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Magic Numbers: Small Vote Shifts in Key States Can Alter Electoral College Outcomes

Magic Numbers: Small Vote Shifts in Key States Can Alter Electoral College Outcomes

This post is an update of our January 2013 piece with new data on the November 8 2016 election using the final 2016 popular vote numbers provided by states in their certificates of ascertainment.

One commonly cited benefit of the Electoral College is that, even when the national popular vote for president is close, it creates a decisive victory for one candidate or the other, giving the winner more legitimacy, and rewarding candidates who have appeal in more states or regions. However, these "decisive" victories are often more tenuous than they seem. There are plenty of elections in which slight vote shifts in key states would have changed the winner of the Electoral College vote, despite the original winners' leads in nationwide vote or supposed geographic advantage.

2016 - Trump vs Clinton

A few months ago it would have seemed absurd to suggest that the national popular vote and the Electoral College could diverge for the second time in 16 years. It happened anyway, but based on states' final vote tallies as tabulated by the Cook Political Report, it was by no means inevitable. Clinton would only have had to earn the votes of 38,875 Trump voters -- 5,353 in Michigan, 11,375 in Wisconsin, and 22,147 in Pennsylvania -- in order to secure the presidency. 136,528,459 people voted in 2016 meaning that just .03% of voters would have had to change their minds for Clinton to win.She would have had the narrowest of margins in three states, but her popular lead would be relatively unchanged at around 2.9 million votes (it is currently 2,864,974).

That 38,875 people could have changed the outcome of a presidential election with a national margin in the millions and an electoral vote margin of 74 (without faithless electors) seems like a shockingly low number. However, as detailed below, the Electoral College’s sensitivity to regional differences has meant that the election was determined by a small number of voters, even in elections we think of as solid victories. Indeed, on several occasions an even lower number of voters than in 2016 would have had to switch their allegiances to change the outcome.  

2012 - Obama vs. Romney

While not as impressive as his 2008 win, President Obama’s reelection victory against Mitt Romney was by no means a close race: Obama won by 4,982,291 votes. It was an election in which the distribution of voters favored Democrats, such that Obama would, in most scenarios, have won the Electoral College even if the national popular vote had been tied or narrowly favored Romney as long as the trends in state by state vote share remained the same.  If we allow the state by state trends to drift from their real distribution, Romney's "magic number", or the number of votes that needed to shift from Obama to him in order to change the outcome of the election, was only 214,735 votes, even though Obama was ahead of Romney by almost 5 million votes nationwide. A shift of 37,155 votes in Florida, 83,108 in Ohio, 74,650 in Virginia, and 19,822 in New Hampshire would have tipped the Electoral College to Romney.

2004 - Bush vs. Kerry

Although George W. Bush's second election win was quite narrow by Electoral College standards (286 to 251), his margin in the nationwide vote was actually quite large (3,012,171 or 2.5%). However, a shift of only 59,301 votes from Bush to John Kerry in Ohio, the most competitive state in the 2004 election, would have given Kerry the presidency, despite the fact that Bush would have still led Kerry nationally by about 3 million votes.

In a second scenario, a shift of a mere 21,822 votes in the swing states of Iowa, New Mexico, and Nevada would have sent the vote for the presidency to the House of Representatives, in which each state would have had one vote in deciding who would become the next president. However, Republicans controlled a majority of states' delegations in the 107th Congress, meaning that Bush, the winner of the national popular vote, probably would have still become president.

2000 - Bush vs. Gore

In this notoriously close and controversial election, Florida's official final vote margin was 537 votes in favor of George W. Bush. That means a shift of only 269 votes in Florida from Bush to Al Gore would have given Gore Florida's 25 electoral votes, leaving him with a total of 291, which was more than enough to win the Electoral College and the presidency. Comparatively, a shift of a little more than a quarter of a million votes would have been needed to make Bush the winner of the national popular vote. This election was the closest electoral vote count since the election of 1876, in which national popular vote winner Samuel Tilden lost the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes by one electoral vote.

