statistical Areas. Rural America has voted 60% Republican. None of the 10 most rural states matter now.

        16% of the U.S. population lives in the top 100 cities. They voted 63% Democratic in 2004.
        The population of the top 50 cities (going as far down as Arlington, TX) is only 15% of the population of the United States.

        Suburbs divide almost exactly equally between Republicans and Democrats.

      • A successful nationwide presidential campaign of polling, organizing, ad spending, and visits, with every voter equal, would be run the way presidential candidates campaign to win the electoral votes of closely divided battleground states, such as Ohio and Florida, under the state-by-state winner-take-all methods. The big cities in those battleground states do not receive all the attention, much less control the outcome. Cleveland and Miami do not receive all the attention or control the outcome in Ohio and Florida. In the 4 states that accounted for over two-thirds of all general-election activity in the 2012 presidential election, rural areas, suburbs, exurbs, and cities all received attention—roughly in proportion to their population.

        The itineraries of presidential candidates in battleground states (and their allocation of other campaign resources in battleground states, including polling, organizing, and ad spending) reflect the political reality that every gubernatorial or senatorial candidate knows. When and where every voter is equal, a campaign must be run everywhere.

        With National Popular Vote, when every voter is equal, everywhere, it makes sense for presidential candidates to try and elevate their votes where they are and aren’t so well liked. But, under the state-by-state winner-take-all laws, it makes no sense for a Democrat to try and do that in Vermont or Wyoming, or for a Republican to try it in Wyoming or Vermont.

        The main media at the moment, TV, costs much more per impression in big cities than in smaller towns and rural area. Candidates get more bang for the buck in smaller towns and rural areas.

      • DocStephens says:

        We pretty much agree that a national popular vote election would be different. That is my point! This past election was not such an election, so obsessing over the current national popular vote, as certain media and representatives of the losing campaign are doing, is meaningless. We do not know, and cannot know who would have won a national popular vote if that had been the way POTUS was selected on November 8, 2016. We can certainly debate whether a national popular vote, an Electoral College system, or something else would be better. From my perspective, the primaries are completely dysfunctional and the parties need to change the way they are conducted.

  3. Because of state-by-state winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution. . .

    Now, there are no incentives for wooing everyone in Wyoming, Alaska, Hawaii, North Dakota, etc. 38 states and their voters are totally ignored by the candidates.

    • DocStephens says:

      Under the Electoral College System, candidates choose to spend their time in states where their efforts might make a difference. This year it was New Hampshire and to some extent Utah. Hawaii and Wyoming are among the least likely to attract candidates because of their dominance by one party. This changes from election to election. Even California has switched party support over the past three decades. Additionally, because of national exposure through TV, radio, Internet, etc. Where a candidate goes is less important that it was 100 or 200 years ago.

    • DocStephens says:

      It is obvious that the method by which presidents and vice presidents are selected/elected has changed over the years and for good reasons. If we could start over and design the perfect election process, what would it be? I don’t believe it would be a national popular vote election for a host of reasons.

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