Tracking the Candidates: Current Electoral College Rules Mean Most Americans Ignored

Posted by Rob Richie, Peter Jarka-sellers on July 29, 2016

In the weeks since the California primary, when Hillary Clinton joined Donald Trump in becoming her party’s presumptive nominee for president, FairVote has tracked both candidates’ campaign appearances. FairVote’s similar analysis in 2012 showed just how much the candidates focus on swing states that might tip the election with our current Electoral College rules. After the conventions in 2012, Barack Obama campaigned in a grand total of just eight states and Mitt Romney added only two more. These same states also were the targets of nearly all the spending on television ads. Ignored states include nearly every small state and most large states. For both candidates’ campaign teams, voters in these ignored small and large states were treated as if they had the same value: nothing.

FairVote’s Rob Richie and Andrea Levien in 2013 published an article in Presidential Studies Quarterly on FairVote’s analysis of what is wrong in the current presidential election system and how it can be fixed with the National Popular Vote plan. Based on the 2012 results, we projected 11 states were most likely to be swing states in 2016: Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

The fact that events since then have done little to change that calculation shows just how predictable our elections have become. Most states are truly locked in for one party or another. Sometimes a poll may show a Democratic-leaning state like Michigan or New Mexico, or a Republican-leaning one like Georgia or Arizona looking close. But such a state would never ‘tip’ the election, and the candidates will ultimately devote little energy to those states’ voters. If such a non-swing state truly became close, it would mean that the national election was no longer close. The trailing candidate would still focus on the true swing states unless they had given up and just wanted to avoid an Electoral College landslide.

So let’s test this thesis by looking at campaign appearances since the California primary. Today, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her running mate Tim Kaine started a three-day bus tour of -- yes, you guessed it -- Ohio and Pennsylvania. This week Republican nominee Donald Trump and his running mate Mike Pence have campaigned in -- no surprise -- states including Ohio, Colorado and Iowa.

In our analysis, FairVote only factors in campaign events that we determine were designed to influence the voters who live in that place. For instance, were Donald Trump to appear on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert in New York City, we would not categorize it as an event designed to influence New York Voters. Likewise were Hillary Clinton to speak to a labor union conference in Oregon, that would not be considered an event tailored to Oregon voters. However, if Donald Trump were to stop by a campaign office in Ohio to fire up volunteers, that appearance would count because it would be geared towards specifically trying to affect voters in that state.

Of Hillary Clinton’s campaign stops that FairVote has registered since June 7th, 79% (15 of 19) have been in swing states. Of the remaining four: 1) one was in Atlantic City, New Jersey where Clinton sought to highlight Trump’s business record there; 2) one was in Springfield, Illinois at the statehouse where President Lincoln gave a famous address about the perils of slavery and where Clinton spoke following the killing of police officers in Dallas, Texas; 3) one was in Clinton’s home state of New York to participate in New York City’s large pride parade where Clinton’s campaign is also headquartered; and the last in Los Angeles, California, where Clinton was already in town for fundraisers.

Going forward, expect the focus to narrow to true swing states.

The same can be said of Donald Trump. Of his campaign events to date, 72% (or 21 of 29) have been in our swing states. Here’s a rundown of the remaining eight; 1-2) two were in Trump’s home state of New York, where his campaign is headquartered; 3) a third was a joint appearance with his running mate Mike Pence in Indiana, where Pence is Governor; 4) a fourth was in Maine’s second congressional district, where the winner of that district’s popular vote earns an electoral vote and is seen as more likely to be close than the campaign overall; 5-6) were in Michigan which FairVote has not classified as a swing state but which the Trump campaign is treating as one; 7-8) the final two were in Georgia and Texas, which can appear on some optimist Democrats’ target lists ,but are highly unlikely to be the subject of much more campaign attention unless tied to unexpected events such as the police shootings in Dallas.

These findings show that even the exceptions prove the rule -- and expect those exceptions to decline going forward. That harsh reality underscores that allocating electoral votes by a winner-take-all rule -- meaning one where no political activity has any change to affect the split of electoral votes in a nationally close contest -- results in candidates channeling all their polling, attention and resources into the few states that may tip the election.

With the definition of swing states so firmly set in today’s polarized politics, as shown in the 2013 Presidential Studies Quarterly article, this dynamic simply cannot be reconciled with basic notions of representative democracy and democracy accountability. Electing presidents by the national popular vote would address this problem by separating the presidency from the outcome in particular states, and make every voter in every state equally important.

Stay tuned as the campaign unfolds, and you can review our online spreadsheet as we track the candidates going forward.

Image Source: Gage Skidmore

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