1976 - Carter vs. Ford

Despite Jimmy Carter's nationwide lead of 1,682,970 votes over Gerald Ford, a small shift of a total of  9,246 votes in Hawaii and Ohio would have given Ford the 29 electoral votes he needed to win a second term. In this scenario, Ford, who is the only person to have become both Vice President and President without being elected to either position by the Electoral College, would have been the first president in 100 years to win the Electoral College but lose the national popular vote.

1968 - Nixon vs. Humphrey

In the 1968 election, Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey 301-191 in the Electoral College, a large margin considering that Nixon attracted only half a million more votes than Humphrey of the 73 million cast nationwide. Despite Nixon's large margin of victory in the Electoral College, a shift of 32 electoral votes from Nixon to Humphrey would have prevented any of the candidates from receiving an Electoral College majority, sending the decision of who would become the next president to the House of Representatives, where Democrats controlled the majority of states' delegations.

The states controlling the 32 votes needed to prevent this wrong winner scenario were Missouri and Illinois, where a shift of 77,724 votes combined could have denied Nixon his victory. The reason that this vote shift would have prevented either candidate from collecting a majority of Electoral College votes without resulting in a tie is that George Wallace of Alabama had won 46 votes in the South. For either candidate to win the presidency, he needed to win more electoral votes than both of his opponents combined.

If Wallace had held the balance of power, there was speculation that he would have sought to negotiate with Nixon and Humphrey, convincing his electors to vote for the candidate who agreed to his demands. Just as Rutherford B. Hayes' deal with the Democrats after the 1876 election hastened the end of Reconstruction, Wallace could have sought to maintain Jim Crow laws in the South in exchange for the White House.

1960 - Kennedy vs. Nixon

The 1960 election boasts one of the closest national popular votes in American history, with John F. Kennedy narrowly beating Richard Nixon by 114,673. However, a shift of 9,216 votes in Illinois and South Carolina would have denied either candidate a majority in the Electoral College (the 15 electors from Mississippi and Alabama were unpledged), thereby sending the election to the House of Representatives.

1948 - Truman vs. Dewey

An iconic photograph from the 1948 shows a victorious Truman holding up a copy of the November 3rd Chicago Tribune whose 

headline read "Dewey Defeats Truman". With a shift of only 12,487 votes in Ohio and California from Truman to Dewey, that headline could have been correct. With those shifts, despite Truman's 2,135,570 lead in the nationwide vote, he would have fallen short of a majority in the Electoral College, sending the election of the president to the House of Representatives.

This would have led to political turmoil, as control of the House had shifted during the 1948 election from the hands to the Republicans to the Democrats, as did control of the majority of state delegations. In addition to this struggle between the old and new House delegation, Strom Thurmond, a regional candidate like George Wallace, might have sought to broker a deal in favor of the Southern segregationist policies he favored in exchange for his 39 electoral votes.

1916 - Wilson vs. Hughes

In 1916, Charles Evans Hughes lost the popular votes to Woodrow Wilson by over half a million votes (at the time representing 3% of the national popular vote), but could have defeated him in the Electoral College with a shift of 1,888 votes in California. However, in this scenario, a flip of a mere 185 votes in Minnesota from Hughes to Wilson would have given the presidency right back to Wilson.

As we can see, while Electoral College margins may seem significant in elections with close national popular votes, shifts of a few thousand votes from one candidate to another would have given America the likes President Hughes, President Kerry, or President Humphrey. Some of these outcomes could have tarnished the legitimacy of the election process, led to corrupt deals for power, or plunged the U.S. into a constitutional crisis. Electoral College and national popular vote splits undermine our democratic ideal that the person who receives the majority of votes for an office should ascend to that office.

Clearly, it would be preferable to let the millions of voters nationwide decide the outcome of our presidential elections, rather than a few thousand voters in a select few states. Under the National Popular Vote interstate compact, threats of Electoral College and popular vote splits would cease to exist, all voters in all states would participate in electing their president on an equal basis, and candidates would have incentive to campaign and appeal to every voter, rather than just those in key swing states.


Photo Courtesy: Gage Skidmore

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