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Election Simulations From 1960-2008 Show That Electoral College Rules Don't Help Either Party, but Do Harm American Democracy

by Andrea Levien // Published October 12, 2012

 

 

 

There is a persistent myth that the Electoral College rules help Republican presidential candidates, primarily because people think that they have an advantage in small states. They also point to the 2000 election in which Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote, but lost the Electoral College vote.

But the small state myth - so persistent that normally astute political observers like E.J. Dionne continue to tout it - is simply wrong. In the six presidential elections from 1992 to 2008, Democrats won a majority of the 13 smallest states in five of them, including in 2004 when George Bush was won the national popular vote and the presidency.

Simulating close presidential elections over the past half-century refutes the belief that Electoral College advantages Republicans as well. In addition, it highlights the irrational quirkiness of our current rules - making it all the more inexcusable that we maintain a system that results in 80% of our states being ignored in elections for our president.

The chart below represents which major party candidate would have won if there had been a tie in the national popular vote. Our method was to first put states in order of their partisanship in that election. Partisanship measures a state's deviation from the national vote share, in this case, the national popular vote. It has proven to be a good predictor of outcomes in subsequent elections, as demonstrated in our report Presidential Election Inequality.

After adding the number of electoral votes awarded to each candidate in states leaning toward their party, we then can determine who would have won the Electoral College vote if the national popular vote had been tied. We can also determine what percentage of the national popular vote the trailing candidate would have needed to earn an Electoral College majority. We have also listed the "tipping point" states in each election, the states that, had they gone to the other candidate, would have tipped the Electoral College vote in their favor.

Projected Winners in National Popular Vote Ties, 1960- 2008: A Partisan Wash

Year

Actual Popular Vote Winner

Projected Winner in a 50-50 Election

Winner's
Projected
Electoral Vote Total

Party with Electoral College Advantage

Percent necessary for other party to win

Tipping Points State(s)

2008

Obama

Obama

278

D

>51.2%

CO & IA

2004

Bush

Kerry

284

D

>50.2%

OH

2000

Gore

Bush

294

R

>50.3%

FL

1996

Clinton

Clinton

279

D

>50.3%

PA

1992

Clinton

Bush

275

R

>50.5%

TN & LA

1988

Bush

Bush

278

R

>50.1%

MI

1984

Reagan

Reagan

306

R

>50.4%

MI

1980

Reagan

Carter

283

D

>50.9%

IL

1976

Carter

Ford

284

R

>50.2%

WI

1972

Nixon

McGovern

273

D

>50.8%

OH

1968

Nixon

Nixon

314

R

>50.8%

OH

1964

Johnson

Johnson

298

D

>51.1%

WA

1960

Kennedy

Kennedy

287

D

>50.3%

NM & NJ

To see how we simulated these elections, view our data analysis here.

These results demonstrate that neither party has had a fundamental Electoral College edge. If the past thirteen elections had been national ties, Democrats would have had Electoral College majorities in seven elections and Republicans would have won six. It varied year to year, in no particular pattern.

Alarmingly, the actual winner of the popular vote would have lost six of these elections, including, of course, the 2000 election in which Al Gore in fact did lose in the Electoral College. For example, in 1980, if Ronald Reagan had won the national popular vote, but had failed by beat Jimmy Carter by at least 1.8% nationally, he would have lost the Electoral College vote and therefore the presidency. The same goes for Carter in 1976 and Richard Nixon in 1972, both of whom defeated their opponents in the national popular vote, but who would have lost the Electoral College vote had their national vote totals been smaller.

The bias in 2008 was particularly pronounced, perhaps due to the Democrats' strong get-out-the-vote effort in swing states. John McCain would have needed to win the national popular vote by 3% to win a majority in the Electoral College. If McCain had won in the national popular vote by more than 1.8% but less than 3% (a popular vote edge that could have been more than three million votes), then the candidates would have tied in the Electoral College, and Congress would have decided the outcome of the election.

As we can see, Al Gore's defeat in 2000 despite his lead of more than 0.5% in the national popular vote was far from an anomaly. The average percentage of the vote necessary for the trailing candidate to win an Electoral College majority over these thirteen elections is 50.6%, which translates into needing to win by a margin of 1.2% over the other major party candidate.

This dangerous skirting of wrong winner elections is troublesome during a time in which presidential elections are becoming ever closer. In 2000, Gore won the national popular vote by only half a percentage point and in 2004 Bush beat Kerry by almost two and a half percentage points. Obama's 7% win in 2008 was not close, but it was not a landslide either. And now, the 2012 election is gearing up to also be extremely close. As of October 11, Nate Silver's FiveThiryEight blog in the New York Times predicted a national popular vote share of 50.3% for Obama and 48.7% for Romney, a difference of only 1.5%.

Therefore, we should dismiss talk of any systematic bias toward one party or the other in presidential elections. Instead, the focus should be on the big picture: the current Electoral College system is essentially an election by lottery in close elections, which also results in the systematic exclusion of two-thirds or more of states from campaign attention. It's time for politicians to put the voters first and pass the National Popular Vote plan for president.

Thanks to former FairVote fellow Neal Suidan for his work on this piece.