The Role of Cities in National Popular Vote Elections

by Andrea Levien // Published June 13, 2014

This report challenges the argument that a national popular vote for president would advantage Democratic or urban voters in three ways. First, we demonstrate that urban areas, when properly defined as metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), lean only modestly toward the Democratic Party. Using data from the 2004 presidential election (the closest of the last three presidential elections, in which Republican nominee George W. Bush won with 51.2% of the two-party popular vote), we show that: Democratic and Republican presidential nominees are almost evenly supported in metropolitan areas: Bush won a majority of MSAs; and the number of votes cast in the 100 largest cities proper and cast by voters living outside MSAs were comparable.

Second, we address the premise of a potential Democratic advantage in national popular vote elections due to the possibility of them focusing resources on large cities. Using data from the 2008 election (in which Democratic nominee Barack Obama won with 53.7% of the two-party popular vote), we show that even if the candidates were to focus their attention heavily on the nation’s largest urban areas (the 21 MSA with at least 2.5 million voters), thereby increasing their vote shares there, they would still need to earn almost as many votes in the rest of the nation in order to maintain their original national popular vote share. Simply put, when every vote is equal in a close election, candidates cannot afford to ignore large portions of eligible voters.

Third, we review evidence from presidential and gubernatorial elections to demonstrate how campaign strategy might work under a national popular vote system. Today, when campaigning to win the statewide popular vote in swing states, presidential candidates campaign in urban, suburban, and rural areas in proportion to those areas’ share of the swing state’s vote. This strategy is similar to those in gubernatorial elections, which Republicans are able to win in almost every state. Republican candidates, like Democrats, are able to earn votes across any state, demonstrating that in winning statewide popular vote elections, successful candidates need not, and do not, focus only on urban areas.

Our analysis confirms that the national popular vote has no inherent partisan bias.  With charges of partisan bias so effectively dismissed, it is time for both Democrats and Republican to come together in support of a reform that would make every vote equal.

Key Takeaways

  • National Popular Vote skeptics often express a fear that the votes of rural America would be drowned out by the votes of those in big cities in the event of a national popular vote for president. However, the number of rural voters is actually slightly greater than the number of urban voters in nation’s largest cities. In 2004, 17.4% of votes were cast in rural counties, while only 16.5% of votes were cast within the boundaries of our nation’s 100 largest cities.
  • In the 2004 presidential election, George W. Bush received more votes than John Kerry in 259 of our nation’s 361 “metropolitan statistical areas” (MSAs), or cities and their surrounding suburbs, as defined by the U.S. Census.
  • George W. Bush received almost half (49.4%) of the two-party vote in MSAs. Comparatively, his national popular vote percentage was 51.2%.
  • In the nation’s 50 largest MSAs, Kerry received only 53.7% of the vote, showing that large urban areas do not favor Democratic candidates as much as is often assumed.
  • If National Popular Vote skeptics are worried about the impact of urban and suburban voters under a national popular vote system, they should be equally worried about their impact now. The majority of all voters living in 2004’s thirteen swing states lived in metropolitan statistical areas. They preferred the Democratic candidate by 1.4 percentage points compared to all swing state voters, a similar difference in Democratic support (1.8 percentage points) between voters in all 361 MSAs and all voters nationwide.
  • In 2012, the candidates campaigned in the MSAs of swing states in proportion to those MSAs’ share of the swing state’s population. For example, Ohio’s three largest MSAs (Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati) contained 48% of the state’s total population and received 48% of all the state’s candidate visits in the two months leading up to the presidential election. The candidates did not focus a disproportionate amount of attention on cities, since to do so would have put their vote totals in the rest of the state in jeopardy.